Bad Road

by zunguzungu

(and a long one, be warned)

I’ve had this song on the brain for a while now:

“I live on a farm in West Virginia
It’s between three hills and the only way in
Is to take that old dirt road that’s never been paved
Its a bad road, it keeps me humble
Lets the good folks by makes the others stumble
Funny thing, how much a bad road means…
Its a way of life down that old dirt road
On a little farm with a simple code
If you walk that road don’t step on no one’s dreams.”

Sounds better if you sing it, of course. And I’ve also had a Wole Soyinka poem in my head, the one called “Death at Dawn,” about Soyinka’s own experience. As he relates elsewhere:
“I was driving on the old Lagos-Abeokuta road and suddenly I skidded going around a corner, probably braked on a patch of oil. I suddenly felt the most unbelievable feeling, as if some kind of force had taken the car away from me. There I was skidding all over the place and a tree was heading for me, not the other way around, and it all happened both swiftly and yet in slow motion, like a huge giant seized the car and had taken control completely.”
[Soyinka] pauses, pressing his hands together as if in prayer. “I ended up facing the direction I was coming from [still on the road, unhurt]. I remember leaping out of the car and running some distance away from it to look at it, you know, as if to say, ‘what are you about to do next?’ It had a spirit of its own.”

The interviewer casually mentions that anyone “who spends real time in Africa experiences the road in a way that touches the gut” and I like the phrase, though I think the Nigerian roads were probably a lot worse than anything I’ve seen here. When Soyinka took that spin around the bend, Nigeria was a booming, promising independent state, and it was this explosion of commerce and sudden prosperity that produced the kind of roads that Soyinka called “slaughter slides,” roads filled with barely trained truck drivers pushing cast off vehicles without brakes across incredible empty distances, without anything resembling a police presence to maintain any semblance of order or sanity. But it was the road that made it possible, not because they were bad roads, but because they were just good enough that drivers could build up the speed necessary to create true carnage. It’s no wonder that such roads made drivers like Soyinka reach for the spirit world; for an example of reality at its most poetic, professional drivers would sacrifice dogs to Ogun, once the Yoruba god of iron, now of machines and cars, because “that was what he liked to eat.”

Watching a car wreck unfold in front of me not so many days ago, so slow and yet so fast, has kept my recollection of this poem in my mind. But more than that, travelling around the country makes it hard not to notice how much the state of the roads tells you about the place where you are, how much where you are is defined by it. The social scientist in me wants to think about how roads bring development, and how development brings social changes that uproot and alter the way of life of the people that live in those communities. And nowhere better than a place like this can you see the vicious effects of modernization on the character of a community. But the literarian in me (and I listen to him much more) is interested in the road as metaphor, as the means by which we adapt to and make sense of those changes brought by development. That’s why I like the Ogun story so much; oftentimes, tradition is the thing that “progress” makes you leave behind, but living traditions like Ogun, who has been tranformed from god of iron and lightning to god of modern industry and electricity, are the roads we walk on to get there, the things that define and give meaning to progress, that let us “progress” on our own terms. Soyinka likes Ogun too, so much so that he’s adopted him as his own private deity. As he tells it:

“I found other deities too peaceful, too saintly for my temperament. Ogun is an out and out sinner, but one who is able to recognize his weaknesses and try to overcome them, and also his solitude is something else. The kind of solitude I found in the bush, in the forest, I found to be a characteristic of Ogun–the fact that he retires to the mountains after all his blunders around mortals and tries to exorcise the violent side of him. I found a kind of identity, and so he adopted me, or I’ve adopted him….”

The thing about Ogun, in other words, is that everything he is, he is also its opposite too. And that’s the thing about the road; if Soyinka calls it the “wrathful wings of man’s Progression,” then he is also clear that “man’s uncontrollable instinct for headlong, forward motion…” is not something to be either condemned or embraced, but merely accorded the awe and the respect that it deserves.

