The Dark Continent

From early childhood I was fascinated by stories of Africa, peculiarly referred to as the dark continent.  As a young boy, I devoured the tales of Tarzan of the Apes, in both book and comic-book formats, and later through television and movies.  I fancied the entire continent covered in thick jungle, which I would effortlessly travel as Tarzan did, swinging on innumerable vines from tree to tree to tree.

The fact that I wasn’t strong enough to climb the rope-swing in my own backyard didn’t seem to intrude upon those dreams.

Later, as my interest in history grew, I moved on to stories of the intrepid, imperialistic adventurers who sought to colonize the continent for their respective European nations.  Men (they were always men) from Belgium, Britain, France, and Germany rushed to claim vast domains on behalf of king and country.  I imagined myself striding in the company of such worthies as Mungo Park, Richard Burton, John Speke, David Livingstone, Henry Morton Stanley, and Cecil Rhodes, bringing glory and honour to the homeland.


In the space of little more than forty years, beginning in 1870, European control of Africa jumped from 10 percent of its landmass to 90 percent, a stunning demonstration of greed and expansionism.  The most avaricious nation was Britain, which controlled vast tracts, including the Nile valley and the Suez Canal after invading Egypt in 1882.

It didn’t occur to me back then that such heroic deeds resulted in enslavement of the indigenous peoples, and wholesale looting of the continent’s plentiful natural resources—gold, silver, diamonds, salt, petroleum, and cocoa beans among them.  In my callow innocence, I gave no thought to the consequences suffered by the conquered.

Eventually I graduated to a study of the more complex history of warfare in Africa, struggles between European empires fought on African soil.  The Dutch, French, and British, who fought initially against indigenous peoples to steal their land, found themselves inevitably clashing with each other over competing claims.  The most famous of such conflicts are, perhaps, the first and second Boer Wars fought by Dutch settlers against British imperialists in what is now South Africa, the tales of which captured my imagination completely.

No less a personage than Winston Churchill, then a young subaltern in the British army, first made a name for himself after a daring escape from a Boer prisoner-of-war camp.  In school, we learned to sing a stirring song, Marching to Pretoria, which was sung by British soldiers as they made their victorious way to the Boers’ capital city.  I think I was the only one of my classmates to have any inkling of its significance.

My understanding of Africa, therefore, was heavily influenced by a British bias; he who wins the wars writes the history, after all.

Never in my life, however, did I actually visit the dark continent.  Not until now, that is.  As I write this post, I’m sitting in a beautiful room in Aquavit, a delightful Bed & Breakfast overlooking the town of Plettenberg Bay in South Africa, with a view of the Indian Ocean to the left and smoky, blue mountains all around.  Our hosts, Linda and Ole, are not imperialistic plunderers from the past, but expat Americans who call this country home.


It is nothing like the Africa of my youthful ruminations.  The flora and fauna are different from what I’m familiar with, but they are different, too, from the jungle tangle I might have expected from my Tarzan reading.  On our journey by car along the byways of the southeastern coast, we have seen our share of animals not found in North America, of course—baboons, zebras, ostriches, an astonishing variety of antelope—and we shall see many more on an upcoming safari adventure.

Despite the warring history I once lapped up, we have found no enemies of any political persuasion or ethnic background; only a warm, hospitable people who wave and smile at every opportunity.  It has been easy during the three weeks we’ve been travelling here to learn to feel at home.

In the company of good friends, Evelyn and Larry, we have stood at the Cape of Good Hope with the Atlantic Ocean lapping at our feet, and climbed high up on Cape Point, almost the southernmost tip of the country.  We have swum in the Indian Ocean and walked the sandy beaches it pounds with its endless surf.  We have ventured into several off-road places—Table Mountain near Capetown, which we conquered via cable-car; the De Hoop Nature Reserve, where we encountered penguins unique to South Africa; a remote farmhouse where we were treated to a delicious luncheon of salads, cheeses, breads, and wine, all home-grown and produced.  And we have boldly gone under the ground, into the renowned Cango Caves, where we were amazed by the subterranean beauty of the eerie caverns.


The English words to the national anthem truly sum up my impressions of this marvellous country, now that I have seen even a part of it:

Ringing out from our blue heavens, /From the depths of our sea, /Over our everlasting mountains, /Where the echoing crags resound!

Sounds the call to come together, /And united we shall stand, /Let us live and strive for freedom /In South Africa our land!

It has been the trip of a lifetime, and we have three weeks still to go.

Warning! Discretion is Advised

Many cable television programs my wife and I watch are preceded by a statement like this, usually delivered in a weighty baritone as the words appear on the screen:


The following program may contain scenes of violence,

nudity, strong language, and adult themes.

It is intended for mature audiences only.

Viewer discretion is advised.

The warnings are so prevalent, we hardly notice them.  As adults of reasonably sound mind, we’re confident in our ability to choose what to watch, based on our own sense of what is acceptable.

But there is no question that these programs are not appropriate for children.


