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.

The identity diamond

The issue of identity has featured rather frequently the past few weeks, not least at a talk I gave on Breaking the Myths around World War 1 in Africa (Feet of Endurance: World War 1 in Africa; images). I am lucky enough to hold dual citizenship however, as I’ve commented to people since the start of the commemorations of the centenary of WW1, and more expecially with recent developments in the UK, my African identity has started to dominate. I regularly hear black colleagues complain about being asked a variety of questions which they interpret as racist. At the conference a young school lad came to me in the break asking how I had remained calm as a member of the audience asked a question about black rank and file soldiers ‘falling to pieces’ when their white officers were killed. How, this young black Zimbabwean asked, could this white man with Rhodesian roots even dare to ask the question he did.

As a white African, I often correct white and black colleagues (in both Britain and on the African continent) when they make the assumption that I am British and have to explain that there are whites who are born in Africa, along with many other cultural groups such as Indian and Arab. Usually this is when the person concerned is moaning about how ignorant British people are of Africa or telling me that ‘you’re responsible for …’, ‘it’s obvious why Africa is so corrupt…’ etc. In one of my discussions following such an introduction, a Nigerian who has spent more years outside of his home country than in it, worked through a variety of identity labels eventually deciding that at heart he was Igbo. An Englishman in the same discussion associated himself with the village he was born rather than where he was brought up. In another context, an Italian living and working in the UK introduced himself as BrItalian – wonderful, I thought, does that really make me BrAfrican? It doesn’t quite work for BrScottish or BrFrench though…

An issue I find rather intriguing is what white South Africans call themselves. I have heard reference to SAE (not self addressed envelope) but South African English but if you listen to white South Africans talk and read historical books, they refer to black South Africans as African. So, what/how do white South Africans see themselves? Epecially being seventh or even eighth generation in the county with little other than tangential cultural links to a few European countries. Interestingly, if someone asks what I am, I’ll say South African but I generally associate more with Africa and sub-Sahara Africa than even South Africa.

I am African, born and bred there, but I’m more than that. I’ve taken on a fair amount of Britishness having lived in that country for so long, but I’m also an educationalist and historian (according to my business card), others describe me as an academic although I don’t have a university or other official academic post. And the list could go on – wife, friend, daughter …

It was an email reference to the ‘fairer sex’ by a male colleague who regularly challenges labels which made me decide to write this post. He wouldn’t have used the term indiscriminately leading me to  wonder what the origin of the term was considering that the women he was referring to (consciously or otherwise) all had dark hair and most, not all of Middle Eastern descent. Given the different uses of the word fair, I can take my pick as to what was meant and not be offended.

A student from the Caribbean once told me that a customer at the place she worked had made a racist comment asking her how she had blue hair (she had blue braids woven in amongst her black braids). For over 10 years now, this comment has stayed with me and I’m no closer to working out how it is racist. Another, also Caribbean, student told me emphatically I shouldn’t be wearing traditional African outfits (…) as in her view I wasn’t African and therefore not allowed to wear what I wanted. These occasions provided opportunties to open conversation and break down barriers. Similarly, the little children in the villages who come walking alongside me taking my hand, turning it over and comparing it to theirs or gently pulling the hairs on my arm – they don’t have any and their hands are two different shades compared to mine. This is curiosity – a way of discovery, learning and developing identity. My A-level French teacher welcomed my confused, often ‘stupid’, questions around the language – she told me she could see I was engaging with the language and working through the anomalies to get to the core (the truth).

And as for the diamond? It’s an analogy for what I am – a human being made up of many different facets. Some shine more brightly than others depending on where you the observer are standing and how closely you want to peer or stare. They say ‘diamonds are a girl’s best friend‘ – I’m not so sure about that really, but I do see some endearing traits in diamonds – steadfast and unchanging (once cut), light reflector and yet transparent and penetrating (they can cut through glass). We’ve put a value on them deciding they’re expensive.

Reading Tim Butcher’s Blood River, I can’t help but recognise the damage assumptions around identity have caused. A discussion group on the book commented how selfish he’d been putting so many people at risk for a personal whim. Perhaps, but if Tim hadn’t undertaken his journey, what misconceptions would many still be holding about the Congo? Diamonds are the consequence of unpleasant levels of heat and pressure – out of horror comes beauty. It depends on how I look at it and choose to interpret what I see. Now more than ever, I try and find the positive in order to build bridges and understanding – the alternative is unthinkable.