In her early twenties, Majella Cullinane set out to explore Africa, the continent she had longed to visit since reading Out of Africa as a teenager in her homeland, Ireland. But in Mozambique, Cullinane suddenly found herself in the grips of a culture shock so severe that it threatened to overwhelm all her previous notions of personal identity. Now a writer herself, Cullinane reflects on the visceral terror of that experience:
You lie awake in a small room. Lightning illuminates the dressing table, the chair, the curtains. Thunder bruises the night sky with a fist of rage. The rain comes down hard, like a deluge of nails on a corrugated iron roof. It is this sound that takes you back. Up and away to a ninth floor apartment, to another continent. A levitating memory. Where you find yourself in another room, this one marble floored with a high ceiling.
You pull back the mosquito net and walk into the living room. Your flatmate is standing in the dark, a look of pleasure on her face as lightning fills the room and thunder booms. A sound like you’ve never heard before. As close to combat as you can imagine, like cannons in the sky. Back home your flatmate drives tractors and has always dreamed of Africa.
It was Isak Dinesen’s book that enticed you here, but that was a different part of Africa, a different time. And neither your flatmate nor Dinesen can peer inside your throat now, no one can see the lump tightening there each day as you struggle to take it all in – the mosquitoes, the cockroaches, the one-armed man, maimed in the civil war, who stands outside a café with a begging bowl; how as the colonialists left they filled the city’s water pipes with concrete, riddled the earth with landmines. And the cluster of street children milling in front of the apartment building reminds you of how crows assemble in graveyards at home, full of chatter and news. You’ve stopped smoking but it hasn’t made any difference. There is still that sense that, something like a bolt or a rivet inside your throat is being tightened making sleep impossible. Early mornings you find yourself awake before dawn looking at the grey-blue sky, the rats nine floors down roaming the rubbish bins. At night you listen to mosquitoes hovering around the net, your skin drenched in sweat. If you stay you could look like that young American someday, the one with malaria, slumped in a couch at a party you went to recently. His skin pale, his cheek bones and eyes sunken, the bones so prominent that his face might be a lesson in anatomy. A beautiful, haunted face, a body that had barely enough energy to lift a glass of water. Today is a bad day he said. Yes, you said, yes. You could imagine.
Up on that ninth floor, cradled by a mosquito net, you fall into dreams. You see a friend of yours, Gordy, with white blond hair and eyelashes, his blue eyes smiling. He’s on a train, telling you to hurry up. It’s leaving soon. The door closes and the train moves away. You wake up weeping and look at the time. You are back now to wherever it is you think you belong.
Majella Cullinane is a PhD candidate in Creative Practice at the Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies, University of Otago, Dunedin. Originally from Ireland, she’s lived in New Zealand since 2008. In 2014 she was awarded the Robert Burns Fellowship. She published her first collection, Guarding The Flame in 2011, (Salmon Poetry) and her second is forthcoming in 2018. She lives in Port Chalmers with her partner Andrew and their son Robbie.