Faint of Heart in the Heart of Darkness

A worrywart ventures forth on a deluxe safari -- very, very reluctantly

Then it's back onto the river. Our green-awning-covered flat-bottomed boat looks like a Victorian lady out for a stroll with her parasol. We make for the opposite shore, where there is a small beach. The beach is filled with about fifty white-faced whistling ducks, brown affairs with white heads punctuated by tiny black eyes. They are lined up in a row, as if for inspection. Although they don't seem concerned, they must be: about four feet from them is a great swath of crocodile flesh. At least twenty crocs -- twenty that we can see -- are sunning, venting, lolling, dissembling, along the water's edge. They are fat, well fed, and fascinatingly ugly. We will see at least a hundred more this morning. But this first sighting, in a keel-less boat that is sensitive to every shift of weight, is unnerving.

Day Seven

IN the morning we take a motor trip through the park. In a grassy river meadow about a half mile above our camp our guide leads us to a stand of more than seventy elephants. By the time we have finished watching, the number will have increased to 106 by David's count. Others count ninety-three, or ninety-nine. I am surprised that everyone is counting. For me, it is enough to know that a hell of a lot of elephants are standing in front of us, chewing, milling, wallowing in mud, giving themselves mud baths by tossing large globs of the river bottom over their shoulders and under their chests.

The elephantine social order is matriarchal. In front of us are the gargantuan mothers, with a host of baby elephants following close behind. Imagine a Volkswagen Beetle nuzzling up to a Baltimore and Ohio locomotive and you'll get some sense of the scale. Although the size of the panoply is memorable, what I remember most is the silence. First there is the river, then the river meadow, with its wet earth and moist elephant grasses, and then the elephants themselves, shoveling grass into the bottomless pits of their bodies. With the engine of the Land Cruiser off, the only sound we hear is the occasional swish of grass uprooted by trunks.

As if the elephantine cast of thousands weren't enough, suddenly, seemingly on cue, a herd of sable antelopes appear stage left. Everyone has wanted to see the skittish sables, and here they are, a crowd of them -- the males black and sleek, with vertical black stripes on white heads that make them look as if they were behind bars, the females with their warm-brown bodies and narrow white faces. Their horns sweep back like Art Deco hood ornaments.

Day Eight

WE'RE on the move. Small children rush up to the Land Cruiser when we slow down and show us the palms of their hands and the brightness of their teeth as they shout for us to stop. We don't. People are everywhere -- in the village clearings, on the road, asleep on porches, their backs to the road. They wave incessantly from the roadside, undeterred by the clouds of dust that the Land Cruiser spins into the air and onto them. We wave back. Soon it becomes tedious, and we assign official wavers, spelling one another as we barrel along the dry road.

Day Eleven

TODAY we have another long drive. At midmorning we reach the large town of Mzuzu, where David and Gary deposit us at a market. We are told when and where to rendezvous, and off they go to buy supplies. Nancy wants to adjust her safari jacket, and by the time we have finished fussing with it, the others have disappeared. Now the two of us are standing in the middle of the Mzuzu market, the only white people in sight, and I begin to seize up inside. I do not expect these people to be friendly, courteous, kind, cheerful, and reverent. What I expect is that they will be gripped by the injustice of the great disparity between their desperate poverty and our obvious wealth -- that their sense of injustice will turn to rage, and out will come the machetes that are hidden for the moment in the folds of their seedy jackets.

I look around. What I see is narrow alleyways of rickety stalls selling the cheapest of wares: red, white, and blue plastic dishes; rusty tenpenny nails, some straightened with a hammer for reuse; mountains of secondhand clothes; shoes; herbal and other remedies, including the head of an owl. There are chickens, cassava flour, rice, tomatoes, carrots, leeks.

We maneuver among the stalls, which are so close that they block out the sky. I hit on a strategy -- just keep moving, and make no eye contact. I adopt a frozen grin, so as not to look frightened.

Nancy is toting an expensive camera and calling attention to the fact by taking photographs left, right, and center. Why is the damn shutter mechanism so noisy? I am carrying a fancy portable computer. Either of these objects is worth five years of Malawian income. I don't understand why no one has been at my throat by now.

On one wall I spot a public-health message about AIDS. It admonishes Malawians to avoid bush sex, and shows a silhouette of a man and a woman, nude, standing up to their waists in bush. One edge of the poster has come loose and folded over, so the message is inaccessible. I can't help thinking that one in every six of the people I am looking at now may, barring a miracle, be dead from AIDS in ten years. I begin to feel guilty about my paranoia. I am not only richer than these people but also healthier, and will live far longer than most of them. What am I supposed to do -- congratulate myself on my good fortune? When we leave, I am still grinning.

is an emeritus professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The Atlantic Monthly; May 2000; Faint of Heart in the Heart of Darkness - 00.05 (Part Two); Volume 285, No. 5; page 48-56.

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