Wednesday, November 22, 2000

At the source

One (white) American’s sojourn in the cradle of humanity.

Posted By on Wed, Nov 22, 2000 at 12:00 AM

The first time James Stephenson visited Africa, he hadn't been on the continent an hour before an Uzi was being pointed at his head by a group of Somali bandits who had decided to hijack the bus he was on. The bus was full of tourists, most of whom, after the event had passed, decided that it might be a better idea to turn around and hightail it back home. This wasn't exactly the kind of tourist trip they had been expecting, and Uzis tend to have a certain unnerving effect on most folks when pointed in their general direction.

Stephenson wasn't thrilled to find himself in such a potentially life-threatening situation either, but he figured it wasn't enough of a reason to abandon an entire trip which he had been looking forward to for quite some time. He chose to shake the episode off like so much dust, get over it and press on. There had to be more to Africa than one unfortunate incident.

That decision right there, recounted during a phone interview that I wished could have been longer, revealed as much about the nature of Stephenson as did his remarkable book. In short, this guy is far, far from what most folks would characterize as a "normal" human being, and that's meant as a high compliment. Normal people rarely lead exciting lives — they read about the exciting lives led by people like James Stephenson.

Stephenson, now 30, is a very white guy, raised in the very white suburban environment of Birmingham, Mich., who chose to spend a year of his life living in the deep African bush among the very black Hadzabe, the last hunter-gatherer tribe in existence in all of Africa. Not surprisingly, their way of life is threatened and some members of the tribe are crumbling under the strain of trying to live traditionally in defiance of the modern world.

"What's amazing is that their culture is still so strong," he says.

It should be understood that Stephenson didn't live as a scientist, or as some sort of remote observer who might spend a week or two at a time "roughing it," before hurriedly scampering out of the bush for a hot shower in some nearby comfortable facility, while transcribing notes and getting pictures developed. This is a guy who completely abandoned the familiar comforts of so-called modern civilization and went to live with the Hadzabe as the Hadzabe lived. This means eating, sleeping, thinking, hunting and existing as a member of a people whose way of life and culture is so far removed in every conceivable way from the environs of Birmingham as to be incomparable.

Keep in mind that Stephenson decided to make this cross-cultural leap on his own and did it by himself. He took no fellow travelers, and virtually the only things he brought with him from home — aside from a camera and some painting utensils — were the memories in his mind of who he used to be long ago and far away.

The Language of the Land is the perfect title for this book, because in it Stephenson describes his gradual transformation from an American accustomed to living his life according to the fast-food, sound-bite cultural language of the United States to an American suddenly confronted with the need to adjust to the considerably less rushed but equally complex (and much more spiritual) cultural language of the African bush. Instead of worries about job-related matters, or how to pay the rent this month, or what's on TV, or what the news says is happening in the world, the primary concerns quickly become much more day-to-day in nature — and much more crucial. Learning to hunt for food. Learning to always stay downwind so that the lions don't smell you coming. Learning how to stay healthy, or how to virtually disappear into the underbrush when necessary. Learning how to become a member of the community. Learning to accept and deal safely with certain inexplicable situations that force one to re-examine the nature and meaning of the supernatural.

"When you go there, you start opening up parts of your psyche that are blocked off by living in this culture," offers Stephenson, who says there were things he encountered while in Africa that he would have a hard time credibly explaining to an American audience which only believes such things exist on movie screens.

"It's like a major cleansing being out there. … I feel more at home there than I am here."

Stephenson does, indeed, make the eventual transformation, and the result is someone whose eyes and mind have been opened far beyond the level that most people ever allow themselves to experience. The result is also an extremely well-written account that will enable readers to get to know the Hadzabe not merely as some endangered and exotic human species deserving further study, and perhaps pity, but as individuals possessing radically different personalities.

What makes this book so special is that it manages both to adequately describe what makes the Hadzabe and their way of life so very different from anyone you've ever met, but it also shows how they are in many ways the same. The Hadzabe possess a particular culture that has existed for many hundreds of years, but that culture is made up of individuals possessing personality traits common to the entire human race. Perhaps this is why Stephenson has a hard time accepting the criticism of those who question his motives, or who are overly curious about the question of how a white man could possibly gain acceptance into an African tribe with traditions that extend so far back in time.

"I saw right away that color never really mattered with them," he says. "I was just a member of another tribe out there. It's a place of racelessness."

In a country like the United States, where the overpowering question of race remains persistently near the surface of American life, almost like a second layer of skin, it’s quite difficult for some to accept the fact that such a place might exist anywhere in the world, and especially not in Africa. It’s also difficult for some to accept the active curiosity of a white man about African people as being anything more than meddling. Recounting a time when he was giving a reading from his book at a college campus, Stephenson recalls, "One (black) person said, 'Why don't you go find your own ancestors?' I said, 'Don't put your limitations on me.'"

Stephenson understands that his account of what happened is the only word to go by, since it’s unlikely the Hadzabe will ever read his book or publish one of their own to give their side of what it was really like hanging out with a white guy from Birmingham. Some readers are likely to have a hard time believing all that they read in this book, while others simply will not permit themselves to accept it. Fine. But for all the others who have the ability to shed, at least for a relative moment, the cultural and racial baggage that comes with being American, this may be one of the most eye-opening, enjoyable and inspiring books you'll ever read.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-based freelance writer and musician. E-mail him at letters@metrotimes.com.

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