Saturday, October 2, 2010

Looking for Lovedu

A book review by me of Looking for Lovedu – Days and Nights in Africa by Ann Jones, Alfred A. Knoff, New York, 2001.

The strange title of this travel book is explained early. Lovedu is a small kingdom in what is now South Africa ruled presently and historically by a queen endowed with diplomatic prowess and rainmaking powers. An overland journey from the U.K. to South Africa to seek out this queen is the (somewhat contrived) motivation for the book. The saga traces the route of author Ann Jones and her traveling companions, first young Brit Kelvin Muggleton and later Caro and Celia, who bash across Africa.

The first part of the trip was accomplished by Muggleton and Jones alone across the Sahara, the Sahel, along the west coast and then traversing the Congo basin to Kenya. Anecdotes of being on the road are, of course, the grist of the story with a special focus on the theme of women’s roles and their lack of political or economic power in the societies that the intrepid travelers briefly brushed in their headlong rush southward. The rush too became part of a gender conflict as the story pitted the reflective author who sought to slowly absorb the continent against headstrong Muggleton who, consumed with vehicle tasks, just wanted to get there. This drama played out predictably as the two repeatedly clashed. However, because of their joint commitment to the safari, they had to find ways to stay together, and to move ahead, especially when confronted with enormous mud holes in (then) Zaire.

This partnership lasted only as long as Nairobi. There, after a respite Jones enlisted an Aussie, Caro, and a Kenyan, Celia, to continue with her. Although the gender issue disappeared, philosophical differences of how to travel remained. Nonetheless, the ladies managed to voyage south, ultimately to meet with the mysterious queen. By then author Jones had sorted out her complex feelings about Africa and gender roles on the continent, but she found some solace in achieving her goal.

All things considered this is a pretty standard travelogue. Anecdotes of encounters are sandwiched in among pithy historical sketches of the countries visited. The travelers had many encounters with grasping officials, poor roads, sand in the Sahara and mud in Zaire. Yet they enjoyed warm hospitality in countless villages and missions along the way. Jones blamed western exploitation of Africa – slavery, colonialism, neo-colonialism and the bad habits Africa’s contemporary elite learned from former masters – for the woeful state of the continent. But throughout she also applauded the virtues of African society – patience, palaver, decorum and social coherence.

Note from reviewer: I read travel-in-Africa books because I too have driven the continent from Cape to Tangiers. The poor roads I experienced in the Congo in 1970 have obviously gotten a bit worse, but the other aspects of travel – brief but sometimes memorable encounters with people – remain the same. On a long journey like this, the trip becomes the thing and experiences mount up. It is, as Jones found out, vital to have convivial companions. Travelers have a marvelous window on Africa, but not the in-depth immersion in culture that time in a specific place allows. Put the two together, and you’ll be wiser for it.

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