What shaped my life most was the movie "King Solomon's Mines" that I was able to watch in 1953, at the tender age of 13. I was so thrilled by the mysterious world of Africa, as it was portrayed in the movie, that I decided to devote the rest of my life to this continent. And to some extent I did. Upon joining the University of Cologne in 1959, I enrolled in African Studies (/Afrikanistik/) as my major. But then I was told by my professor that in order to understand what is going on in Africa I needed to acquire some essentials of linguistics -- considering that the best access to the continent was via the study of the 2000-plus languages spoken there. Remembering my earlier experience of linguistics in school, I was on the verge of giving up all my dreams. But my dreams were stronger: I did everything that was required in order to get to Africa, and in the following decades I undertook roughly 25 field research trips to Africa, and spent six wonderful years as a visiting professor at the University of Nairobi in Kenya.
The kind of Africa that I learned to love was no longer the world of Deborah Kerr and Stewart Granger, but it was even more fascinating than that world. I feel now more at home when traveling in West or East Africa than when traveling in Japan, the USA, or my home country Germany. But there was a second turn in my life. In 1975, at Ohio State University, I presented all the fascinating findings I had made on the typology of African languages, only to be told by one colleague in the audience that what I had presented had little in common with genuine scholarship. Not enough, that colleague, Tom Givón, wrote what I thought was a devastating review of a book on African language typology that I published in 1976. When trying to respond to that review I became aware that Tom was absolutely right, and my academic perspective changed dramatically: Rather than continuing to work on linguistic taxonomy I became interested in finding out why languages are structured the way they are, that is, in explanation. And Tom and I became friends. This new orientation entailed that I extended my work from African languages to other languages, and I became genuinely interested in linguistics and everything that goes with it -- even if my heart is still in Africa.