Barbara Adair – Researcher and Writer

An American In Africa

by on Oct.17, 2016, under Unpublished Writing



In 2006 Binyavanga Wainaina gave a few tips to Americans on how to write about Africa – some tips: sunsets and starvation are good.

So Go!

Let’s fly; with the poor for they are in heaven, they live in the blackest of all darkness, in moon shadows and wide open skies where the sunset signify today and bygone tomorrows. Let’s fly (in a Cessna 182, made in America) to God’s primordial spaces.

Where am I going?


I love the tall thin noble people who were once nomads; that is until the Chinese exploited their vulnerability and built a road across their land, until the IMF ordered them to repay their loans and so denuded them of dignity, until greedy French/British/Italian oil companies drilled down deep and destroyed a livelihood. (Pokot, Samburu, Turkana, Masai, who are they, the names are so exotic) Africans, they deserve and need my words. I am in love with wildness, my wild-ness. Remember, you decide everything. I am an American; I know who these people are, where they will go to, what they want.

Where? I don’t know, I am going to Africa, Kenya, its somewhere in the east, it’s not, shit Africa is a giant place and who knows, it’s all the same, hot and dusty and herds of wild animals and many people who are starving. Cool. I am an American. I don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is one country. Africa is big, too big; it has fifty four countries, five time zones and nine hundred million people who are busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating.

I want to find Africa in my soul. I can’t live without her. I love this land. This is where I will find a meaning in my meaningless, consumerist (spectacular) existence.

Always interrupt your African story with chunks of America – after all America is the bar, the breadth and length of the world, your strength. Measure your epiphany in American.

And so I go to Africa, somewhere in Africa, I am searching for Peter Beard, an American who lived (sometimes) in Africa (at other times he lived in Montauk near the Hamptons or in an apartment in New York City, 205 West 57th street, between 6th and 7th avenues). I am stalking a love that is compulsive, a lost illusion, I am authentic (only in Africa), I feel the wide open sky embrace me; I want to create people, not live among them, I want to be real, not realistic. (Peter Beard was never realistic, he was an American – people will kill you over time, they will kill you with tiny harmless phrases, like be realistic.) I can never be realistic, (anyway the real doesn’t sell).

Let me start where it all begins, in the beginning was the world.


14th street New York City, people everywhere. Café Loup, a trendy restaurant, I know that I will not miss her; I have looked at a thousand photographs of this supermodel, this African discovery. (At a nearby table Paul Auster raises a fork to his mouth; his face is on a dust jacket. The Russian emigrant (American) man sits behind the front desk, he chats too new to the City Martin Amis about the shape of England and why Amis loves the state-of-the-art engineering of the Brooklyn Bridge. Outside, sitting on a chair reserved for those who smoke is Tony Soprano, he should be in a television serial if only he was not dead). But I want her story, I wait for her lost photographs, her lost Africa, her stories of rolling grasslands and poverty and ersatz charm. I want to know about he who made her, discovered her, put her on the covers of Vogue and Vanity Fair.

“I have this American man in a sarong and no shoes following me. He finally stopped me and said, ‘have you ever been photographed?’ I thought, well, I’ve heard lines, but this is ridiculous. What do these white people think? That my parents never took a picture of their family? And then he introduced me to a world that did not exist, never existed for me, he introduced me to fashion. He tells the story of how I was a half-starved wretched Somalia goat herd; I enjoy the invention it sold my face, the truth, the only true part is that I am Somali, my father worked in a Nairobi bank. Go, go, go and find Peter in Africa, there you will find him, his essence, who he is.”

And so where is


Mention the light, the wide open spaces, the menacing mountains; don’t worry about repetition, this will just strengthen your love of the exotic, your love of danger, how your dollars are preserving Africa’s rich natural heritage. And don’t forget heroic (white) people, they live in Africa too (not the Afrikaners), who are African (they always wear khaki), and are men (preferable) who have seen death and who know a lot about Africa (they are authentically African and dislike tourists).

Early morning in Nairobi, the wind is gusting and the clouds are low.

