You can’t win

This tweet caught my eye:

 

I’m not an expert on Ngugi’s work and I haven’t read Maya Jasanoff’s book on Congo, but I have read Conrad’s Dark Heart of Africa and am still, if I’m honest, working out what all the fuss is about (I feel the same about JM Coetzee’s Disgrace). My apparent lack of sensitivity might well be due to my having grown up white during Apartheid South Africa so am immune to comments others might find inappropriate, but I do believe I’ve overcome that thanks to the values of equality and humanity instilled in me by my parents and reinforced in my work across and with different cultures both in Africa and the UK (it’s as much a ‘country’ as Africa is).

I take my hat off to Ngugi for writing what he believed whatever his motivations. That his comments go against the mainstream view should be embraced as an opportunity to dig deeper. A point that’s been driven home more than most in 2017 is the differences across Africa. This particularly revolves around WW1 – reading the texts I have and working with Diversity House on their Breaking the Myths project has exposed me to life in West Africa in a way I hadn’t experienced it before: first hand from people who grew up there. And thanks to some West African historians who have managed to get heard outside of Africa (George Ngung in particular) it’s become clear that the West African experience, most studied by white Eurocentric historians (in Britain, America and Europe), has been the dominant one and coloured the reality of recruiting and military life in East Africa. I’ve got to this point the painful way – by assuming that experiences and reasons for things happening in East and Southern Africa are representative of what was happening in West Africa. Aikona! as we say in the south.

Bearing my journey in mind, I can only begin to imagine what Ngugi is/was thinking of when he wrote the review. It shouldn’t be discounted because he approves of what is currently regarded as ‘unfashionable’. It should rather be an inspiration to dig for the truth. Juxtapose this with Peter Hoeg’s short story Journey into a Dark Heart in Tales of the Night (which includes von Lettow Vorbeck visiting Congo in 1929) and both Conrad and Lettow Vorbeck are not the men one might have thought…

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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.