This photo was taken over fifty years ago and shows a Bahima woman from western Uganda sitting next to her milk pots. The staple diet of the Bahima people in those days was milk from the cattle that their lives revolved around. A man might drink up to eight litres a day – that’s about fourteen pints of full cream milk for those of us who still get milk delivered to our doorsteps in glass bottles. The cattle were also bled in order to make a delicious soup.
Pictures such as the one above are favourites of coffee table books showing ‘vanishing worlds’ and usually depict white clay and ochre painted bodies, long-shutter photos of dancing by firelight, along with a few naked bosoms. A brief digression here: a friend visited a remote place a long time ago and on meeting the women of the village at the market had her breasts thoroughly palpated to assess her fecundity. Don’t try that in your local supermarket.
Whilst coffee table books are attention grabbing in showing the diversity of human cultural life, I have often wondered what it really feels like to be one of those dancers, what was going on elsewhere in their lives, who was annoying whom, what crises were going on in their lives, what hopes they held. My characters Zachye, Felice, Kabutiiti and Stanley, are Bahima. Can a writer from one culture really get inside the head of a child from a different culture, in a different era? We absorb the intricacies of our own culture, its viewpoints, what it takes note of, the way it sees the world, so that it heavily colours how we see. How can a writer see with a different eye? How can the writer be credible? The writer Metter Newth has pointed out that this is a problem shared by all writers writing outside their own personal (private) experience.
For The Ghosts of Eden I started with the premise that everyone, everywhere, in any era, has common human feelings: apprehension, pride, caution, jealousy, love, contentment; we share common predicaments even if they occur within a different cultural world. So the reader, although seeing in a photo a person made mysterious by a white shroud, squatting outside a grass house surrounded by unfamiliar objects, can find themselves thinking: yes, I’m rooting for them, because I’ve also felt those emotions, experienced those dilemmas. If the writer has done their job, the reader can make a ‘leap of empathy’.
Then there’s research to try to recreate the cultural environment, a voyage of discovery that is fraught with the danger that the sources may have been written by people of one’s own culture, and so be selective in their observations. Searching the memoirs and memories of surviving members of the tradition is a necessity but oral literature also helps. In the case of the Bahima this included their poems. These poems are in the form of the ancient traditions of heroic epic literature – particular cattle-raiding, found also in the Greek Iliad, the Irish The Cattle-Raid of Cooley and also texts from India. In my novel, the ‘heroic recitations’ of the Bahima provide a means for one of the characters to cross from the old world of their childhood to the new world of their adulthood.
So a writer trying to write about a culture far removed from their own must use universal human emotions and be inquisitive about the culture they are attempting to show. At the very least, writing about another culture should alter perceptions of that culture in the writer’s culture. It should also inform in an entertaining way (a novel should not be an anthropological treatise).
I’m off to have a glass of milk now. I think I’ll skip the blood soup.