Visiting Namibia. The Man-Moth’s eye.

Our recent camping trip in Namibia gave me a new feeling for one detail in Elizabeth Bishop’s brilliantly understated exploration of loneliness, fear and pain, “The Man-Moth”:

 

                                                               If you catch him

                 hold up a flashlight to his eye. It’s all dark pupil,

                 an entire night itself, whose haired horizon tightens

                 as he stares back, and closes up the eye.

 

My wife and I shared a small tent, and every now and then, especially on the first night when we were particularly awkward getting undressed and into our sleeping bags in the cramped space and darkness, she would flash a 9 LED torch straight into my dark-adjusted eyes at close quarters. It was agonising in a way I’d never experienced before: sudden, violent, intense, penetrating, combining effects of a blow and a stabbing, but different from normal physical pain in that it was an experience of the optical nerve and not of torn or bruised flesh. Its likeness to and difference from fleshly pain make me think of other lines in “The Man-Moth”:

 

               He does not see the moon; he observes only her vast properties,

               feeling the queer light on his hands, neither warm nor cold,

               of a temperature impossible to record in thermometers.

 

The moonlight was extraordinarily bright during our time camping, and I would like to be able to include it in a poem. It’s hard to imagine doing it with the power of those last three lines, though. Somehow Bishop gets the feel of a night of brilliant moonlight into her writing, with great intensity and precision though with very little direct description.

 

The whole trip was an extremely enjoyable and eye-opening experience. I’ve always missed the sense of space in England, and I thought I knew about it from South Africa, but space in southern Namibia was something else. We drove vast distances every day, not seeing a person, a house, a vehicle or an animal for many miles at a time, though there was usually a cattle or game fence running beside the road, hung with bottles, pieces of wood or metal strips to make any animal that did stumble on it see it and swerve away. For hours at a time there’d be just a straight road ahead crossing a vast plain under a huge, clear sky, with low, eroded mountains breaking the horizon in the distance. On our first day’s travelling the plain was covered in thick, yellow-grey grass scattered with small thorn trees. Later it was more often semi-desert sprinkled with tufts of grass. The effect was hypnotically beautiful, fantastically so at sunset and at dawn when colours, light and shadows were at their most rich, intensely charged and subtly various. In the early mornings and the evening the world seemed to split into two halves, with the grasses on one side of our minibus brown-gold and solid with shadow, and on the other silvery and ethereal as the light fell on them from a different angle. Worn down mountains on the horizon seemed to rise out of these hazy, silvery plains like small islands out of the sea. When we went on to South Africa (specifically to Natal) even the most rural landscapes seemed crowded by comparison, though of course it’s fair to say we were moving within the fertile and therefore more densely populated coastal belt.

 

Namibia is a poor country, and our joy in the beauty of semi desert and desert landscapes, in the dolphins under our boat at Lüderitz, the spendour of the dawns and sunsets and the weird grace of ostriches by the roadside could seem indecent in contrast with the poverty and suffering of some of the people we saw. However, one of the things that made our total experience seem so positive was the feeling that this was a fundamentally well governed, well organised place, full of cooperative energy and purpose. The cook on our expedition told my wife that education was provided free (I think wholly so) till eighteen. This cook (Stephan Shihepo) and our guide (Gabriel Shikongo) were wonderful advertisements for the future of Namibia. They both worked extremely hard, with great friendliness, tact, adaptability and skill to keep our group of fourteen visitors happy, well fed and well informed. Without being too romantic about it, they seemed to personify a spirit of adventure, of enterprise, and of willingness to meet any challenge and to rise creatively to any occasion. Although they were both Oshivambo speakers, both used English with impressive eloquence, and Gabriel in particular was a gifted story teller and entertainer. Our tour was organised by a company called Wild Dog and Crazy Kudu Safaris, and our experience of them was completely positive. My wife and I are both keen to revisit Namibia and would be delighted to do so with the same touring company and in the company of Gabriel and Stephan.

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