‘This is the rainy season, it is difficult flying in Kenya now unless you know the geography, Nairobi is high, 2000 meters, not quite the same as flying at sea level where most of our clients come from, they fly out of LAX, Los Angeles is low, sea level, and the weather consistent, few storms, there is only smog and pollution. Here the weather patterns are unpredictable, but it is still early, wait, at some point there will be a gap and when it comes, we take it.”

A handful of blue, we take a right hand turn out.

“Hold the map, I like to read a map, can’t rely on the GPS; never know when technology will fail you”.

I hold a map on my knees and watch the green lines of the GPS. In the lull the sky is open, all around the space it is grey; the clouds are opaque and ponderous.

“Storm clouds ahead, we will have to avoid them, the mountain peaks are high but we will fly around them, hope that there isn’t too strong a wind current, sometimes the gaps between them are so narrow.”

The pilot sidesteps a storm, blackness on the right, and flies over the Nairobi suburb of Karen. Karen Blixen, a Danish countess, she spoke for many Africans (in Danish and English), she told of their spaces and their desires. (And then they died without ever having the urge to understand her words, the words, in which the romance of their lives was written.) Then the Ngong Hills; below us Hog Ranch, an assortment of tents, the sometime residence of Peter Beard, the American photographer, I have read about Peter Beard, the man that I seek. In the seventies he was a renowned wildlife and fashion photographer. He was Veruschka’s favourite photographer and Anna Wintour paid him handsomely for adventure photographs where models wearing the finest Dior silk wound themselves sinuously around the neck of a giraffe, or leant gorgeously on the tusks of a dead elephant. I know that the khaki cloth walls of these tents hold within them the journeys, many adventures and stories and lives (all American).

I look outside, the clouds are heavy around the four raised knuckles of the hills, from the ground they are benign, now they are malevolent. If I die, I could die in the Ngong Hills, disappear in the indifferent sky, disappear into the blue blackness, who would know if a rapacious eagle finds the body in the verdant green, or if the vultures eat my flesh. Icarus messed with the sun god, (but there is no sun today, this is a bad idea).

“The storm is to the east, we will fly through the opening on the west side, there is a tail wind and our speed is up. We are not far off course, we can then cross back.”

I want reassurance, the familiar and the fine. Where is America?

Intrude on Africa; but without malice, with goodness and benevolence, have little regard for her weather patterns, mists and mountains, you can conquer them; describe sad, vacant, depthless people with courage, you can face this.

“Loyangalani; come in, this is Alpha Tango Sierra, four on board, request landing.”

Below us is a barren inhospitable landscape next to it a jade sea, Lake Turkana.

The plane is surrounded by people.

A one legged man, he is young, fourteen, possibly a child soldier, offers security services to us, “I will guard the air bird, I will guard it well. I am utterly helpless, I have no past and no history, I am not American, help me with a few shillings, I come from Loki, the refugee camp, I am Somalia, I can show you where you can get a good American Starbucks there.” A starving woman with a child that has flies on his eyes and who has his mouth clamped to one of her flat and empty breasts holds out a rock, yellow and sapphire, gothic prehistoric, the last of left over pieces of glazed volcanic rock that is burnt by the waters, “buy, buy, some shillings for me and my children, I have many children.” A fat evil man whose face is alive with sweat bubbles and who wears a dark blue uniform with an ensign on the left shoulder holds an AK-47, “I am a government officer, when you leave here take me back with you, I need a ride to Nairobi, I have business there, business you know what I mean, business, I make shillings while the sun shines, and you, you can help me.” A round bustling laughing woman, she is old and healthy, warm and motherly calls out “just call me Mama baby.”

Will this do? How does it read, a little melodramatic; there are no well-adjusted Africans here. But what about Nelson Mandela, he suffered so he’ll do, and he talked about rainbows, he meant to include me, I am a white American (not queer).

Now tone down the misery, bring on the romance. Africa is a place of dreams. You must love the myth.

I lean down and put the tip of my finger into the cobalt water of the lake and taste it, salty. The volcano on the island in its middle spits and sighs, a murder on the shoreline, ghosts haunt this space, murky figures walk and run, they dance death.

