Africa and The Metaphysics of Toothpaste

When I was 16, I traveled alone to Africa. The country was Guinea-Bissau, which was a Portuguese colony until 1974. When my mother was pregnant with me, back in 1971, she was a teacher in Guinea-Bissau; even though I was born in Portugal, you could say that this was the second time I traveled to Africa – the first time in a womb, the second independently.
It was a cultural and philosophical shock for me. Africa was like another planet. Time went slower, poverty was incredible; they had none of the consumerist or relatively comfortable environment I was used to in Paris, where I lived.
I remember the humidity in the air, and the scents of palm trees mixed with the perspiration of the earth under extreme heat. None of what I could see was ordinary. But it felt friendly. I was a curious teenager, and was ready for the adventure. At the same time, I wanted to understand. How can a nation develop in a new way after so many years of Western domination? I could see that people looked poor, but it took more time to understand that they might not be sad about their lives. It was I who was actually sad after several days, and felt lonely and lost.
One day I met a king in the middle of the jungle. He was the king of a group of villages. He was dressed like a European man, with an old suit: this was higher status. To me it was just an old suit. Here was an experience of cultural relativity. There is so much in our lives and our society that we think is natural and serious but it’s just a costume party of conventions. The Swedish king is no less absurd than this little African village king. We see ourselves as civilized, but sometimes we are like superstitious children. When I traveled back to France, I could just stand in a supermarket for example, looking at the ten different brands of toothpaste, and wondering: why do we need ten different brands of toothpaste?
This trip taught me to focus on what is important, basic. Just several weeks after that, I decided that in the future I would write books to understand the human condition.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Comments (



Create a website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: