I once knew a man, a black man, who told me he had been brought up in a village so far from the nearest town he had to walk a day to reach it. Later he knew this ‘town’ was itself a village, having in it a post office, a shop and a butcher. He had still to experience the white men’s towns, which he had heard about. This was in the southern part of Africa. They were subsistence farmers, and grew maize, millet, pumpkins, chickens. They lived as people have done for thousands of years except for one thing. Every few days a little glittering aeroplane appeared in the sky among the clouds and the circling hawks. He did not know what it was, where it came from or where it went. Remote, unreachable, a marvel, it appeared over the forest where the sun rose, and disappeared where it went down. He watched for it. He thought about it. His dreams filled with shining and fragile emanences that could sit on a branch and sing or that ran from his father and the other hunting men like a duiker or a hare, but that always escaped their spears. He told me that when he remembered his childhood that aeroplane was in the sky. It connected not with what he was now, a sober modern man living in a large town, but with the tales and songs of his people, for it was not real, not something to be brought down to earth and touched.
When he was about nine his family went to live with relatives near a village that was larger than either the handful of huts in the bush or the ‘town’ where they had sometimes bought a little sugar or tea or a piece of cloth. There the black people worked in a small gold mine. He learned that twice a week an aeroplane landed in the bush on a strip of cleared land, unloaded parcels, mail and sometimes a person, and then flew off. He was by now going to a mission school. He walked there with his elder brother and his younger sister every morning, leaving at six to get there at eight, then walked back in the afternoon. Later, when he measured distances not by the time it took to cover them, but by the miles, yards and feet he learned in school, he knew he walked eight miles to school and eight back.
This school was his gateway to the life of riches and plenty enjoyed by white people. This is how he saw it. Motor cars, bicycles, the goods in the shops, clothes – all these things would be his if he did well at school. School had to come first, but on Saturdays and Sundays and holidays he went stealthily to the edge of the airstrip, sometimes with his brother and sister, and crouched there waiting for the little plane. The first time he saw a man jump down out of its high uptilted front his heart stopped, then it thundered, and he raced shouting exuberantly into the bush. He had not before understood that this apparition of the skies, like a moth but made out of some substance unknown to him, had a person in it: a young white man, like the storemen or the foremen in the mines. In the village of his early childhood he had played with grasshoppers, pretending they were aeroplanes. Now he made little planes out of the silver paper that came in the packets of cigarettes that were too expensive for his people to smoke.