“Is it cold outside today?” my daughter asked. It seemed on odd question, taking into account that outside the glass door to the terrace we were in deepest Africa. Inside, the air conditioning guarded our European sweat pores so that life retained the illusion of being temperate and dry. Outside today the storm clouds had gathered. To the naked Swedish eye, the scene did not have the look of warmth. Clouds and wind meant a chill, and so my daughter looked into her suitcase and scrambled around for a cotton sweater with a hood.
”It’s alright, it’s very warm out,” I promised, knowing from years of living and working in the tropics that what she really needed was a T-shirt and a wide-brimmed hat. I’m ”Swedish” but my life’s journey to becoming so has had me in more than a few places where people know that there is no point in working at midday. Yet, my daughter (and her twin brother) are born and bred where wind and rain means a chill, and it was thus I realized I had on my hands two Swedes in Africa.
”I feel like I am in an advertisement,” my son proclaimed, as he sat sipping out of a coconut I had ordered him for breakfast. I knew that he had in mind the Maria Montazami travel adverts, which have prompted many Swedes who can afford it scrambling to book a trip South. On reflection, he had a fair point. To a Swede it just didn’t seem real that life could be so effortless: the coconuts dropped off the trees everywhere, one hacked them open and there was breakfast; the airy breakfast room was a stretch of beach with a collection of chairs and tables covered by a thick canvas. There were no boots at the door; no scarves, hats and gloves to take into account before stepping out again.
Behind the hotel, away from the immaculate stretch of beach, were some less natural looking child entertainments. To me, they had the rusty look of installations that didn’t work most of the time, but the children insisted on having a look. Gathered around the entrance to the go-cart track and, next door, at the entrance to the water park, were gatherings of young African men responsible for these installations. They chatted and laughed casually with the ease and rhythm of an African dance, as they sat in a circle, the thought of urgency far away in the stressed reality of people from Europe. Although I had already anticipated their answers, I asked the men whether the go-cart track would be open today. ”Welcome back, madame,” they said, ”it is not good because of the rain – maybe in a few days when it is dry.” At first the children wondered why these men didn’t just call the repair people, but then their Swedish sense of environmental responsibility kicked in, and they concluded that it was very good that the men decided to wait and let the sun take care of the problem naturally instead.
We returned to the beach and saw the fishing boats heading out to sea for the evening. The men in rags seemed accustomed as their tiny open boats rose up high on the waves and then fell. Some of them had hoisted a hand-made sail in the hope that the force of the wind would speed them along to prime fishing areas before their competitors got there. In the morning each of these men would walk down the beach with one or two fish in hand, and one wondered whether this was the source of their livelihood for the day. My husband, who is a Swede like his children, commented that although he always enjoyed the people and scenery of Africa (where he had worked many times), he found it difficult to see the terrible inequalities. For this reason, he could not imagine living here. I had been raised in many places characterized by such inequalities, but I realized that living in Sweden had made me more conscious of how unjust life was for so many. It struck me that living in a country where a politician cannot even get away with the tax payer covering the cost of a toblerone, has definitely reshaped the way I see things. Maybe I too have become a Swede in Africa.
Learn more about Julie Lindahl’s prize-winning new book, “Rose in the Sand,” a memoir of a decade lived on a Swedish island. Other books by Julie Lindahl available are: Letters from the Island (listen also to Julie’s podcasts from this site) and On My Swedish Island: Discovering the Secrets of Scandinavian Well-being.
Julie Lindahl is chairperson at Stories for Society, a non-profit organization dedicated to learning and communication through storytelling.