In the beginning of The Expedition to the Baobab Tree by Afrikaans author Wilma Stockenström, the narrator, a former slave, walks on the path from the hollow trunk of the baobab tree in which she dwells to a water source that she shares with animals. As she collects her water using two “gifts” (a clay pot and an ostrich egg used for a scoop), she considers the journey that brought her to the African veld where she now resides:
If I cannot even know everything on the short walk from the entrance to the baobab to the heap of potsherds and other finds, so many steps there, so many back, what of my journey, which sometimes feels as if it took a lifetime and still lasts, still goes on, even if now I am traveling in circles around one place?
This journey began when she was forced into slavery as a girl. After being sold to different owners over the years, she became part of a failed expedition that brought her to the veld. However, as she observes in the quote above, the journey has not yet ended, in spite of the fact she has now made her home inside the tree. But instead of traveling to a different place, she exhibits the toll her experiences have had on her psyche as her lyrical descriptions of the landscape and the animals that wander through it are eventually overpowered by her imagination.
The narrator (none of the characters are named) starts out by describing her life in the veld. She tries to keep track of the days by using green and black beads that she finds, although she later uses them in a more haphazard manner. She also “competes with animals” for scarce food that only makes her sick. Finally, she admits that to get through her days in the veld, sleep is “the dense solution,” and only when she wakes does she feel a sense of empowerment. “Imperiously I stand now and gaze out over the veld, and every time I step outside the world belongs to me. Every time I step out from the protecting interior of the tree I am once again a human being and powerful . . .”
This sense is quite a sharp contrast from her time as a slave. Despite her claims at the beginning that she is “ignorant” and “stupid,” she actually shows some intelligence, but her status as a slave prevents her from ever thriving beyond the confines that others have forced upon her. For example, her first owner was only interested in deflowering her and sold her as soon as she gave birth to a child, which was later taken away. Her second owner, a spice merchant, made her “toil with a pick and hoe in the garden in the murderous heat” during the day while living under the threat of having her tongue cut out. Her third owner, whom she called her “benefactor,” showed her signs of tenderness that were undermined by a bad reputation.
After the benefactor’s death, she tried to run away but was captured along with other slaves who were eventually massacred. As she relives the moment she spoke to these slaves, she discusses the fear that has remained with her all this time.
I told them all I knew about my origins. Humbly I offered them the scanty history. My facts I patched together as they occurred to me, my memory of a journey with fear the starting point and fear the end point. I was well grounded in the knowledge of fear. I had felt him in my blood vessels, for he had come to live in me and I had begun to smell like him, and with his eyes I had seen forests and plains shift by poisonous and distorted; with his ears I had listened, and there was a growling, and even the stillness rumbled, and there was bitterness in my cheeks. Oh, fear is by no means whatsoever a connoisseur of events. He gobbles up everything. He crushes everything. He leaves no bloody trail behind because he stands still. Everything comes from him, feels drawn to him, and he knows it.
Later, she goes with the benefactor’s eldest son on an expedition to try to expand his late father’s business, an expedition she calls “fantastical” and “stupidly romantic.” On the journey, she keeps close to her final owner, a man known as “the stranger.” However, things start to go awry during the expedition: leaders fight among themselves, cattle disappear. Eventually, the narrator finds herself without the protection of the stranger.
Instead, the tree becomes her only protection; it not only provides her shelter from the elements, but also becomes her confidant. As she recounts the story of that fateful expedition, she wishes she could write, so she could “scratch [the tree’s] enormous belly from top to bottom.” “Thus I decorate you line after line with our hallucinations so that you can digest, outgrown, make smooth this ridiculousness, preserve the useless information in your thick skin till the day of your spontaneous combustion . . . You are full of my scars, baobab. I did not know I had so many.”
Thanks to Stockenström’s rich language (wonderfully translated by award-winning novelist J. M. Coetzee) and brilliant use of symbolism, The Expedition to the Baobab Tree is a heartbreaking story about what we stand to lose as humans, and about how what we stand to lose can never be returned. While the novel is not exactly a fable, Stockenström does incorporate elements from that genre in her story, not only by using animals for important aspects of the story, but also by eschewing names to show that, in the end, we are all part of the same human race. Finally, like the fables of the past, The Expedition to the Baobab Tree provides a moral: Regardless of our social status, the impact we cause on other humans lingers for a long time.
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