Review of Blood River by Tim Butcher: Lost in Translation

Blood River came highly recommended with the result that I put it on the backburner so as not to be disappointed if it didn’t live up to my expectations. Another reason it hadn’t moved up my reading list was that although it dealt with the Congo, an area I’d been working on, I understood it not to cover the Lake Tanganyika region which was my specific interest in relation to World War 1.

So, when the opportunity arose to read it for a book group I belong to, I took it and personally was not disappointed. In fact, I could relate to many of Tim’s experiences – not that I’ve done the intense ravel he has, but our little bits along the east coast of Lake Tanganyika amongst others gave a flavour. And then, without being specific, there was reference to the Lake Tanganyika Expedition with railways still being in place as well as other remnants – all rusted and no longer used. This will make it into volume 2 or 3 of The Lake Tanganyika Expedition chronology – one of those fortuitous finds.

The group overall found the book a good read – naturally it didn’t suit all tastes but everyone who started it, finished it – unlike Tess. What divided the group was Tim’s reason for doing the route and a few were rather upset that he had put people’s lives in danger for what they saw as a selfish, personal endeavour.

To some extent, I could see their point, but I also know Africa in a different context – people will tell you something is possible, difficult, but possible, and it’s only after you’re some way down the line or at the end of your journey that you become aware of the danger you and they have been exposed to. We’ve had this twice during our travels in East Africa. Once when our vehicle broke down in the Tsavo area eighteen years ago (it was a little unsafe then but now no longer – the road is tarred and far busier), and then nearly seven years ago when a tyre needed replacing travelling by road from Kitavi to Kigoma along the lake – uninhabited bandit territory – not a place to linger and observe the beauty of the huge balancing rocks or garafu as they’re locally known.

If it wasn’t for people like Tim and Paul Theroux (Dark Star Safari) undertaking apparently selfish journeys, changes and conditions in parts of Africa (and elsewhere) would go unnoticed. Historians, social anthropologists, sociologists and others have some record of how things are and have changed. Yes, the material has been processed and adapted to fit a narrative, but it’s more than we had previously. I was also rather relieved that I’d made a decision – a difficult one – not to join a group in covering the footsteps of the Lake Tanganyika Expedition – my gut had felt uncomfortable, although excited, until I firmly made the decision I’d be more of a hindrance than what my historical knowledge could contribute. Reading Blood River confirmed my gut instinct and at some level I’m rather pleased the expedition hasn’t been able to take place, although I do hope it does at some point (willing funders please get in touch).

So, why did I call this review ‘Lost in translation’? Simply, because we translate everything we read through a lens of our experiences. How I understood Blood River contrasted with the rest of the group who are all British and retired. One had visited South Africa on a few occasions and although she had witnessed some poverty there, it wasn’t to the same extent as one finds in rural Africa. I find it fascinating discovering how those of us with Africa in our blood interpret /see things differently to people with British and other backgrounds. And I definitely interpret things in Britain differently to what my British-born friends do. It works both ways. We’re similar, yet not.

Thank you Tim for giving our group a stimulating discussion and which allowed me an outsiders’ view on a continent I love (warts and all).

Tim did gain some Brownie points when the group discovered that he’s patron of a medical charity in Malawi – AMECA. Both Blood River and Dark Star Africa were recommended, by amongst others, Ruthie Markus, founder of AMECA.

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One thought on “Review of Blood River by Tim Butcher: Lost in Translation

  1. Pingback: Practise what you preach or Do as I say…? | Anne Samson - Historian

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