Apr 10, 2012 - National Geographic Explorer
There is a well-known fable that relates how a series of blind men argue over the definition of an elephant. Some have only felt the trunk, others the tusks or the ears; some have felt the hide on the great animal’s hind quarters, others the soles of its feet. A well-known British children’s story has a group of steam engines arguing about what London is called: they have each been there but some found that it was called Euston, some St Pancras and others King’s Cross. A surprise excursion to London for another engine provided an opportunity to settle the dispute once and for all. Yet this time it transpired that London was called something else entirely - Paddington.
Our epic western African voyage reminds me of these stories. Was Namibia the truly authentic African experience or was that to be found in Angola? Or was it Congo or Gabon? Or São Tome and Principe, perhaps, or maybe even Cameroon? In truth Africa is a vast continent in which several others could be fitted with plenty of room left over. A five-week epic voyage along the coast of western Africa can but skim the surface of a continent of extraordinary variety, be it of landscape, flora and fauna, ethnicity or religious belief. Half way through the voyage we have not yet visited a predominantly Muslim country, yet 40% of the population of Africa is Muslim, a third of world’s Muslim population. A voyage of this scope certainly induces perspective and humility. How much there is to learn (and how little do we know) about this incredible continent where homo sapiens originated some 100,000 years ago.
We are currently voyaging east to west along the slave coast of West Africa, an area from which some eleven million Africans were transported to the New World to work as slaves on the monoculture plantations of sugar, cotton, cocoa and coffee. In 1783 that triangular trade accounted for some 80% of Britain’s foreign earnings. It provided the capital for the industrialization of the western world. Those African captives had almost no sense of being African, coming as they did from so many diverse ethno-linguistic groups. On arriving in the New World, they had no common language but they did share a common musical culture. Afro-American music was a vital part of plantation life in the New World and crossed the color divide when a white boy, Elvis Presley, controversially chose to sing and dance as a black man. His music crossed the Atlantic following the route of the triangular trade to inspire The Beatles, whose home was the former slave trade port of Liverpool. Today African music, mutated and enriched in the New World, has become the global music of youth, recognized throughout Africa and beyond.