Saturday, April 17, 2010

Streetwise Cover Story

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Sunday, April 4, 2010

The African Queen and other Post-Africa Reading

Friends: I left Africa two weeks ago, but I continue to linger in the Dark Continent thanks to my usual post-trip reading of books on the region I just returned from. The books all make me glad to be home, freed of the malaria threat and the many other trials and tribulations that afflict any one who lives or travels in Africa.

One of those tribulations was the scarcity of water. Even though much of my time was spent near Lake Victoria, the second largest lake in the world after Lake Superior, water wasn't so easy to come by. Many of the three and four dollar hotels I stayed at didn't have running water, like the majority of the population. Most people procure their water from a well or a town pump often on the outskirts of their village.

Often my lodging included a mere jug containing a couple of gallons for my bathing and washing of clothes, much much less than I am accustomed to. But I felt fortunate to have any water, as occasionally I ended up at a place that had none, due to lack of water pressure or too much demand. I was continually on the alert for and craving water to pour over me in the heat and to rinse out my sweat-soaked clothes.

"Bill Bryson's African Diary" mentioned that most people in Africa get by on less water each day than an American uses in one flush of the toilet. Bryson's book was more of a pamphlet than a book, just fifty pages long, recounting eight days he spent in Kenya at the invitation of an aid organization. He tries to amuse, as is his style, though that's not so easy to do, nor entirely appropriate. I don't particularly care for travel writers who strain to be humorous. I take travel seriously and prefer those writers who look for truths and insights, rather than those who stray into flippancy and try to make light of their experiences.

A common theme of my reading has been coping with the mosquitoes and the flies. No one had as severe a fly attack as the five hours that Ingo and I endured during our ride out of Murchison Falls National Park, but at least we avoided malaria. Corinne Hofmann, a 27-year old Swiss woman who fell madly in love with a young Masai warrior while vacationing in Kenya and married him, describes quite graphically her battles with malaria in her book "The White Masai."

Malaria was just one of the many traumas and difficulties she had trying to adjust to a culture utterly alien to what she was accustomed to. She makes a brave and valiant attempt to live as a Masai in an isolated small village in a cow-dung walled hut, but it is a doomed effort. Her book covers three-and-a-half years from her first sight of the Masai to her finally fleeing the country with their one-year old daughter.

She returns to Switzerland several times during her stay in Kenya for recovery and respite. It is a remarkable story that had enough appeal to sell over four million books. Her Masai was illiterate and continually suspicious that she was having an affair with just about any male she spoke to. The book was so successful, she has written two follow-up books.

The two lead characters in the book "The African Queen" are also stricken with malaria, though not in the movie. The slender book was written by C. S. Forester sixteen years before it was turned into a movie in 1951 starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. Their marriage in the movie also differs from that in the book. The Hepburn character in the book actually proposes in the final few paragraphs just before the Bogart character is to be sent off to serve in the army, while in the movie it is Bogart doing the proposing before they are both to be hung.

I was eager to see this seminal movie again, as it was filmed on the stretch of the Nile preceding Murchison Falls that I had taken a river trip on. Hepburn and Bogart passed many more crocodiles than I saw, though not as many hippopotamuses. The hippos I saw were mostly submerged. The crocodiles were definitely much more cinematic, especially with their mouths gaping open as a means of cooling off.

While searching for the book at the library I discovered Hepburn had written a book about the filming of the movie--"The Making of The African Queen, or How I Went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind." Hepburn was thrilled with the opportunity to go to Africa and didn't care what she was paid. But she struggled with sickness while there. She lost twenty pounds, even though she says she was thin to begin with.

Testifying to the enduring popularity of the movie, Hepburn didn't write her book until thirty-five years after the movie came out. It received four Oscar nominations, but not one for best picture, just best actor, actress, director and screenplay.  Bogart was the only one to win, beating out Marlon Brando in "A Streetcar Named Desire," a performance that is now considered one of the greatest of all time.