To grab another example that springs to mind, J.R.R. Tolkien’s hobbits are usually seen, quite rightly, as a sort of nostalgic portrait of the English country folk he grew up among. Of course, he always claimed the book was simply fantasy, but that turn of the century sense (shared by so many people like him) that a very old way of life was being threatened by the mindless accumulation of power and greed that the modern world was becoming, seems to me to have much in common with the slow, horrible way that, in the novel, the danger and threat of the outside world gradually penetrates the bucolic homeliness of the shire, until, finally, it is no longer safe to stay and the hobbits are forced out into a world too big for them. Part of this must have been the first world war, in which Tolkien fought I think, and the second, which his son Christopher fought while Tolkien was writing the book, but the most poignant twist in the Lord of the Rings (and in some ways the most unexpected) is the strange coda in which the victorious (but tired and grieved) hobbits return to their home in the Shire only to find that it, too, has not been spared the horrors of the modern world: trees have been cut down, rivers have been polluted, and a big nasty industrial mill has been built. They cleanse the shire, of course (this being fantasy), but the realization that wars fought far from home also have repercussions at home (and that no wound ever truly heals) is one of the most troubling and resonant themes of those big and powerful books.
For Tolkien himself, the most direct example of the on rush of modernity was, however, the road. In his later years, he refused to go anywhere that he couldn’t get to on foot, blaming the automobile for destroying everything he had grown up calling home. And it is the road that sweeps homebodies like Bilbo Baggins off their feet, taking them off on adventures that they never truly return from. One of the saddest poems in the book is this one:

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

I say sad; yet the word for feet in these lines is “eager,” and certainly the greatest part of the books’ appeal is as adventure stories. And isn’t there is something disingenuous about the whole “reluctant adventurer” pose of the hobbits? The way they bemoan having been “swept off their feet” by the road, after all; however much they might miss their homes, it is a longing spiced by absence, and no one wants to see the elephant more than Sam! But in my memory I remembered the line as “weary feet,” and a quick scan of the text version of the Lord of the Rings that I’m reading on my computer does reveal that, indeed, “weary” is by far the more common word in the book, from Frodo’s weary feet as they trudge up Mt. Doom to the comforts of home, of the rest that a comfortable chair, a cozy fire, and a hot bath can give to feet which the miles have worn upon. And the most characteristic features of the hobbit is the particularly tough soles of their feet, and the strange hair that grows so thick on them, making them incredibly well suited for the kind of adventure they go on in these books.

Now, that’s a somewhat surprising statement for a people so firmly characterized as never going on adventures, right? But part of Tolkien’s claim in the book is that these simple Hobbits, these simple English country folk, are the very ones whose humble lack of ambition makes them the only possible people who can be trusted not to misuse the temptations of power, be it the ring of power or the thing it stands for. This at a time when Britain was not only the world’s greatest power, but a simple nation of country folk that found itself willing and able to rule an incredibly large part of the world. (That includes, by the way, the ground I sit on right now.) And they did it in exactly this way, claiming that because England had no personal ambitions of its own, because they were able to think only of the best interests of the people they were ruling, only they could be trusted to take up what Kipling called “the White Man’s Burden.”

Now, at this point, I could ramble on about how the good guys in Tolkien just happen to speak medieval Anglo-Saxon, or how the Orcish speech is suspiciously similar to the language spoken by the Zulu people, and how Tolkien was a pretty cracking good linguist. I could note that before the trenches of WWI showed how modern technology had made war into a kind of slaughter beyond the power of words to describe, the first tastes of that coming horror came when the British deployed the Maxim Gun to slaughter thousands of Zulu warriors before they ever came within range of a spear cast. I could even mention that if the climactic battles that Peter Jackson has with such zest transferred to his big screen epic resemble the trenches of the Sommes, there is also an pretty clear racial allegory being played out within them. But that’s neither here nor there, and this post threatens to reach epic lengths itself. What I’m interested in is that there’s something ambiguous about the hobbits, like Ogun; they are both the ultimate portrait of humble, homely nostalgia and yet somehow, the heroes of an adventure novel. Is the road a good thing or a bad thing? Is it good to go on adventures or not? In some sense, I think a book like the Lord of the Rings works because of this tension, because one can only feel nostalgic about something one has lost, one can only idealize something if you admit that maybe its just an idea, just a fantasy.

