In Africa Dances Gorer takes the reader on an odyssey across West Africa, in the company of one of the great black ballet stars of 1930s Paris. It is a devastating critique of colonial rule, which is shown to be destroying African society just as effectively as Christian missionaries undermine indigenous morality.
Africa Dances captures the rich physical and psychological detail of African village life – from food and architecture to dance and magic. Gorer witnesses men diving for three-quarters of an hour without coming up for breath, witch-doctors conjuring thunderstorms out of clear blue skies, and chameleon fetishists whose skin changes from a dirty white to almost black. This is a place where if you believe, you can.
‘Extraordinary ... one of the most remarkable travel books of our time.’ - Sunday Times
‘A book I could not put down from the first page to the last.’ - Daily Telegraph
Format: 296pp demi pb
Place: West Africa
Africa Dances, which was first published by Faber and Faber in 1935, was pivotal to the life and career of Geoffrey Gorer. Born in London in 1905, he was educated at Charterhouse and at Jesus College, Cambridge, broken by an interlude at the Sorbonne from 1922–3. He graduated from Cambridge in 1927 with a degree in classics and modern languages. Over the next six years Gorer directed his precocious talents into creative writing, producing a picaresque novel, a number of unperformed plays as well as an impressive body of correspondence with such leading literary figures as Edith Sitwell and W. H. Auden. His first published work, The Revolutionary Ideas of the Marquis de Sade, came out in 1934. In this same buoyant year he made a first visit to Morocco and returning via Paris, stopped off for a few days with his friend, Pavel Tchelitchew. As the Introductory chapter relates, a chance conversation with Tchelitchew’s friend Féral Benga led directly to Gorer joining him on a three-month trip across West Africa, the basis ofAfrica Dances.
The book was a very considerable critical and financial success. As Cecil Roberts wrote in the Daily Telegraph, "He has made one of the most singular journeys of modern times, and he has given us a book which opens a window on a world that most of us hardly realise exists...There are no reservations in this astonishing book. Sex, religion, politics, the negro conception of life contrasted with the white man’s, the place of fetish and magic, wrestling, dancing and marriage...A book I could not put down from the first page to the last." It was also one of the most searing criticisms of the bleak reality of French colonialism to have ever been published. Although Geoffrey Gorer, with the manners of his class, would later try to deprecate this work, he always acknowledged the great effect which it had on his career. The success of Africa Dances provided him with willing publishers and in quick succession he wrote Bali and Angkor, Hot Strip Tease and a satirical novel, Nobody Talks Politics.
Africa Dances also brought him to the attention of a number of leading anthropologists, in particular Margaret Mead of the American National Museum of Natural History, Ruth Benedict of Columbia University and John Dollard of Yale University, who began to take an active interest in his career. In 1935–6 they educated him in the methodology and theoretical background of their discipline. At the end of 1936 he landed in India, where another fan of Africa Dances, Major Morris of the Gurkha Rifles, used his influence with the Maharajah of Sikkim to enable Geoffrey Gorer to study a totally isolated Himalayan people, the Lepchas. Having acclimatised and studied their language, he lived in the village of Zongu during March, April and May 1937 and turned the experience into one of the classic studies of anthropology,Himalayan Village. Unfortunately it was to be his last major field trip, for he contracted a rare tropical disease – sprue – as well as fracturing his backbone in a bad rock fall.
During the Second World War he worked for the British Embassy in Washington advising them on propaganda issues as well as studying behaviourism under Clark Hull at Yale. He combined both interests in his study of Japanese Character Structure and Propaganda (1941), which in the author’s own words had ‘a quite fantastic circulation and influence’. Later he collaborated on a book-length study of a schizophrenic youth, Tom Malden, and undertook further investigations of national character: The Americans (1948) followed by The People of Russia – produced in collaboration with a psychologist, John Rickman.
In 1950 he returned to England and bought a small seventeenth century manor house near Haywards Heath in Sussex, an elegant sanctum where he wrote three substantial studies of English culture Exploring English Culture (1955), Death, Grief and Mourning in Contemporary Britain (1965) and Sex and Marriage in England Today (1971)) and a steady stream of reviews and articles. Always professional, liberal and humane, he could also be waspish and self-deprecating. He accused himself of ‘sloth’, which was probably no more than a code word for the private wealth which removed him from the need to aggressively earn an income from his writing or keep hold of a professional salaried post. In 1976, after his 70th birthday, he stopped writing books though he remained an active correspondent. He became evermore devoted to his garden and died in May 1985 at the age of eighty.
