Paperback cover for <cite>Zanzibar Chest</cite>
Paperback cover for Zanzibar Chest

I borrowed this book from another volunteer and sped through it during my travels through Tanzania, Rwanda, and Uganda a few weeks ago. I’ve seen tons of books in this genre since I’ve been in Kenya. If you have been to a bookstore recently you know the type: it’s kinda like a “new age” travel writing, but instead of martinis and beach resorts you get rebel militias, cow dung, and grass huts. Last year I read Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari, where he spent a few months traveling by land from Egypt to South Africa (and every country in between). During Kenya’s post-election violence earlier this year I read Emma’s War, about a VSO volunteer in Sudan who married a rebel warlord and lived in the bush with him and his militia. Sara read one about a white European woman who ended up marrying a Maasai warrior and living in the bush with him (The White Maasai). There’s no shortage of this stuff, and I bet they are selling like hot cakes in Western book shops!

Having said that, if you’re looking for a foray into this genre, I will recommend Aidan Hartley’s The Zanzibar Chest. It’s a great mix of politics, history, and travel (in a weird sort of way). The author is a white Kenyan, the son of a long line of colonial British officers, who writes about his experiences tramping around Africa as a war correspondent for various news wire agencies. He’s a great writer and he has a decent sense of humor. Not the “Knock knock, who’s there?” type, but more like the way he perceives things and his matter-of-fact presentation of some pretty far-out situations. For example, he was walking through a remote village in Somalia and he sees an old man strolling into the market with a swarm of bees following him. His guide tells him that the old man had hid the queen bee in his turban so the entire colony was following him—a great trick to get your bees to the market for sale!

Continue Reading

Books, Rants

I’m reading David Barsamian’s collection of interviews with Arundhati Roy, The Chequebook and the Cruise-Missile, and I came across something that made me crack up:

“But still, how are you going to persuade a Naga sadhu–whose life mission has been to stand naked on one leg for twenty years or to tow a car with his penis–that he can’t live without Coca-Cola?” page 17

… a reference to the uphill battle the West faces in its quest to develop countries like India. “Develop,” of course, means that companies like Walmart are trying to create a demand for big box stores, processed foods, iPods, etc. It’s an uphill battle because India is essentially still one massive “wilderness.” With the possible exception of booming twenty-four hour cities like Bangalore and Mumbai there there is just no concept of supermarkets. For whatever the reason, people would rather eat a dosa or an idli than a McDonald’s hamburger, even if it is a “Masala Chicken Burger.” Continue Reading

Books, Rants, The Sky is Falling

In May I read Derrick Jensen’s A Language Older Than Words

“Every morning when I wake up I ask myself whether I should write or blow up a dam.”

Although I know the feeling, I have no interest in being a writer and I don’t know the first thing about bombs; I’m not sure where that leaves me.

Jensen’s definitely an environmental activist but the book isn’t really an “environmental” book. I gave the book away so I can’t verify, but I think the book is even categorized as “Spiritual/Philosophy” on the back cover. What stands out in my mind from the book is Jensen’s use of historical references to explore the complete disappearance of once-flourishing animal populations like salmon, bison, and passenger pigeons. He quotes North American explorers who, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, remarked on flocks of passenger pigeons one mile wide and three hundred miles long, containing up to one billion birds. Holy crap, right?
Continue Reading