Joburg Expat: Top Gear and Why Africa Stays in Your Blood Forever

February 9, 2015

Top Gear and Why Africa Stays in Your Blood Forever

Do you have a teenage son? If you do, you might be familiar with dinner conversations that start with "In Top Gear, Jeremy Clarkson said..."

For a while, EVERYTHING 15-year old Jabulani wanted to tell us started with those words. Jeremy Clarkson and his two sidekicks were like demigods who could do no wrong. We were treated to endless recountings of Top Gear episodes, which cars they entailed, why this or that one was better than the other, how those guys got out of a tight spot and what kind of tricks they played on each other... It just went on and on and on, so I finally did what every good mother does: I decided to watch an episode with him, even though cars are the very last thing that interests me. (Or not the last, as I spend half my life in one, it seems. They just don't interest me as an object of desire. They interest me as an object of convenience and as such I take them for granted.).

Jabulani, to his credit, picked well. He was so thrilled that I would watch his favorite show with him that he chose the episode he thought I was most likely to enjoy: The Africa Special.

And he was right. I was instantly hooked.

(Real quick, if you don't know Top Gear, give it a try. It really is an entertaining show. It's basically all about cars, and about three guys who test different cars in the weirdest competitions they can think of, which always seem to result in the partial dismantling or blowing-up or perhaps even sinking to the bottom of a body of water of said cars. But the best feature of the show is the British humor. You can't watch without laughing out loud at their antics and jokes repeatedly. You can totally have no interest in cars whatsoever and still love this show.)

The Africa Special is the one where Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May set out to find the source of the river Nile. In three cars, of course, each one of them less suited to the task than the other. Their journey takes them through Uganda and Rwanda, and then across Lake Victoria into Tanzania and the Serengeti. They have to rely on pure ingenuity to keep going and adapt their cars to the task at hand, and at times they have to rely on the help of the people around them.

James May, Jeremy Clarkson, and Richard Hammond in Top Gear Africa Special. 

And that gets me to the theme of this post. There is a scene in there where all their cars get stuck in the mud. Almost instantly, it seems, a few barefooted locals materialize and help out by "building" a new road and pushing the cars and generally working hard while making it look as if there is nothing in the world they'd rather be doing at the time.

How often I have witnessed just such a scene while living in Africa! It is, to me, the epitome of that continent. Sure, there is the sweeping savannah; the majestic animals; the stunning sunsets; the smell of the first rain after five months of drought; the mesmerizing colors of red dirt against deep blue sky; the cry of the hadeda; the bustle and the jostling and the vibrancy in its cities; and the stately elegance of the women carrying loads on their heads. All that is Africa, but what has stayed with me the most about our life in Africa is the kindness of its people. The way a crowd forms instantly when there is a problem. The way everyone offers his or her opinion, in a genuine effort to help. The way no one is in a rush to get back to his own issues and problems and seems to have nothing better to do than helping you with yours. The way you are greeted with smiles wherever you go, everyone ready with a joke to lighten the mood. The way you just can't help but feel calmer and more at peace after such interactions. The way everything seems right with the world when you're in Africa, even if so many things are wrong.

I couldn't find an image of the mud scene, but this was another one I enjoyed. Africa teaches
you ingenuity. Photo www.TopGear.co.za

Its people, more than anything else, make Africa special to me, and why I can't seem to get it out of my blood. Have I wished, while living there, that things were more efficient? That people would focus on the task at hand? That they would do what they said they'd do so that I could check stuff off my list neat and tidy, like my American efficient Type A personality demanded it? You bet I have. Many times. But I also know this: All the people who've ever helped me in Africa - the many times I had a flat tire, for instance - might have been dropping some other task they were working on and without a moment's hesitation lent me a helping hand.

Top Gear might not be the best example to showcase African kindness. Who knows, maybe they staged the whole thing to make it a good production. They probably often do. But I don't care. Watching the Africa Special made me long for Africa.

Watch it, and tell me what you think!

While we're showing pictures of trucks being shipped on a river, I couldn't resist sticking in
this one I found on Africa, this is why I live here's Facebook page