Bogart had never won an Oscar, and had only been nominated once before for "Casablanca" in 1943. He was much more liked by the Hollywood community than the young upstart Brando, proving that Oscar voters aren't always objective. It was Brando's first nomination in just his second movie. He received nominations the next three years as well, finally winning for "On the Waterfront" in 1954, beating out Bogart in "Caine Mutiny."

Winston Churchill recounted his travels through Kenya and Uganda and on to Cairo in 1907 as a 32-year old Under-Secretary in "My African Journey." Most of the journey was on waterways, but some was also by foot and bicycle. He acknowledges, "The best of all methods of progression in Central Africa--however astonishing it may seem--is the bicycle." There were few roads then, but the bike was well-suited to the hard-packed trails. He says he could average seven miles per hour and could cover four times the distance by bike as he could by foot in a day. Not only did he bicycle to Murchison Falls, he was also transported by bike rickshaw the 25 miles from Entebbe to Kampala, with one guy pedaling the rickshaw while three others pushed it.

Though the book was written over one hundred years ago, many of its observations still ring true. Churchill saw great potential in Uganda, calling it the pearl of Africa, but he also acknowledged that "the natives evince a reluctance to work, especially to work regularly." He refers to them as "brutish children," that need to be raised from "their present degradation." He observed that they were quite impoverished, though they hardly knew it, "secure in their abyss of contented degradation, rich in that they lack everything and want nothing."

Paul Theroux has written quite a bit on Africa having served in the Peace Corps in Malawi in the '60s and then teaching in Kampala for several years after being kicked out of the Peace Corps. Before he was a travel writer, he was a novelist. He wrote ten novels before his first travel book, "The Great Railway Bazaar," a book he wrote out of desperation, as none of his novels were much of a success. Leaving his wife to travel for a couple of months cost him his marriage, but made him enough money to get out of debt and provided him with a career. He's never felt comfortable as a travel-writer though. He'd much rather be known as a novelist, and regularly demeans travel-writing.

Three of his first five novels took place in Africa. All three are about the miserable experiences of non-Africans trying to do good or make a life in Africa. "Fong and the Indians" focuses on a Chinese shop-owner and how he is preyed upon by Indian merchants and the Africans. His second African novel, "Girls at Play," is about several American and British women who come to Africa to teach and what a disillusioning and disastrous experience it is for all them.

An American insurance salesman is the chief pitiable character in "Jungle Lovers." It is surprising Theroux lasted as long as he did in Africa seeing what a jaded view he had of living there. He returned forty years later for a trip from Cairo to Cape Town detailed in "Dark Star Safari." He saw that decades of humanitarian aid to the Africans had done little to improve their lot and only made them dependent and defused whatever ambition they might have. He declares it is time for aid organizations to stop giving to the Africans and to let them cope for themselves. I had a similar impression after encountering so many people who wanted money from me, as they had grown accustomed to whites and aid organizations freely giving them assistance and spending outrageous sums of money on their travels.

On my flight home I met a 45-year old Swedish engineer who had spent three weeks in Tanzania helping to dig a well for an orphanage. It was his first time in a third-world country encountering extreme poverty. He said being able to help such poor people, buying them shoes and other incidentals, was the best experience of his life.

He thought he had made such a difference in their lives, especially with the digging of the well, that he envisioned countless other improvements that could be made in their lives. Just before he left he had a conference with the administrators of the orphanage detailing what else they could do in the coming years to improve their operation. He said they just looked at him baffled, wondering why he was telling them all this. Rather than inspiring them to make such improvements on their own, they expected him or someone else to do it for them. The Swede said that was the first time he really understood the African mentality. Still, he was aglow with the giving he had done. And that's what keeps many whites returning, doing some good, but only corrupting the locals will, turning them into beggars and semi-cripples.

But being conditioned to expecting those with more to willingly and gladly give isn't unique to Africans. Tim and Cindy Travis of, a couple who have spent the past eight years touring the world by bicycle and have written three books about their travels, recently sent out a diatribe to their followers complaining that no touring bike manufacturer would give them free bikes before they set out for India. They'd become so accustomed to others in the bicycle industry giving them gear, they expect it from everyone.

Later, George