And bring in the Americans, more of them, Americans in Africa, not the greedy mercenaries or the World Bank kleptocrats, but the conservationists and the lovers of beauty.

Peter Beard, he loved Africa; he photographed the animals, the land, the vast continent of wishes.

Beautiful black people are not people; black people are not real people with children at university, they just get in the way of the myth.

A Landrover appears; “Are you for the Oasis Club, come, let me help with the tie down, yes, you must tie down the plane because the wind can become very fierce.” (He looks normal and well adjusted, should this be left out?)

The Oasis Club, our room for the nights to come, lies at the southern tip of Lake Turkana, the closest village being Loyangalani. I sit down at the long wooden table to eat. The plate on which the sandwich lies has a picture of a lake on it, and on the blue borders the words ‘Lake Rudolf’. (Did I forget to say that I read in the travel brochure (written and printed in America) that in 1888 the lake was named Lake Rudolf to honour Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria by Count Sámuel Teleki de Szék, the first European to stand on its shores (had anyone been there before him); it is the world’s largest alkaline permanent desert lake.) The lodge smells of decadence, a rotten palimpsest, an already forgotten sparkling memory, only the perfume of the glory days lingers, the nights of legend and revelry, the sounds of an interruption to the accepted banality of everyday life.


Wolfgang, the German owner of the hotel, he drinks gin with a touch of water. “You ask me to tell you stories of those bygone days, why should I tell you, what can I say that you cannot imagine, or does your imagination fail you? Andy Warhol, he painted on the walls of room 26, now the cans of soup look unpalatable, or was it Francis Bacon, maybe it was him for I do not think the painting is of a soup can, I think it may be a dead woman who is covered in crocodile skin, but whatever, nothing was ever as tasty as my Nile Perch sauce. Bianca Jagger, a beauty, her eyes, aah the last thing left in nature after we have devastated it is the beauty of a woman,”

Wolfgang lifts the glass of clear liquid with his big hands to his mouth, they are scarred, his fingernails black, his face covered in pustules of excess.

“Oh yes the Oasis Club was a fashionably famous place for the Americans and the English to escape to. Mick Jagger, he was married to Bianca then, and David Bowie drank double gin and tonic with Iman, Mick was always drunk; and Peter Beard, he hung around the swimming pool, the hot springs, calling to my cook who he photographed with unsurpassed splendour, the women of the world, look at that photograph, she was Russian the blonde, and that is Samson, the cook, he still looks the same, still just as muscular and smooth, just older, and the Russian, well how would I know where she is or what she looks like now, she’s probably dead. Peter, yes, Peter, half Tarzan, half Byron, a photographer contemptuous of his craft. Peter was the rakish American and I was the German prince of night, there I am, look, I was young then, young and beautiful, blonde and Aryan. Anyway, while I drank Peter, he was the enthusiastic drug user, dope and coke, his favourites, he was a magnet for controversy. I wanted the controversy, the wildness, the vigour … and the women. In 1970 Lauren Hutton was here with Peter, he loved beauty, men, but more especially women, there is a photograph of her with the lake in the background, this lake, this sea, it is beautiful, yes, so was she, she was more beautiful, magnificent. We ate the best fillet of Nile perch, it was my speciality, I served it with bottles of Dom Perignon and flagons of gin. Iman and Peter, look over there, the footprints in the picture, the letter, Iman and Peter, they left their footprints behind …”

It is important to acknowledge the value of celebrities in Africa, their status and reputation. Africa is sustained by everything that it is not. There are no famous people in Africa except, possibly, war criminals and depots.

I walk between the gods of my iconography, I touch the tattered photographs that Peter Beard threw away, kiss the footprints of Iman, and know that I am caught, life is an immense accumulation of spectacles; everything that lives moves away into a representation on this wall, it is a badge made of the stars.

The hot wind opens the curtains and the shadow of what, once, was outside slouches in, I hear the tinkle of glasses and smell the empty bottles which once contained laughter. In my room the window slats are rusted, the windows are open, they cannot be closed, a green curtain is fluttering in the hot wind that blows. In the bathroom, wall tiles decorated with the words Lake Rudolf, the picture of a jade sea, the bathroom is small, as small as the number of people who still remember this life on the lake.

