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Braving the Harmattan

I have built a formidable collection of travel books over the years. Many of them still lie on the shelf awaiting their turn. Sometimes, driven by pangs of guilt at having accumulated so many, yet read so few, I take them out, flip through fondly and return to their place. I realize that it is another form of addiction or obsessive compulsion. Step into a book store and all of a sudden I’m seized by this uncontrollable urge to buy, buy and buy! If there is a sale, then I’m on rampage. Off late I have been able to reign in this impulse somewhat. Still my brain cells buzz every time I pass by Landmark, Om Books, Reliance Time Out and Crossword.

To return to where we started, my affinity for travel books began with Bruce Chatwin‘s “In Patagonia”. Once the ball got rolling, I went on to read Paul Theroux followed by Eric Newby, Michael Palin, Tim McIntosh Smith, Colin Thubron, V S Naipaul, Wifred Thesiger, Robert Byron, Peter Mathiessen, Pico Iyer, the list goes on and on. Jeffrey Tayler’s “The Lost Kingdoms of Africa” was the last one I read. I had never heard of the author before. He did not figure in the travel writer’s hall of fame. I had picked the book during a discount sale at Landmark. But, once started, I was hooked. “Lost Kingdoms” is one of the most empathetic travelogues I have ever read. It is shorn of the high brow, sardonic spectator attitude easily discernible in Paul Theroux and V S Naipaul.

The book is a fervent account of Tayler’s journey through Sahel, the Harmattan ravaged shrub land south of Sahara desert. He covers over 2500 miles of utter desolation, travelling through countries (Chad, Niger, Nigeria, Mali, Senegal) plagued by drought, abject poverty, disease, various forms of extremism and religious and ethnic wars. The terrain is dangerous and inhospitable, circumstances exiguous. Yet Africans are generous, affectionate and welcoming, willing to share their meager supply of food and shelter with him. Tayler is understanding and non judgmental in his views except when he encounters arcane traditions of slavery and infibulations, and rightly so. His language is evocative, almost poetic when it comes to describing nature.

The book reaffirms our impression of an Africa in dire straits with little hope of improvement in the years ahead. The billions spent in aid are siphoned off by corrupt dictators and their cohorts with little of it reaching the needy. Since most governments are propped up by western aid money rather than tax from the people, they do precious little to improve the lot of the citizens. Tayler places the historical responsibility of Africa’s current predicament squarely on Western colonial interests who carved nations and borders according to own administrative and military convenience without regard to the continent’s complex ethnic, religious and tribal identities. Predominantly Muslim, harbouring a sense of humiliation and nurturing strong anti-western sentiments, Africa, according to Tayler, is poised to erupt in terrorist violence.

Fascinating and poignant, the book is a must read for those who really wish for an honest, forthright and realistic perspective of the Dark Continent.

Categories: Bibliophilia
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