I enjoyed this book because it presented interesting topics:
- Thought-provoking questions
- Rich descriptions of places
- Horror stories
- Good history nuggets
- Ideas for off-the-beaten-path places to visit.
Let’s go through these briefly…
While a book about travel, certainly part of travel is gaining an understanding of the local situation (at least for me). The author helps the reader gain an understanding of the current state and what makes it difficult for Africa to break bad cycles. For example, he points out how education in some of the countries suffers because those that have education and could be teachers are pulled by foreign NGOs for other activities (though I think he misses the point that often what those people go do is to try to help while also further developing capacity in these would-be teachers). He also discusses with people he meets the issues introduced by corruption and mis-management without writing a dissertation about it.
One thing that was unfortunate is that the author seemed interested in putting down NGOs (“the agents of virtue in white Land-Rovers”) wherever he could which is unfortunate since many do very good work on behalf of those in need (even if not all are perfect; many have learned and evolved their approaches). It is unfortunate in my opinion since it gives the impression that he has a chip on his shoulder and, as a reader, that diminishes my appreciation for his critical thinking (though it does not impact my appreciation of his writing effort). Also, I would worry that readers unfamiliar with the questions and topics involved may just take his word for it.
Rich descriptions of places
The rich descriptions he captures of what he sees make you want to explore the places he visits. For example, this is his description of Bayna l-Qasrayn, a street in Cairo:
“Perhaps the oldest inhabited street in the high-density city of Cairo, one thousand years of donkey droppings, hawkers’ wagons, barrow boys, veiled women, jostling camels, hand-holding men, and hubble-bubble smoker, among mosques and princes’ palaces, and a bazaar with shops selling trinket, brass pots and sack of beans…”
I also enjoyed relating to some of his observations, not dissimilar to my own. For example, in many hotels in Egypt there are metal detectors. I often wondered what were they really good for should someone just decide to park a truck full of explosives in front of a hotel. He is much more eloquent than me as he shares his observations on security while in Aswan:
“There were metal detectors at the entrances to most buildings though they were seldom used and seemed more symbolic than practical… Certainly the electricity supply was unreliable and there seemed to be a labor shortage. The armed men, with assault rifles slung at their sides, meant to reassure the tourists simply looked sinister and added to the atmosphere of menace.”
His description of travel through southern Ethiopia and Kenya to Nairobi is filled with frustrating anecdotes and mis-adventures. Unhelpful government people, bad roads, vehicle breakdowns, touts and thieves, etc. all color this part of trip. You suffer with him and then remember to be happy you are not him. Good reading though!
Good history nuggets
The book also included great nuggets of history which certainly pleased this fan of history. It informed me about Italy’s horrible choices when it came to Ethiopia since the late 19th century – a story I had never heard about. In 1896, the Ethiopians trounced 20,000 invaders from the Italian army at Adwa (a place I had never heard of). Those poor young men, sent there by crazy leadership ill-equipped, for no good reason, to die or otherwise suffer. Unfortunately, all these created resentment that the Fascists in the 1930s wanted to act on. So off they went (with poison gas and all) to invade Ethiopia whose fighters were still using the same weapons from the 1896 era… (Don’t mean to pick on Italy, by the way… History is loaded with ugly decisions by many!)
Ideas for off-the-beaten places to visit
The book introduces a reader like me to places I had never ever heard of but that I may enjoy visiting. For example, his inclusion of Lalibela in Ethiopia where there are twelfth century Coptic churches carved into the mountains adds to my already-existing desire to explore Ethiopia!
One of the pieces of wisdom he heard in north Sudan during this safari struck me as universally true and is my favorite quote of the book:
“The criterion is how you treat the weak. The measure of civilized behavior is compassion.” – Sadig el Mahdi
While the author can come across a little self-absorbed or sanctimonious, the story of his crossing Africa overland is gripping and well-written, sharing a lot more than just a narrative of adventures and mis-adventures. I wish I could do that trip… Maybe.