Africa. The Dark Continent. The realm mystery and romance for European writers from the time of "Dr. Livingston I presume" to the African Queen and Raiders Of The Lost Ark and home to the Great White Hunter and the loyal black porters. A land of mysterious impenetrable jungles and wide expanses of hostile plains filled with man eating beast lurking under every tree waiting to devour the innocent blonde maiden and missionaries tied to a stake for the cannibal stew pot.
These and other images have been the backdrops for plots ranging from searching for lost gold to stories of a human raised by the great apes. Our view of Africa and her people has long been coloured by purple prose and the white man's burden, with "Bawana" always having to play father to his childlike native servants, who just can't keep a stiff upper lip and fall apart during a crises.
Either that or our heads are filled with the images of recent history. The post-colonial tribal hatreds, the famines, the tin-pot dictators that come and go, and of course the pandemic of AIDS. Surely there has to be more to the people and the continent than this rather limited and pejorative view. The trouble is trying to find any writings about Africa that aren't written about either politics or, to steal from the Irish, "troubles".
Well one such antidote has been supplied by French writer Francois Devenne. Although born in France and a European, he exhibited a fascination for Africa from an early age and wrote his student thesis on the geography and agriculture of the Kilimanjaro region of Tanzania. He moved to Kenya, where he worked the French Institute of African Studies. It was during his time working in Kenya that he wrote his first novel; a novel about an Africa that few of us know anything about.
Three Dreams On Mount Meru is the story of the path we all travel to adulthood, but told within the framework of two cultures that are just staring to merge. Bayu, the youngest male in a clan renowned for their abilities as carvers and craftsmen in wood, is both African and Muslim. So while the message of the prophet is still law and sacred to him, the belief in magic and respect for the spirit world of dreams is still strong in his people.
His clan made their fortunes when his ancestor from eight generations back obeyed a dream he had as a child in his efforts to rebuild a mosque. If we were talking about Native Americans we would be talking about animal guides and vision quests in reference to the dream in question, for the ancestor was led to his revelation by a leopard, and even in Bayu's day the leopard remains a figure of mystique and power.
It was Bayu's ancestor who instituted the tradition that the young men of the clan intent on following in his footsteps travel to Mount Meru and dream three dreams to complete their passage into manhood. But it's not until the women he is supposed to marry challenges him to return from Mount Meru with a flower that he's given birth to, that he is given his first clue as to the true importance of both the tradition and the leopard.
With his fiancées' last words of "…the leopard is the creative breath of the clan" still loud in his ears he begins his quest to find his three dreams. When he returns they will marry, but first he must survive the ordeal – something not everybody who sets out on the journey have done. For not only does he face the perils of crossing the Savannah on his own, where he will be easy pray for any hungry predator, he has to survive his encounters with other tribesman.
Needless to say the ordeal is not what he expects. How will he know when he has had the dreams that he's supposed to have? Even if he does, what is he supposed to do about them? Will they tell him things that he must do, or will they give him glimpses of events that will force him to make choices that will dictate what his future will be.
Devenne has done something truly remarkable with this book. Not only has he created a marvellous coming of age story and exploration of a person becoming aware of their own abilities and potential, he has done it in such a manner that we also learn a great deal about the people of that time.
His descriptions of the environments that Bayu has to pass through on his way to the Mountain and once there are breathtaking in their ability to not only capture the beauty and the harshness of the land, but to depict a country with a multitude of landscapes. Even the Savannah, which we've seen depicted as undulating, endless prairie lands, has a diversity that come as a shock.
But none of it prepares us, or Bayu, for the Mountain. Devenne somehow manages to convey both its beauty and foreboding nature simultaneously, making them a target both desirable and intimidating. But Bayu is not deterred by any obstructions and it is his strength of character, determination, and willingness to risk that help him succeed. For it's not only a transition into manhood he must undergo, but a transformation into an artist and as his fiancée so rightly says to him before he sets out, creativity always has the risk of failure attached to it.
Francois Devenne has taken a risk with the telling of this story. It's very hard, if not impossible, to venture into the territory of another person's culture and be able to tell their story. But Devenne's love and appreciation for his subject matter, his obvious understanding and love for the environment, and the depth of his historical knowledge mean that he is ideally suited to the task and is able to succeed where others might have failed.
Not once in the telling does it ever feel like he is doing more than telling a story. He makes no claims to be some gifted shaman or wise man that the people of Africa have imparted mystical secrets to. He is simply a man telling a coming of age story utilizing knowledge gained through his studies and his own experiences from living in Africa. This is a book that is truly a story: if you dropped the narrative voice of Bayu it could be told aloud around the fire at night when the flames are kissing the sky and the stars have been caught in their conflagration.
In Three Dreams On Mount Meru Francois Devenne brings to life an Africa that few of us are ever privileged enough to see. Take advantage of this opportunity; who knows when it will come around again?