Greenlights: Matthew McConaughey in South Africa

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Greenlights" by Matthew McConaughey. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Did Matthew McConaughey go to South Africa in Greenlights? How did this experience change him?

In his book Greenlights, Matthew McConaughey discusses spending time in South Africa, and how this was a truly life-changing time for him. As he explored the African continent and met people, he continued to develop his identity and sense of self.

Read more about Matthew McConaughey, his South Africa trip, and what he says he learned in Greenlights.

Chasing the Dream: Matthew McConaughey Goes to South Africa

Three days after principal photography on Reign of Fire ended, Matthew had an exact repeat of his wet dream from several years earlier, complete with the same incongruous splicing of the Amazon with African tribesmen. This time, to pursue the dream’s meaning he chose to go to Africa.

Be Different, Not Sorry

He started by finding a guide, Issa, to help him navigate the African continent in pursuit of his dream’s meaning. For the first leg of his journey, he decided to track down one of his favorite musicians, the guitarist Ali Farka Touré. From the liner notes to a CD, he learned that the man lived in Niafunké, Mali. So Issa guided him there by boat, traveling up the Niger river, and the two of them spent a day having lunch with Ali and his wife. When Matthew asked Ali why he performed in West Africa and France but not elsewhere, he found the man’s reply striking: Ali said he would be nothing but dried shit—leaving no scent—in other places, whereas in Africa and France he was wet shit, so that his scent stayed with people.

After leaving Ali, Matthew learned from Issa that some people who lived nearby, called the Dogon, were said to have received an extraterrestrial transmission of astronomical knowledge long before the birth of modern astronomy. Matthew took this as a mystical sign in alignment with his dream, and they traveled up the Niger to visit the Dogon.

On the way to see the Dogon, Matthew and Issa stopped at Timbuktu and visited with two of Issa’s friends, Ali and Amadou. The interaction taught Matthew a different way of communication than what Americans are used to, one based not on the attempt to win arguments but on the attempt to understand another person better. 

At the hotel, they all noticed a young woman who was a prostitute. Ali and Amadou began to argue over whether she should or should not be living that way. When Matthew interjected that he thought Ali, who disagreed with the prostitution, was right, both Ali and Amadou told him sharply that it wasn’t a matter of “right” or “wrong” but of understanding. When Matthew sheepishly said he was sorry, Amadou told him not to be sorry, but to be different.

Leave Your Scent

When Matthew and Issa eventually reached the Dogon people, he learned an important lesson about accepting challenges even if you think you’re destined to lose. He and Issa visited several Dogon villages, where Matthew—still bald, bearded, and ruggedly healthy from Reign of Fire—told everyone he met that he was a writer and boxer named David. At the village of Begnemato, the village’s champion wrestler, Michel, challenged Matthew to a wrestling match in a dirt pit. Although a bit apprehensive, Matthew accepted when he reflected that if he refused, he would live the rest of his life wondering if he could have faced such a challenge. The village crowd went wild with excitement.

Surrounded by the cheering villagers, and refereed by the chief, Matthew and Michel fought two brutal rounds in the pit, with Matthew holding his own against Michel’s powerful attacks. Matthew emerged bruised and bloody, far worse for the wear than Michel. But the chief held up both of their hands and declared the match a tie. The villagers chanted enthusiastically, “Daouda! Daouda!” (“David” in Bambara, the local dialect). 

When Matthew left the village the next day, Michel met him at its edge and walked with him 15 miles to the next village, holding his hand and saying nothing. That night, Issa told Matthew that everybody had expected Matthew to lose the wrestling match because Michel was actually the champion not just of Begnemato but three other villages. He said winning was really just about accepting the challenge. When Matthew accepted, he had already won. Matthew took this as another greenlight. He realized that he had left his “scent” with the Dogon people, just like Ali Farka had talked about.

Turn the Page

Upon his return to Los Angeles, Matthew felt changed. In Africa he had felt fully at home, relaxed, and settled into his real self with his new friends. Now this left him with no tolerance for the glittering, chattering hedonism of the Chateau.

So he left the Chateau and headed for the beach, where he lived for the next few years, trading fancy suits for shorts and a surfboard. This was the period when the media rebranded him as the shirtless rom-com guy with a surfboard. And he did indeed star in a slew of rom-coms, including How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, Sahara, and Failure to Launch. He found such movies enjoyable to make, regarding each one as a gift of breezy fun to the audience. 

However, after a while he began to feel as if he had become an entertainer instead of an actor. The rom-coms felt too easy. They no longer nourished his creative spirit. He felt more enlarged and deepened from his traveling than from his career. This feeling grew so pronounced that he began to consider leaving the acting profession altogether, maybe to become a writer or teacher, or maybe a musician or football coach. Matthew remembered a philosophy he’d learned from the late Darrel Royal, football coach at the University of Texas: Your life is a book, and when you need a change, you can just “turn the page.” It was this kind of page-turning transition that Matthew felt he now needed.

Looking for a change, and laying seeds for a possible new future, he bought a new house in the Hollywood hills, one with a big yard and enough space for a family.

Greenlights: Matthew McConaughey in South Africa

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Matthew McConaughey's "Greenlights" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Greenlights summary:

  • How "greenlights" help you confirm if you're on the right path
  • How McConaughey switched college choices because of family finances
  • Why family is at the center of everything for McConaughey, no matter what's happening in his career

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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