Don’t worry about who remembers the people that live here, that were born here, that will die here, their memories are inconsequential, erase them, they cannot speak.

Also it is important to mention that many socially relevant and penetrating movies were made in Africa; books have been written, not about Africans but about how valuable Americans (and Europeans) are to continually making sure that Africans are not exploited and manipulated by greedy Westerners and fat corrupt Africans who are enemies of development and empowerment.

“A few years ago an elderly man arrived here, he was alone, I hate guests, they annoy me, but he was silent, he did not irritate my space, he said his name was Cornwell. He stayed about three days and drank a few beers, then he left, someone told me he wrote a book under his pseudonym, John Le Carré, The Constant Gardener, somewhere in it there is a tribute to me, I believe, something about a man in an oasis of gin in the middle of a desolate lunar landscape. I think in the book people are murdered up here, a fitting place for murder.”

I walk to the El Moyo village with a guide. Mao (the Chinese are everywhere, even their names are here). “ Ah Ralph Fiennes, Ralph Fiennes was here. He told me he could shed tears just like that.” Mao snaps his fingers. “And Ralph Fiennes, he is the actor, he took off his sunglasses and began to cry. It is not a manly thing to do here. Now that’s a story, give me money.”

Europeans are always be benevolent, compassionate, they help Africa as much as they are able, until they are overwhelmed and take up alcohol or drugs, or just go home; they give up their lives for Africa. But not too much, don’t alienate a possible audience with sad white people.

In 1968, when Wolfgang Deschler took over the Oasis Club, 500 people lived in Loiyangalani, the current population is over 15,000. Wolfgang set out to give people employment, dignity, money. The Oasis was, and still is, even though they now only employ twenty five people, one of the area’s biggest employers. But because there are more people, the area has not been depopulated by war or AIDS, most just hang about waiting for food deliveries from Nairobi, they have lost their traditional survival strategies. The area is now pretty much made up of only dependent recipients of charity, only regular food deliveries by UNICEF sustain people in this harsh northern region.

But you need to focus, concentrate on your main character, Peter Beard, don’t take the emphasis off the importance of Americans. It’s not so important, in fact it is possible suicidal, how many readers do you want, how many do you want to lose, to show white people, especially Europeans, descend into drunken madness.

“Peter Beard, he would take photographs of naked Turkana women, and the El Moyo, the elders of the tribes hated him for this, and he would laugh, ‘I am making them famous’, he would say, ‘making them money’.”

Don’t mention that none of them became famous, only he did, and Iman and Lauren Hutton. You are credulous about human goodness, that of Wolfgang and Peter Beard and of course Iman, she was after all actually African.

I stand on the veranda where Mike Jagger once looked out and pointed to the edge of the lake and the huts of the El Moyo while Peter Beard poured him more champagne. Ten years ago an old man who lived on the lake shore in a desiccated straw hut died, he was the last person to speak the El Moyo language. Now long lines form in front of the distribution station in the village of Loiyangalani, where tear proof sacks bearing the blue imprint of UNICEF arrive, a Samburu woman balances boxes of vegetable oil and a bag of corn on her head, a child unwraps dried bananas and packs them in an old UNICEF bag.

As the day comes to an end in Loiyangalani, the blood-red sun sinks into the lake, the generator starts at the Oasis Club. The UNICEF trucks stir up dust clouds on the bumpy road. Now you can sigh, you are sad; you expected it to be like this, so sad. Wolfgang raises his glass of gin to toast the trucks and their drivers. You can also raise your glass, possible you can promise to yourself that you will leave Wall Street and join Save the Children, even if you don’t really mean it.

“Crazy; I’m an expert on futility; I watch it all the time.”

In New York City on 14th street, (this is an American story) as I watch her leave and the twilight begins to show. I feel the angry wind that rages through the highest buildings (there are no high buildings in Africa), at the jade sea (and this sea was American, for a time), at the edge of the world. I feel lost and alone.


Make the ending poetic –

I walked out in the grey light and stood and saw, for a brief moment, the absolute truth of the world. The relentless circling of the dust roads, darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.