The Ultimate Safari by Nadine Gordimer, 1991

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by Nadine Gordimer, 1991

One of the frequent complaints about Nadine Gordimer by South African critics is that her work lacks humor. It is true that Gordimer has no pretensions to being funny, but she nevertheless uses a powerful kind of irony loaded with historical contingency. Such irony is apparent in "The Ultimate Safari," from the collection Jump, in which the author invokes the notion of a safari to describe the desperate trek of a starving group of Mozambican refugees across the Kruger Park game reserve to the ironically conceived sanctuary of South Africa.

In her stories of southern African it is one of Gordimer's strengths to invoke an implicit series of ironic reversals in the choice of plot and character. In this case complex conjugations of colonialism and neocolonialism and the long history of the unequal distribution of human value in southern Africa are brought into the story's framework. The journey of the Mozambican refugees is a reverse version and an indirect result of the European holiday safari into Africa. The refugee trek proceeds in the opposite direction, out of the wild, and on empty stomachs, in stark contrast to the well-fed Europeans who journey into the romantically conceived Kruger Park bush. Indeed, the refugees pass near the cozy holiday cottages, smell the tourists' barbecues, and consider raiding their dustbins for rich leftovers. But they dare not for fear of being caught and sent back to Mozambique, where death and starvation await them.

In an epigraph to the story Gordimer cites an advertisement from the London Observer promising that "The African Adventure Lives On…. You can do it! The ultimate safari or expedition with leaders who know Africa." By doing this, the author juxtaposes two images of Africa and suggests their interdependence. The Westerner's safari Africa is a subtextual suggestion in the shadow of the main text, which deals with the African's real Africa: the starving children of war, their raped and murdered mothers, and their dead or dying fathers. But it is not as simple as a mere contrast of images. The modern safari Africa is the heir to a destructive colonialism that convulsed an earlier, preindustrial Africa and slowly turned it into a state of colonial dependence. A further conjugation is that, whereas the colonial adventurers of Africa severely damaged the fabric of social and cultural life systems in their artificially constituted states, the neocolonial African governments, in reaction and working within the gutted remains of the colonial infrastructure, imposed destructive nationalisms on impoverished people and bred new conflicts, new corruptions, and new wars. The characters in this story are the victims of this double colonization, and in their effort to escape they have to traverse, in a literal, historical, and metaphorical return journey, to the source of their condition, a prime terrain of land appropriation, the game park. They return as a colonial and apartheid nemesis, that is, as refugees, to the center of stolen power and wealth—white South Africa.

Also implicit in the story is the idea that the two Africas have bred two classes of people in South Africa. One is the predominantly, but not exclusively, white middle class, whose idea of Africa is at least partly framed in the romantic terms of its game parks and its environmental delights. These are the heirs of imperialists and settlers who made Africa conform to such a scheme of things partly by forcing people off land to be designated as game parks. The second is the underclass, who, in the most severe cases as portrayed in this story, do not entertain secondary notions of game and parks because they are hungry and homeless. These people are the descendants of colonialism's victims. For them land is either shelter or must be traversed in search of shelter; animals are either food or a mortal threat. In today's camouflaged language, which seeks to efface moral responsibility, these two classes of people are incorporated in the terms "first" and "third" worlds. But implicit in Gordimer's story is the idea that the passage of years since the end of formal colonialism has not dissolved the moral and historical interconnections between the two versions of Africa and the two kinds of people in it. For every tourist safari there are many more "ultimate safaris" of starving refugees. For every slab of barbecued rump on a safari fire, a couple of children die of starvation beyond the charmed spaces of affluence and privilege. Gordimer reminds her readers just how interdependent the moral economy of southern Africa is with the economy of resources and the history of appropriation and dispossession.

In her career as a writer Gordimer increasingly has tried to escape the confines of her own white middle-class background by attempting the impossible—to write from within the subjective experiences of those who were apartheid's others. In addition, Gordimer often has concretized complex historical issues in the figure of one protagonist and in the first-person narration of the protagonist's life. In this story Gordimer makes a difficult imaginative leap into the mind of a little African girl of about 10 years who describes the arduous journey by foot of at least 100 kilometers across Kruger Park. Gordimer's choice of a child narrator makes the leap easier. She can discount cultural difference and narrate in a more general child's language of fear, hope, and longing. In doing this she also suggests that there is, in fact, a level of experience not obscured by the immensely complex intercultural dynamics of southern Africa. The level of experience is constituted by the suffering children of Africa.

The girl, who is nameless, narrates how her mother simply disappeared one day when what remained of her family were still living in the shell of a partly destroyed dwelling in Mozambique. The mother was presumably abducted or murdered by Renamo bandits. War took the father sometime ago. The girl, her younger brother, their grandmother, and their grandfather join a group of refugees who set off for the ironic freedom of South Africa. The group walks around the electrified border fence marking South African territory and into Kruger Park. For weeks the starving refugees trudge on, leaving behind those too weak to continue. They have to negotiate a passage inhabited by elephants, lions, and other animals for whom they may become prey. When they eventually emerge at a refugee camp in South Africa beyond the park, they have lost the grandfather, and the younger brother seems to have suffered brain damage as a result of malnutrition. They have no home and no prospects. When a white journalist asks the narrator's grandmother if she wants to "go home," the grandmother replies, "There is nothing. No home."

But the narrator herself asks, "Why does our grandmother say that? Why? I'll go back. I'll go back through that Kruger Park. After the war … our mother may be waiting for us." This is a tenuous thread of hope that suggests an ineradicable human optimism even in the face of the worst cruelties and the most severe privations. It is significant that it is the women of the story who survive. The bright young girl who narrates the story gets some education in South Africa while living in the refugee tent. Against all odds, Gordimer seems to suggest, women in southern Africa will continue to live, to hope, and to nurture. The men have clearly failed.

By her fictional focus on the least privileged and doubly oppressed antiheroes of southern Africa's various colonialisms, in "The Ultimate Safari" Gordimer privileges the surviving women. In the story's conclusion there is a clear if faint suggestion that the time is at hand for the women of southern Africa to take control of their lives and of their property against the grain of a history of failure.

—Leon de Kock