Similarly, among the books I’ve written and published, there are four novels, crime thrillers, that are not suitable for children, given the graphic nature of some of the situations depicted.  Such scenes are not presented for gratuitous reasons; they are necessary to the stories’ authenticity and credibility.  Consequently, I include the following statement on the copyright page of each book:

This book contains adult language and mature themes.

Reader discretion is advised.

Time was, such warnings would have been unnecessary.  Not because there were no programs or books unsuitable for children; those have always been around.  But there were rules and boundaries designed to protect youngsters from exposure to them—sometimes established and enforced by parents, sometimes by government edict, sometimes by purveyors and sellers of the material.

I can remember there being ‘prime-time programs’ that aired only after I had gone to bed.  And I remember books on high shelves in libraries, for adults only.  I understood and rarely questioned why those were not for me.

Of course, there were loopholes.  Just as enterprising children have always found ways to obtain cigarettes, or to sneak into movie theatres, so also were they able to gain exposure to off-limits programs and books.  Some parents were more lax than mine, so staying overnight with a friend whose folks were out for the evening, for example, might allow an exploration of forbidden territory.  I was amazed to discover how many of my friends’ fathers had stashes of Playboy magazine, supposedly securely hidden from eager, adolescent eyes.

But for the most part, we were sheltered from violence, nudity, and profane language by the social safety-net around us.  We were allowed to discover the adult world in our own good time; and when it confused us, as it often did, we had parents or older friends to help us make sense of it all.

The advent and exponential growth of the global internet over the past three decades has wrought quite a change.  Today’s children (at least those in the developed world) have easy access to e-mail, instant messaging, social networking sites, online games, blogs and forums, interactive video calls, and everything else the worldwide web has to offer.  And it offers a lot, including all the mature-theme stuff that once upon a time was shielded from impressionable minds.

As a writer, I am immensely grateful for the plethora of knowledge the internet makes available to me at the keyboard I haunt—most of it free, accurate, and up-to-date.  I am my own researcher, able to pick and pluck knowledge from an endless number of sources, information which informs the stories I write.  I am nowhere near as intelligent or informed as a reading of those books might imply; but the internet allows me to appear that I am (or so I hope my readers might believe).

The internet, therefore, is not an evil empire in my opinion.  Yes, it’s a living entity, in that it evolves and adapts to the world around, but it has no sentient ability.  It’s just there.  In Latin, hoc est, ideo est—it exists; therefore, it is!


So no, my worry is not that the internet has become an integral part of our lives.  Rather, my concern is with its accessibility to young people who are singularly unprepared to deal with everything it offers.  One doesn’t need to visit the so-called dark web in order to find examples of unspeakable violence, including torture and murder; or graphic pornography, including misogyny and bestiality; or blatant xenophobia, including racism and bigotry.  It’s all available through home computers for anyone to access.

If you doubt that, try surveying the video games that are offered to anyone with access to a credit card.  Many are educational and fun, it’s true; but so many others are extremely violent, the pain and consequences of which are not felt by the gamer who is experiencing the mayhem vicariously.  Don’t like that guy?  Blow him away!

Or take a digital stroll through online blogs and websites that espouse all manner of intolerance and hatred, spewing vitriol and calls-for-action against targeted groups.  Don’t like those people?  Lock ‘em up!

And after you’ve looked at these sites, consider the effect that repeated exposure to them might have on the pliable mind of a ten-year-old, for example.  We hear too often these days about ‘home-grown terrorists’ who attack innocent people, including children in schools and worshippers in churches and mosques.  And in so many cases, they are exactly that—home-grown, shaped and motivated by their insidious and lonely online pursuits.

So how can this exposure of children to the unsavoury aspects of the internet be stopped?  What is the answer?  Censorship?

In our democratic society, with its sacrosanct belief in free speech, censorship is a dirty word.  And how could it be accomplished, anyway?  Would issuing warnings like this have any discernible effect?


The internet contains sites featuring extreme violence, including

murder; hateful language, including racist and religious pejoratives;

misogyny, including rape and mutilation; xenophobic representations, including

torture and enslavement; and other similar depictions intended to titillate and amuse.

It is intended for mature, autonomous, and socially well-adjusted audiences only.

User discretion is advised.

I think not.  In fact, I believe it must come back to what it’s always been—the nurturing of young minds by caring and conscientious parents, family and friends, and teachers.  And these guardians of children (and the children themselves) need to know that it’s okay to impose limits, to set boundaries, and to refuse permissions.  Not forever, and not to the point of stifling curiosity and the desire to learn.  But for long enough to allow children’s brains to experience childhood and adolescence before being exposed to the more unsavoury aspects of adulthood.


In his poem, The Rainbow, William Wordsworth wrote, “The Child is father of the Man…”, widely interpreted to mean that who we become as adults is irrevocably determined by how we are shaped as children.

I often consider who today’s youngsters, children of the internet and all it proffers, will be when they are grown.

And I wonder, if I were still here, whether I would like them.