Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Books for an African Trip

African taxi drivers are usually pretty nice and often offer to help put your bag in the car – but when they take mine they grimace.

My trusty red duffel bag weighs a ton, and most of it is reading matter. Along with my notebooks and an ever-expanding file folder of copied articles, I’ve been lugging around a little mini-traveler’s library to keep me occupied on the many nights when the TV reception is bad or the language incomprehensible.

Here’s what I’ve read so far:

“The Invisible Cure: Africa, the West and the Fight Against AIDS” by Helen Epstein. This is depressing in more ways than one. Epstein does a masterful job chronicling many of the missteps and bad judgments that have marked the world community’s response to Africa’s AIDS crisis. She’s got a bee in her bonnet about U.N. agencies and Western aid groups and she marshals the facts to show that in many cases the “AIDS establishment” has done more harm than good. For a reporter, it is both thrilling and daunting so see someone else tackle the subject so well.

“The Scramble For Africa” by Robert Pakenham. Clocking in at around 750 pages, this is a blow-by-blow account of Europe’s various colonial enterprises in Africa during the latter half of the 19th Century. He delves with equal passion into better known sagas (Stanley and Livingstone, the Boer War, Cecil Rhodes) as well as tales perhaps less familiar to English-speaking readers including the formation of French Equatorial Africa, the revolts against the Germans in East and Southern Africa, and Italy’s war with Ethiopia. It is, perforce, more about diplomatic dealings in European capitals than about the impact these had on African states and peoples, but it’s an amazingly comprehensive and often thrilling account of what happened.

“After the Party” by Andrew Feinstein. Feinstein is a former MP for South Africa’s ruling ANC who grew increasingly frustrated and disillusioned with Thabo Mbeki’s government. Here he sets out what he thinks went wrong (paranoid leadership style, blind eye toward corruption) and calls for a “new politics” to revive South Africa’s great experiment. Probably too much inside baseball for most readers, but a heartfelt analysis of where one semi-insider thinks things went wrong in the post-Mandela era.

“Dinner with Mugabe” by Heidi Holland. Holland, a South African journalist, is a friend of mine and had amazing timing with this book, a sort of psycho-biography of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. She was the last foreign journalist to get an exclusive interview with him before this year’s disputed election. She concludes that Mugabe is a spurned Anglophile with mother issues – an interesting take if perhaps of little comfort to Zimbabwe’s suffering people.

“In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz” by Michela Wrong. A former Reuters journalist who went to work for the Financial Times, Wrong’s book takes us through the rise and fall of Zaire’s Mobutu. No mother issues here, just a lot of excessive greed, bad taste, and thirst for power. As they say in the trades, “rollicking”.

“The Wizard and the Crow” by Ngugi wa Thiong'o. This is a great fictional counterpoint to the two books cited above, and all the more interesting because it is by one of Africa’s most prolific and interesting writers. Wa Thiong'o paints a lengthy, magical realist fable of a mythical African country where “The Ruler” sets his people to building a new Tower of Babel. His chief advisor, meanwhile, grows enormous eyes to better see the Ruler’s enemies while the number two in the cabinet sets about growing enormous ears the better to hear of plots against him. Weird, wonderful (and long).

I’m going to be sticking all these books in the mail when I get back to South Africa and sending them home – so I hope my bag will be a bit lighter.

Not mentioned above was the three day British “chick lit” binge (“Confessions of a Mad Housewife”, “Lessons for an New Divorcee” etc) that occurred in Lamu thanks to the leavings of previous guests. I don’t remember anything about any of them except a vague feeling of queasiness