Anyway, in the end, it’s just a reflection of the world its author lived in, but one which he neither created nor chose to live in. Like the hobbits, Tolkien never asked to be made a member of a master race that was to take on the burden of dominating the world. But unlike most British writers of his time, he recognized that he had been pulled into something much larger than he understood. And if he was told that he had a part to play (and which he faithfully played), he at least understood that sometimes its a dangerous thing to meddle in the affairs of a world that was too big for you, and that if you walked out your door, the road just might sweep you off your hairy feet.

But let me use books to talk about real stuff. It is sometimes difficult to explain why someone from America would make the arduous trip to their country. On the one hand, Tanzanians have a stubborn pride in their country and, once, after I told a woman that I had come to Tanzania because “it is peaceful here,” she nodded, unsurprised, and proclaimed great satisfaction that other people around the world were learning what she already knew. And they have much to be proud of, I’ll grant; I’ve never experienced a more neighborly, fraternal atmosphere. But Tanzanians are also painfully aware of how undeveloped their country is, and this is the part of that answer they sometimes challenge: you came here because of peace? But what about indoor plumbing? What about paved roads, computers, carpets, and fancy food? What is peaceful about poverty? A Rwandan man I spoke to in the Centre house who had travelled all over Africa (and the world) put his finger on this difference when he told me that his two favorite countries to visit in Africa were South Africa and Tanzania; “there is development there, like in America,” he said, “and here, you are safe.”

I’ve not been to South Africa (yet; World Cup 2010!), but it is sometimes hard not to use Kenya as a kind of “there but for the grace of God goes Tanzania,” the spectre of a country that has a certain amount of development but is also definitely not peaceful. I’m not sure that’s really fair, though; even if there’s a grain of truth to it (which I suspect there is), the situation is infinitely more complicated than that. And anyway, all I’ve really seen of Kenya is Nairobi, while getting biased opinions of the place from every Tanzanian I talk to about it. But the relationship between those two things, between “underdevelopment” and “peace,” is hard to ignore, and it seems like one of the most important questions staring you in the face here. What kind of peace have you come for, mzungu?

“Underdevelopment,” of course, is not the same thing as poverty, though proponents of development in Washington and Davos would have us think so. Were the people who lived in TZ before colonialism poor because there was no development? The colonialists definitily said so: there were three c’s to colonialism—Civilization, Chrisitianity, and Commerce–but the one they poured all their effort into was commerce, especially Cotton, what is now called development. And in practice this meant that all the good land in this region was taken away from people who were judged to be economically unproductive and given to those who were so judged (a judgement that just happened to fall along racial lines), forcing the unproductives to work on cotton plantations for those who God blessed with economic good sense. And in that context, bringing development meant land dispossession and poverty for most people involved.

A few weekends ago, I visited a Barabaig village close to Katesh, six hours by bumpy bus from Arusha and an hour and a half by foot from the nearest town. Put another way, it was hard to get there; travelling on an interstate highway does not prepare you for long distance travel on bad roads. But it was worth it, no question; the Barabaig were charming and even though they had no idea we were coming and (as we gradually figured out) they were getting very little financially from our visit, we were welcomed with remarkable warmth. They even apologized repeatedly that they weren’t able to perform this or that for us. One woman, a grandmother whose kids were all gone, was just tickled to death to be able to show us how she makes leather skirts and grinds corn. Her husband returned from grazing his cattle up in the hills (probably exhausted) only to find a strange Wazungu sleeping in his bed (me; I was resting from the walk since I was fighting a stomach flu) and simply asked if I had come with Desi (our guide), before asking how long I was staying and if there was anything he could get me. They reminded me of nothing so much as my own grandparents.

