THE Hero-Quest is a universal theme that saturates every literary genre. The key element is a protagonist who leaves the comforts of home, the familiarity of community and culture to set out on a perilous quest in search of something; Jason in search of the golden fleece, for example. Along the way the heroes encounter and overcome a number of obstacles, which forever change them as individuals, while transforming them into symbols of larger historical processes.
In "Native Stranger," Eddy Harris brings us the latest attempt at the Hero-Quest. He takes us along on his one-year sojourn through 23 African nations in search of answers. The central questions are those of personal identity. Harris yearns to know if he is still an African.
Like most African-Americans, Harris was raised on stories of Africa the motherland, where black people lived as kings and queens, in harmony with nature, at peace with one another until the age of European conquest. The constructed memory of a glorious African past is the psychological balm that soothes the agony of present-day African-American existence. But also, like most African-Americans, Harris has had to endure the endless challenges to those comforting African images: the daily press portrayal of
Africa as a land of poverty, disease, and ignorance; of coups and ethnic strife; of beggar nations, dependent for their survival on food handouts and technical assistance from the West.
Harris's journey is thus the actualization of two inextricably linked quests: a search for the truth about Africa and an inward search for how that truth reflects his own notion of self.
"Native Stranger" is an ambitious book of sweeping scale. Harris travels by horseback in the North African desert, by overcrowded buses in West Africa, by steamboats in Central Africa. He travels through cities and savannas, crosses mountains and great plains. He visits game parks and shantytowns. He snakes his way from one end of the continent to the other in an effort to see it all. And everywhere he sees dirt; dirty children, dirty houses, dirty food.
Harris finds little in Africa that he can identify with. Visiting 23 countries in 12 months is an immense undertaking. It would be a logistical nightmare for even the most seasoned African traveler. For the novice, it borders on pure insanity. He is constantly on the move. His days are maddening cycles of applying for visas, going to immigration offices, negotiating his way past border guards, deciphering bus schedules, looking for banks to exchange traveler's checks, searching for places where credit ca rds will be accepted, looking for places to bed down for the night, looking for food without germs, all without speaking any African languages.
The constant waiting in dirty bus stations drives him beyond his limits. His mood changes from one of apprehension to bitterness, to absolute hatred of Africa and all things African. He publicly flaunts his anger and is arrested several times for his odd behavior. Near the end we find Harris desperately searching for a hamburger, a Coca-Cola, or any other symbol of life as he knew it in America. His appetite is not sated until he reaches South Africa. He sadly comes to realize that he has more in common with the Boers than he does with black Africans.
Harris's conclusions in "Native Stranger" are most disturbing. For, in actuality, he has seen and experienced little of the "real" Africa. His personal encounters are mainly with people who are, like him, in transit, or those who make their livelihood preying on such people. To judge Africa from these encounters would be akin to judging America solely by the people and experiences one found hanging around Greyhound bus stations.
Harris learns virtually nothing about the day-to-day life of ordinary Africans, nothing of their systems of aesthetics or what makes life meaningful and beautiful for them. He learns little of the aims and aspirations of ordinary folks; the pains they have endured and the challenges they have overcome. His Africa is a historically decontextualized one.
He enters Africa with two competing stereotypes one naively optimistic, the other utterly negative. He dismisses the former and grows to accept the latter wholeheartedly. No real growth takes place with the author, no demonstration of complexities, subtleties, or varying shades of gray. This is a thinly disguised reworking of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness," complete with 19th-century condescending, sexist, and racist tones.
In the final analysis, all we really learn from Harris is that African transportation and bureaucratic systems are horribly inefficient. One hardly needed to have gone through a year of agony to arrive at that conclusion. Nor was it wise to have staked so much of one's identity on such a pointless exercise.