Lessons learned in wild Africa

By Sammy Wu, Pasadena City College Courier, 2/26/2015

Justin Chapman, alumni of Pasadena City College and University of California, Berkeley, has many accomplishments under his belt.

At age 19, he began writing for the Pasadena Weekly, and from there, went on to publish news-breaking stories for over 20 leading publications, including LA Weekly, Berkeley Political Review, and Patch.com. At 19 years old, he was also the youngest elected member to serve on the Altadena Town Council, beating out the 57-year-old vice chairman of the council by earning 63 percent of the vote.

Now with the release of his book, Saturnalia: Traveling from Cape Town to Kampala in Search of an African Utopia, he can add author to his resume.

The book centers on his three-month excursion across Africa in Spring 2012 from Cape Town, South Africa, to Mityana, Uganda. During the journey, he barely avoided being institutionalized in a mental hospital, stayed in a poor township that valued art-making, was almost killed in a car accident, wandered about the mythical Zanzibar island, watched a witchcraft healing ceremony, and relapsed into his heroin addiction, all while hunting for compelling stories and finding love in the most unexpected of places.

The book, which is intended as a travel diary and an anthropological journal, grew out of a series of blog posts collectively called “Saturnalia: A Trek Through the Lands of Lawlessness.” The posts were infused with intense and often overwhelming emotions because Chapman would write his experiences as they were happening to him. He said many people were moved by his stories and waiting to see what would happen next. Such reaction was what motivated him to turn the blog into a paperback book.

The process of writing the book was difficult and time-consuming, for contrary to what Chapman initially thought, it took much more than just simply copying and pasting. Yet, the process was also cathartic because he learned a lot about himself—his limitations and his strengths.

And now he hopes that he could somehow inspire other readers, particularly those from this generation, about the undiscovered gems of Africa, as well as the lessons he learned along the way.

“I hope that the book will open people’s eyes to the real Africa, beyond what is depicted in television documentaries and fleeting media accounts of atrocities and struggles,” said Chapman. “The stories Saturnalia contains and the conclusions it draws are important and should not be passed over or forgotten.”

“This book can be beneficial and influence in positive ways the relationship people in the rest of the world have with Africa. There are remarkable changes going on in Africa and people should know about them,” he added.

The book has already garnered positive reviews from a myriad of renowned writers.

“Chapman’s vivid prose turns every paragraph into a photograph of a strange, dangerous but alluring land. As his characters indulge themselves with sometimes reckless abandon, the author communicates a sense of adventure for adventure’s sake and draws the reader into riding along without hesitation,” said Joe Piasecki, editor of The Argonaut and former Los Angeles Times reporter.

Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting, Skagboys, and The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins, called the book “the perfect metaphor for contemporary American youth, painfully trying to work through its own baggage, and openly and sincerely seeking to engage with the world beyond the USA’s established physical and cultural borders.”

Chapman originally planned on staying in Africa to become a diplomat for the U.S. Foreign Service in Africa. He even took an exam for a placement in the department, and he passed the first round, which only 3,000 of the 20,000 applicants pass annually. He did not pass the second round of exams, but he wanted to try again had he not met and fell in love with his fiancée, Mercedes Blackehart, upon coming back to America.

He now resides in Pasadena, California, with Mercedes and their dog Fiona, cats Mason and Dixon, and tortoise Stockton. He is the secretary for three board of directors: ACLU Pasadena/ Foothills chapter, Men Educating Men About Health, and West Pasadena Resident’s Association. In addition, he is the Project Fellow at the USC Annenberg Center for Communication Leadership and Policy.