Uncle Hugh McClure was not my uncle; he was my godfather and a man my dad deeply admired. Uncle Hugh was a physician who was a medical missionary in Africa; my dad and he always kept in touch.
I do not know how these two quite different men found each other but Dad always supported Hugh’s mission, as best he could, from meager resources; he would send to Africa small and cheap, but essential, things like hand tools.
Uncle Hugh always visited us when he was on leave and showed lantern slides and, later, home movies of his life and work in Africa; there were always PG parts for us children that were intriguing and funny with pictures of ladies with banana leaves for umbrellas and monkeys being monkeys.
After we went to bed, then began the R-rated section for adults, showing his injured and diseased patients, that I am sure, in retrospect, was about raising money for the Church Missionary Society for which organization Uncle Hugh worked. I wish I still had the illustrated letters and the charming little watercolors of village life that he occasionally sent me.
Uncle Hugh always brought us gifts from Africa that were ridiculously exotic and out of place in working-class Britain. My Mam always threw his gifts away as being too dangerous, as in knives and spears, or too disgusting, as things made from animal parts like a giant ashtray (she being a heavy smoker) made from an elephant’s foot.
One year he brought us a leopard skin. Like most colonials in that slowly fading colonial era, Uncle Hugh loved to shoot things; I remember clearly he pointed out, with particular pride, the perfectly placed single bullet hole in the hide with which he had dispatched the unfortunate animal.
As Uncle Hugh’s car disappeared around the corner, the leopard skin was about to disappear into the trash when, uncharacteristically, my Mam agreed that I could keep it. I had that skin, complete with head, teeth, tail and claws, in my room until I left home; it had an extraordinary warm texture, to say nothing of the smell and adventure of Africa, and I used it as a bedside mat.
When I enquired about it a few years later, it had vanished. My Mam, who could invent a reason for anything she wished to do, assured me it was had become full of vermin and its life was over.
I saw my leopard skin again this morning.
It clad a perfectly wild leopard in a perfectly wild place and was full of life. It was beautiful; a tiny morsel of God’s creation perfect in every way. I could no more have put a bullet through that astonishing being than through myself; what persuaded Uncle Hugh to commit that barbaric act, no matter how perfectly placed the bullet, I cannot imagine. My Mam would have said the leopard was threatening the herds.
I saw a live leopard. Now you know. I am on safari.
We are really going to our nephew’s wedding; but Davis to Durban is a long way to go for a church service and a bit of cake however warm and fuzzy family feelings may be. So the safari helps us get more bang for the buck (is that a hunting metaphor?).
That Swahili word safari (journey) implies a great deal. It implies I am in Africa bumping around wretched roads in a 4×4 truck bothering wild animals. It implies the place where this could happen: the Serengeti (endless plain), Tanzania. And it even implies how I got to this amazing place: via Kilimanjaro International Airport named for the mountain made famous by Hemmingway.
All these implications are true.
Safari, Serengeti, Kilimanjaro.
Surely there are no words more iconic of sub-Saharan Africa.
It turns out, of course, they are all brands of beer made in East Africa: I am particularly fond of Kilimanjaro because I climbed that mountain with my sons 12 short years ago (1999) and because, during my short stop-over in Arusha and before this safari began, I was able to visit a brewery where Kilimanjaro is made.
I had the pleasure of visiting with colleagues whom I have known from the time when I came fairly regularly to southern Africa to teach trainees on behalf of South African Breweries. I had a grand brewer’s morning.
The Arusha brewery is one of a half-dozen breweries that belong to Tanzania Brewing Company that is now part of the sprawling SAB-Miller empire. The brewery was built in 1961 and, though some of the technology from that era remains, there is a vigorous program of refurbishment and rebuilding going on.
The brewery is not large, on a par with significant microbreweries in the USA, but interestingly, half the production is made from sorghum in an effort to source local grains (the Eagle brand).
As far as I can tell, there is no draft beer on sale. Beer comes only in 500-ml bottles; this measure is about equal to one Imperial pint, which is a measure I grew up with, and so I find it a very satisfying drink.
However at $5 per bottle, at the places I’m staying, my beer habit adds up! I’m sure the beer is much cheaper at the thousands of ramshackle storefront bars one sees all over Africa comprising a plank and a few plastic chairs under a shade tree; these are called shebeens in South Africa.
I’ve seen crates of beer on the heads of statuesque women, on the backs of bicycles, on hand carts and on rough contraptions drawn by oxen — the African equivalent, I suppose, of the Budweiser Clydesdales.
In other, words beer travels the way everything else does in Africa.
The leopard cannot change its spots and a brewer cannot do without beer. But with Safari, Serengeti and Kilimanjaro available in every place, my spots, fortunately, are in no danger of needing replacement.
— Reach Michael Lewis at [email protected] Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com