Love Letter to Africa

'AFRICAN VISAS" is a lyrical love letter to a land from someone who's been given a rough ride, but who keeps on loving anyway.There's a saying among travelers and newcomers to Africa: "AWA." Africa Wins Again. It means shrugging your shoulders when the flight from Lagos, Nigeria to Nairobi, Kenya is eight hours late in leaving. Or doesn't leave at all because the head of state commandeers the plane for his own use. "AWA." It means Nigerian telephones that don't work. Period. "AWA." It means a flight full of tourists landing in Zambia and not being allowed to leave until the soccer team on board pays a bribe. "AWA." This is the Africa Maria Thomas writes about from the heart. A dry, witty storyteller, she tries to articulate why Africa is worth the trouble, why so many people who visit or live there develop an abiding affection despite infuriating everyday challenges. Thomas goes further, to the heart of Africa's severest challenge: the drive to survive the famine that can make every day a life-or-death affair. It became just that for Thomas. In the summer of 1989, she was killed while accompanying a mission headed by United States Congressman Mickey Leland to refugee camps in Ethiopia. Their plane crashed in the mountains. There were no survivors. This posthumously published book is part of Thomas's legacy. In the novella and six stories that make up "African Visas," Thomas spins tales of the expatriate experience in Africa in a direct and unvarnished way. She doesn't sentimentalize or rhapsodize. She doesn't soft-peddle Africa's harshness, cruelty, or ravaging destruction. But like a lover bewildered by the depth of her affection, she tries to articulate the "why" of this deep-seated love. For example, in the novella "The Jiru Road" - the strongest work in the collection - a Peace Corps volunteer who requests a position in Bengal, India, instead gets sent to Africa. To Ethiopia. To a town named Jiru. "I didn't know that I was going to love it in Jiru," she writes. She is driven to try to help, to do good. She is even driven to return to Jiru after a military coup makes it a life-threatening proposition for a white Peace Corps worker to try to go anywhere. But she does return - briefly. Thomas may ultimately fail at articulating why the volunteer takes her life in her hands for one last look, why the strength of the connection to Africa and its people is so strong. But she's brilliant at her deft descriptions of why people come to Africa - even why people become "ex-pats." Thomas herself spent some years as a Peace Corps worker. In "The Jiru Road," the narrator explains why she joined the Corps in 1971: "I hated finding cheap towels in my box of Tide." In other words, she didn't want her life to be mundane. "So I left," the narrator continues. "I went away to where I thought the big battles would be with the elements, where no energy had to be wasted peeling the stuck plastic off individually wrapped pieces of cheese." Thomas defines the pull of Africa as the urge to get down to fundamentals and come to grip with essentials, and not get distracted by frills or the daily grind. She makes a similar point in several of the short stories, especially in "Back Bay to the Bundu" where a wealthy, old Boston matron sells off much of her inheritance to come to Kenya. The poverty around her is appalling, but what does she see? "How little one truly needs, [how it] hinted at some ordeal of purification." Her characters play the margins: high and low. Soaringly high, hauntingly low. The level middle ground is the only scary possibility. Thomas is also unerringly clear on the fact that the outsider may go to Africa to help or change the people - but the outsider often is the one who gets helped or changed. Best of all, she writes with a true lightness of being. Humor and affection streak through every piece in the collection.

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