Extract from Book
The foundation of African food is the absence of wheat. The substitute staple food depends on the climatic conditions of the region; the most general is millet, and after that maize and rice, the farinaceous roots of manioc and yam, and in the forest regions the unsweetened banana or plantain. All these grains and roots have to be ground to flour by hand, and the commonest sight in West African villages is women stripped to the waist, their breasts which they crush as early as possible to give the appearance of fertility hanging forward, and usually a small baby spread-eagled against their back, standing and pounding grain in a two-foot-high wooden mortar with a four-foot wooden pestle; the pestle is occasionally topped with a stone. This pounding is a laborious business and a great deal has to be done every day, for the resulting cake with a sauce is practically their only food. The time which must be taken in preparing food is one of the chief reasons against monogamy in the country; a good tip for missionaries who want to increase their flock would be to install a mill. Most Negroes eat, when they can, two solid meals a day; in the places which have goats or cattle they usually start the day with curdled milk. Such meat, fish or vegetables (chiefly okra, like cucumber) as they can get is made into a sauce into which portions of the warm cake can be dipped; the sauce is cooked on a foundation of oil (either groundnut, palm, or shea butter: this last stinks abominably) and very liberally flavoured with peppers, to an extent which makes it almost intolerable to a European palate; the peppers are used medicinally as a diaphoretic and febrifuge; a couple of old colonials told me that when they ran out of quinine they found peppers an adequate substitute. The food is prepared in two bowls and the eaters squat round on their heels, take a lump of the cake, knead it into a ball and dip it into the sauce. The first time I ate in this manner I committed the grave social error of feeding myself with the left hand – I am somewhat ambidextrous; this was not only a breach of good manners but was likely to bring bad luck. No food is ever eaten without the person who has cooked it eating a little in front of the diners; the fear of poisoning is, justifiably, very strong. A sort of beer, dolo, is prepared from millet; it is sweetish and very heady, not unpleasant. Another intoxicant, raffia, is produced from the sap of the palm tree; according to its freshness and manner of preparation it varies very considerably in its alcoholic content. I was several times offered and drank these liquors, and indeed they formed an accompaniment of some of my most enjoyable experiences; but I still think it was the most dangerous thing I did in Africa, for the drink is served in large calabashes (dried half gourds) and passed from mouth to mouth. I didn’t catch anything.
Among the Wolof cooking is much more elaborate and varied. The ordinary diet is curdled milk in the morning, rice at midday and millet in the evening, but any excuse which can possibly be made is used for a feast and the most complicated dishes are prepared. Every sort of delicious sea fish is caught near Dakar and the Senegalese fish rice is noted throughout the colony; it is prepared in the following manner. Groundnut oil is heated in a dish; when it is hot onions and tomatoes are sliced into it and pieces of every sort of crustacean and sea fish are put into it, with small cabbages, okra, manioc and yam, spices, small peppers and seasoning. This is covered with water and cooked slowly for about an hour, when the fish and big vegetables are taken out and put on one side; rice pounded small is then put into the liquor and cooked slowly till all the liquid is absorbed, when it is served with the fish and vegetables warmed through. This dish is absolutely delicious. Senegalese couscous is also much appreciated; it is a foundation to a dish rather than a dish itself, for a variety of sauces can be served with it. Pounded millet is worked by hand till it is as fine as sand; it is then thoroughly steamed. Then dried and powdered baobab leaves are mixed with it and the whole is steamed again till the leaves have quite disappeared, leaving only their perfume and a slightly glutinous feeling to the sandy millet. It is now ready to serve as a foundation to a number of piquant meat and vegetable stews. It takes two days to prepare. A number of good dishes are made with maize flour, and several with groundnuts; I did not like these latter much owing to the burnt flavour of the nuts. Senegal is very rich in fruits: delicious, but unfortunately green-skinned oranges, the mango like a large plum with a slightly terebinthineflavour, the paw-paw, a tree fruit which resembles a melon, save that it is softer in texture and more perfumed; the corossol, another tree fruit with a pith that looks and feels rather like cotton wool but which is full of a juice with the flavour of pineapple sorbet; the darkassou, a plum-like fruit in which the stone is outside the pulp, full of an astringent but very refreshing juice which stains materials indelibly; small sweet lemons and many more whose names I did not learn.
I have always maintained that a varied cuisine with its resulting appreciation of subtle flavours is one of the certain signs of a refined civilisation.