Now, Arusha is a little different. The clock town in the center of the most Wazungu part of town proudly proclaims that Arusha was to be the half way point for Cecil Rhodes’s wild vision of a Cape to Cairo trans-continental railroad. Rhodes never quite got it done (he also didn’t manage to annex the stars, as he also aspired to do), though he managed to get an excellent scholarship named after himself. But although Arusha never got its railroad, the best roads in the country all run from the airports in Dar, Nairobi, and Kilimanjaro airfield and converge in this charming little piece of tourist hell; those are the routes that tourists need to take to get Arusha before jumping off to a game park or Kilimanjaro or something, and, since this is an economy that starts with tourism, you’re damn sure that those are going to be the best roads. The road we took towards Katesh, on the other hand, was a pot-holed nightmare.

And, as I’ve said, Arusha is a little bit different. While the Barabaig that we met were all pretty much delighted to see us, even though it wasn’t clear that they were getting a thing out of it financially, the closer you get to Arusha’s clock tower, the more certain you can be that anyone who speaks to you is trying to sell you something or make money off you somehow. In low season, when the tourists are few and far between, walking through that area feels like dragging a hunk of steak in front of a pack of dogs. These people are hungry and you are their food. Or, perhaps, wealth is a disease and they are the cure? In any case, a tourist exists to buy things and keep the economy moving, and since almost all tourists are white, a white person that doesn’t buy things is, at best, an annoyance, and at worst, a threat. There are several flycatchers who make a point of being personally unkind to me as I pass by, and I don’t know a single resident Wazungu that doesn’t dread walking within sight of Rhodes half-way point. But if there’s a certain undercurrent of resentment and bitterness behind the placid smiles and servile attitudes that these people put on, who can blame them? The most educated kids in this country aspire to be tour guides, because that’s where the money is, but our tour guide in Katesh told me in an unguarded moment that he had decided to get out of the industry. “I just want people to be happy,” he said; “but being a tour guide is not good for that.” The closest I’ve come to not feeling like a wazungu here is spending town with my “brothers” who live in the house I’m staying in, and its almost too apt that when I walk with them we don’t walk along the main roads but pick our way through the labyrinthine passages between houses and yards. Bad roads; good company.

So, to take a long detour back to where I started, the “road” as a metaphor for the ambiguities of development is kind of inescapable, and it does have a social scientific aptness. The farther you get off the beaten path, the more you tend to discover people whose kindness and warmth will take your breath away, even restore a faith in humanity that the cities, those lanes and avenues of commerce and profiteering, might call into question. But you can’t just retreat from the world outside, or claim that its a problem for the “big people.” Like the ring wraiths, the outside has a way of getting in, and there are no safe places. That’s the danger of an overly romanticized notion of unspoilt culture, I think; no shires exist anymore and to imagine they do is to ignore the forces that make them impossible. The Barabaig are trying to get their kids into schools because, even if all they want to do is herd their animals, the land their grandfathers grazed their cows on was taken from them along time ago, and these days that pasture is covered with roads and industry. They didn’t walk out their door, but the road sure as hell swept them off their feet, and if there’s anything worse than driving on a Nigerian highway (metaphorically speaking), its being forced to walk. So let me close with Soyinka again, who captures best that ambivalence of a progress we might bemoan but which no one can ignore:

“The right foot for joy, the left dread
And the mother prayed, Child
May you never walk
When the road waits, famished”

PS — That Soyinka poem is called “Death at Dawn,” from Soyinka’s collection “Idanre” and if anyone out there has access to a university library, for example Doe Library in Berkeley, for example, (cough, cough), I’d be utterly in your debt if you could type it up for me (I think its short), because I really want to read it. Tanzania is, perhaps counterintuitively, a much worse place than the states for getting your hands on a thing like that. I had to rely on this website by, but I’d love to read the actual poem if anyone has a spare twenty minutes; just post it in the comments. So go forth, internet! Conquer space and bring the resources of the world to my doorstep!