Book to Read, General

Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart

Traditional Art of the Congo

Blood River: A Journey to Africa's Broken HeartBlood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart by Tim Butcher
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“”A masterpiece,” famed novelist John Le Carre writes about Tim Butcher’s journalistic travel memoir and I agree. Prepare for your heart to be wrenched when you read Blood River, A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart. But you may not notice it in the excitement and danger of the ride. There’s the magnificent and ominous Congo River landscape, the present terror, the valor of the victimized native people, the greed of the exploiters of the river’s resources (native and colonizers alike) and the intrepid European explorers who struggled to tame the river.

In Blood River, Tim Butcher attempts to recreated Henry Morton Stanley’s journey of the 1870s. Sponsored by the New York Herald as an advertising stunt, Stanley is famous for having found the mythic Scottish explorer, David Livingstone, who went missing in Africa the late 1860s while looking for the origin of the Nile River. Stanley wanted to be the first to chart the Congo from its origin in the heart of Africa westward to the Atlantic and he ultimately–and at great cost–succeeded.

In 2004, Tim Butcher, likewise a professional journalist (Britain’s Daily Telegraph), is determined to take that same journey. After extensive, obsessive research, he set out from the Congo’s eastern border in a spirit of adventure and calculated misgivings, ignoring the fact that everyone he talked to told him he was crazy. He describes his travel by motorcycle, dug out canoe, steamboat, helicopter, plane and on foot with a precise, detail-rich journalist’s eye.
Through his research, Tim Butcher was well aware of Africa’s terrible legacy of slavery and exploitation of its riches, but he wasn’t prepared for the day-to-day fear, the terrorist attacks forcing the Congolese to flee to the bush as a way of life, a jungle that ate up the railroad tracks, thriving riverfront cities of the ’50s collapsed in corruption and decay, and a country–maybe the only country on the earth– going backwards and retreating from progress into the primitive where there is “no memory for justice”–all punctuated with cell phones, abundant ammunition, jets and extravagantly wealthy internationals in gated communities rising out of the rain forest.

Along with Butcher, the reader tries to make sense of his life-threatening encounters where he is saved by local Congolese, foreign missionaries, and UN workers. We learn much about how the Congo played a dominant role in the slave trade on the west coast by the Portuguese and even earlier on the east coast by the Arab traders, how the colonizers tried and failed to harness the huge river full of cataracts, how Joseph Conrad and Barbara Kingsolver memorialized the river’s heart of darkness, how Katherine Hepburn kept a journal during the filming of African Queen, and how the UN functioned in an ivory tower of antiseptic efficiency.

Tim Butcher writes about disease, murder, enslavement and the onslaught of the encroaching jungle. Ultimately his experience is “relentlessly punishing”. Traveling on the Blood River, the reader too experiences the breakdown of civilization, with human suffering beyond what we can imagine living our First World lives. Truly, this is a terrifying vision of the “Last World”, where no one can survive.

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General, Journal, Readings

Searching for Africa: the Other Barack

Kruger National ParkI’m searching for Africa still and I have been ever since I returned from my three week trip in December 2011. Where before my trip I had no desire to learn about this dark continent, not to mention actually visit it, now I am fascinated with all things African, especially the unknown, deep well of African history in all its diversity, the culture and the stories of Africans past and present, ignored or long buried in those extreme, rich, beautiful and striking landscapes.

The Other Obama by Sally H. Jacobs

With that in mind, I picked up The Other Barack by Sally H. Jacobs off the Sonoma County library shelf not because of Barack Sr.’s famous son, President Barack Obama Jr., and not because my novel, Dreamers, ends with Barack Obama receiving the Democratic Nomination for President, but because I hoped this book would speak to me of the mystery that is Africa.

Jacob’s biography is subtitled, “The Bold and Reckless Life of President Obama’s Father”. That does truly describe the “other”, senior Barack Obama. You can see it from his picture on the hardback cover: wide, inviting smile, pipe between his teeth, the stylish ’50s haircut, those black-rimmed glasses accentuating his well-modeled face with high cheekbones, the glasses that reflect light seemingly emanating from the man himself.

“Baraka” means “Blessing” in Arabic. Barack Obama’s ecstatic photo embodies the openhearted exuberance of the people I met while in South Africa last December in the mall at Midland, the market in Roosboom, the bar in Ladysmith, and the caves at the Cradle of Humankind. I will not forget how their faces lit up when I mentioned I was from the United States, how they hugged me and how I loved it. I felt blessed like that photo of Barack on the book cover.

For a native boy from Africa growing up in the 1940s, Barak Obama Sr. achieved the nearly impossible and he knew it better than anyone else.  Shakespeare’s Othello had his jealousy, Sophocles’ Oedipus his blindness. The other Obama had great flaws too. He couldn’t get past his potential and actualize it. But still, what a powerful, inspiring struggle he experienced growing up in Kenya, leaving for America and then returning unwillingly to Kenya as the country finally achieved its independence from British colonial rule. So much was happening to Africa then.

In some ways, The Other Barack by Sally H. Jacobs reads like a flawed Greek tragedy. In a tragedy, a great person experiences the reversal of fortune caused by an inevitable and unforeseen mistake, a flaw in the person him or herself. Witnessing this, the audience experiences a catharsis, a kind of freedom and satisfaction.

Impala in Kruger National Park, South Africa

I did experienced a kind of catharsis after reading this book. And I’m  further along in my search for Africa. One thing I learned is that being fascinated with another culture doesn’t mean you could live in it.

You can find out more about The Other Barack in my book review.