Living Among Lions: An Introduction

First published, labelled as a “Foreword,” in A Breath of Africa by Lysa Collins, Vancouver, British Columbia: Granville Island Publishers, November 2020, pages vii to x. Originally written in November of 2018 and February of 2019.

a lion’s roar

wraps the veldt

in stillness

Lysa Collins

For many readers of haiku poetry, Africa is an exotic and distant place. I had the privilege of living in Ghana when I was a child, and of visiting nearby countries, but my memories are from long ago. So, for me, Africa still seems exotic and distant, even if I can still picture a huge centipede by our driveway in Kumasi, or recall a sub-Saharan native running his fingers over my head because he had never seen straight hair. I’d love to go back.

         But of course, there are many Africas. Those of us in the Americas, Europe, and elsewhere too easily lump the entire continent into one diminishing label, like thinking it’s enough to call Albert Einstein and Nelson Mandela “people.” Using the term “Africa” too easily sweeps away the varied culture and geography and the many languages and dialects into one dismissive lump. You can converse in more than 1,500 different languages in Africa—the highest linguistic diversity on the planet. As with its diversity of animal species, the continent’s variety of languages serves as a metaphor for every other kind of diversity possible throughout these extraordinary lands. We all know about the giraffes and gorillas, but did you know you can go downhill skiing in Morocco, Algeria, Lesotho, or South Africa? We can also explore parched and colourful deserts in the vast Sahara or Kalahari, investigate jungles and glaciers (both are shrinking), coasts and mountains, savannas and rivers, pyramids and penguins, shopping malls and shanties, and feel safe in some cities, unsafe in others.

        The stamp of colonialism runs deep, but the roots of native culture run far deeper. Europeans in the past called Africa the “dark continent,” which meant, some said, that it was unknown. In many ways the continent is still dark to Westerners, and we do not help to penetrate or appreciate its mysteries by referring to the entire continent all at once. We don’t need to know “Africa.” We need to know the many places and faces of Namibia and Sierra Leone and Madagascar—and focus more closely on the rich details awaiting our discovery. What we can get out of Africa is the subtlety, variety, and diversity of every aspect of its cultures and languages, its botany and wildlife.

        And yet, where do we start? How do we apprehend the mystery of Africa’s individual countries and their many subcultures, let alone the entire continent? The answer begins with understanding small parts. And that, I think, is what this book offers. It’s a visitor’s view, and every vacationer or sightseer has valid experiences—they are a door to deeper understanding. What follows here are poems Lysa Collins has written about her visits to South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, and Kenya, and they give you a taste, not of the entire continent, but of small parts of it—the flora and fauna of personal experiences that can enrich readers by their otherness—and also by their sameness.

        After the author takes a prop plane to begin her adventure, this book unfolds with focuses on specific locations. These locales provide structure for sequences of poems on the Kalahari Desert, the Serengeti Savanna, the Ngorogoro Scrubland, the Great Rift Jungle, the rivers of the Okavango Delta, and villages in and around Kigoma.

        In Out of Africa, the memoir by Karen Blixen, also known as Isak Dinesen, the renowned Danish author says, “You know you are truly alive when you’re living among lions.” These poems by Lysa Collins show her own aliveness as she visits, and seeks to understand, particular parts of Africa.

        Michael Dylan Welch

        Former Vice-President, Haiku Society of America