I went through a thing of African travel narratives a few months ago and there are some great ones. You can’t go wrong if you start with Mungo Park’s Travels in the Interior of Africa. He wanders through West Africa in the 1790s and he’s curious, inquisitive and not judgemental. He asks questions, good questions, and considers the answers in such a way as to give the impression he respects those who answered. Which is not to say that he’s some kind of missionary for égalité, fraternité and universal brotherhood, he’s not. For parts of his second journey (about 1803-1805) he keeps aloof from the indigenous population, attempting to minimize misadventure. It didn’t play out that way as he was ambushed in Yauri, part of what is now Nigeria. Travels in the Interior of Africa is very good; you can really wallow in the eighteenth century prose providing a wonderful sense of openness, really dreamy.
Jeffrey Tayler is a writer who journalist who works in Russia, his work about Putin’s state is thoughtful and interesting. Facing the Congo is a narrative about his canoe journey down the Congo River. I want to like it more than I do but ultimately the journey isn’t about the Congo, it’s about Jeff Tayler. It’s a cool project but I couldn’t help but feel that the coolness was all reflected glory, reflected off the river. Africa is rendered the site for the aspirations of middle aged white men. A colonial gesture if there ever was one. The only redeeming feature of Facing the Congo is that when the aspirations fail to reach a suitably successful climax Tayler doesn’t turn on Africa, he recognises that the project was doomed from the start because of the baggage he brought with him.
Redmond O’Hanlon’s Congo Journey is all about the baggage, the frames for belief and faith that are carried in order to make sense of the world, and the failure of that baggage to be carried by Africa. Telling the story of O’Hanlon’s journey across the Republic of the Congo searching for a hidden lake and a forgotten non extinct dinosaur the book doesn’t admit to being either fiction or anything else but it is densely compelling. It begins with the underlying assumption that the mysteries of Africa are available for white people to solve, and derive some first world kudos from that extraction. The density of the work is unpicking the underlying assumptions of the idea of an exploratory journey, of discovering anything at all. Congo Journey slowly, methodically reimagines Africa as a site unreadable to white people, a language not spoken. Congo Journey is a very fine book.
Another book that happily fails to make sense of Africa is Matthew Green’s The Wizard of the Nile: the Hunt for Africa’s Most Wanted. Unlike Congo Journey Green’s book is obsessively literal, providing a nice clear narrative backbone for the ongoing first world anxiety about unregulated spaces, including those bits of the Congo, Uganda, Rwanda and the Sudan where law and order isn’t as high a priority as elsewhere. Chasing Joseph Kony, Green follows this lead, follows that lead, hears something there, chases it up over here. He doesn’t find him, and by the end we don’t know much more about Joseph Kony that we did already. But at every step Green adds complexity to what we thought we knew. Everything that we might think we know about Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army is taken down and examined for provenance and use. The context Green provides elaborately makes it unclear what’s going on, why it is happening, and what can be done. This uncertainty is wonderfully refreshing, ain’t no IMF solutions here.