Thursday, January 19, 2012

Antecedents of Empire - The Search for the Nile

For those who love adventure and history. This one is for you.
Explorers of the Nile – The Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure
By Tim Jeal , Yale University Press, New Haven, 2011

Although well over fifty books have been written about the European search for the source of the Nile River, beginning with the best selling accounts of the intrepid wanderers themselves in the 1800s, Tim Jeal has added a real treasure to that trove.  While it seems that nothing in the historical literary world is definitive, Explorers of the Nile, currently has the last word. And a different word it is. Neal has done a prodigious amount of research. He hunted down the papers, letters, first drafts of books, including the expunged passages having to do with sex,  and articles written by the explorers, their families, their patrons and publishers.    He found archives stashed in attics, backrooms, town halls and, of course, in collections owned by libraries, museums, the Royal Geographic Society and the government. He filtered through this enormous amount of verbiage aptly tagging prejudices and misinformation in order to arrive at some new understandings about the characters and actions of the key men involved.  Because of the self serving nature of earlier published material and the pettiness and back stabbing that characterized personal accounts, Jeal’s new look at these men and their times is especially illuminating.

The book focuses on the big names: Livingstone, Burton, Speke, Grant, Stanley and Baker (and Madame).  They were individuals of indomitable spirit. Men and a woman who refused to succumb to the travails of Africa. They suffered unimaginable physical stress – disease, infection, wounds, malnutrition – all compounded by isolation, mental fatigue and the constant threat of violence that morphed into real conflict time and again.  Yet they soldiered on. Only one of the great explorers, Dr. Livingstone, died in the field.  The others managed to survive, mostly attributed to brute force of will. Even so, Jeal points out their foibles as well as strengths. Consequently, these icons come across as real humans consumed, as we all are, with the big and the small. 

Jeal tracks their voyages in the book.  Although there are a few maps, I dug out a more detailed map of East Africa to better trace their footsteps. Jeal’s retelling of their travels uses extensive quotations from their journals.  No doubt he has this correct.  But the value of this new look goes beyond descriptions of the difficulties encountered to provide a solid overview of the region, of why the Arab slave trade was so disruptive, of why the explorers had to rely on these men whose slaving activities they deplored and importantly of why and how British patrons, politicians and the public viewed their exploits.    Jeal too gives long overdue credit to the African men – guides, headmen, interpreters, servants and porters who made the safaris reality. 

Jeal’s new look burnishes the soiled reputation of John Hanning Speke, the first European to see the source of the Nile where it exits Lake Victoria.  (As an aside, the British colonial era monument placed at the site stating that Speke was the “first man” to see the source of the Nile was dismantled shortly after independence accompanied by the thought that African men had seen the sight for centuries.)  Readers of previous explorer books will remember that Burton, who refused to accompany Speke on his northward trek to discover Lake Victoria, impugned Speke’s character and denied his claim.  Since Speke died in a hunting accident shortly after his return to England, he could never defend himself against Burton’s spurious allegations.  But Jeal does. His study of both Speke’s and Burton’s correspondence and journals prove that Speke was maligned. Similarly Jeal rehabilitates the reputation of Samuel and Florence Baker which had been tarnished by their criticism of John Petherick, the British agent in southern Sudan who failed to support them as ordered.   Petherick, however, was a connected aristocrat whereas the Bakers (not even married at the time) were lower class.  Indeed one of the values of Jeal’s book is that he deals forthrightly with class issues – something that was, of course, avoided in the nineteenth century.

After elucidating the discoveries of the various parts of the Nile basin, the book takes a hard look at what  that meant for subsequent developments in the region.  Jeal  notes that the British imperial necessity to secure the upper Nile played out to the detriment both of Uganda and Sudan with disastrous consequences for their peoples a hundred years later.  Arbitrary borders were the crux of the problem.  He posits that the inclusion of Nilotic tribes in a modern Ugandan state preordained the conflict under Obote and Amin that devastated the nation.  Similarly, the inclusion of Equatoria into a larger Sudan and then half measured development of the south under British suzerainty precipitated the chaos of the Sudanese civil war.  He suggests – and would be the first to admit that retrospect is a fine platform – that had more Afro centric policies been pursued that much of this conflict could have been avoided.    

In sum, this is an excellent book. It retells the stories in a new light and provides insight into the motives of all concerned. Importantly it portrays events in the light of their times, but with the benefit of retrospective from our era.  It’s strongly recommended. 

Review of The Book of Secrets

This is book that folks looking for good fiction about East Africa ought to read.
The Book of Secrets  by M.G. Vassanji, Picador, NY 1994

This is a superb novel by M.G. Vassanji that is set in Kenya and Tanzania beginning just before World War I.  The basic plot revolves around a diary kept by colonial administrator Alfred Corbin in the small (fictitious) Indian trading town of Kikono located at the foot of the Taita Hills along a track that would become the road and railroad between Voi and Taveta.  No one knew what Corbin recorded so assiduously in his diary, but they presumed it included information on the townsfolk as well as the mysteries of imperial power.   In any case, the diary first appears, then disappears and is re-found. It provides the skeleton for the story to hang on.

The story really is one of relationships.  The re-discoverer of the book of secrets was a retired Goan school teacher in Dar Es Salaam in the nineteen sixties.  As narrator he then retraces life as it was in Kikono before the great war when Corbin assumed his duties and was quizzically observed by the townsfolk who the author called Shamsis (which is an actual Islamic sect), but who seemed to me to be Ismailis, traders well known in East Africa. Corbin’s concerns for an unconventional girl and whether or not he fathered her child is the basic mystery that is unpeeled in various fashions during the course of the story.

The Great War disrupted the town. Corbin was withdrawn. His diary was stolen.  People from the town and their descendents moved to Moshi, Dar and Europe, yet their connections to one another and to the essential mystery remained vague even as some unraveled and others faded.

The Book of Secrets is a wonderfully told tale. Descriptions are vivid. The landscapes, the towns, cities and historical events are accurately portrayed, but the characters are especially memorable.  They are exactly the sort of people that would inhabit this world.

Obviously, I enjoyed this book. The East Africa setting is realistic (including the Cozy CafĂ© in Dar that I patronized in 1966). Besides being a good story, the book is a valuable social history, particularly with regard to the changes experienced by Asian communities in East Africa.  Read it!

Swimming Through Life

Following is a review of an interesting book. 
Swimming Through Life by Eric Krystall, self published by,  2011
This book is the autobiography of the life and times of Eric Krystall, a social anthropologist and development expert noted especially for family planning and anti-AIDS efforts in Kenya. 

Krystall led an interesting life. Born a Jew in South Africa in 1928, he became an anti-apartheid activist when in college in the late forties.   Self exiled to the United Kingdom for more studies at the London School of Economics, he remained engaged in such efforts as well as burgeoning African independence movements.  He married an American and re-located to the U.S. for graduate studies at the University of Michigan. For a research project he moved into a Detroit ghetto and interviewed black women about their family expectations.  This led to involvement in civil rights campaigns, which intensified with subsequent academic assignments at traditionally black colleges, Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and Shaw in Raleigh, NC.  In this phase of life (the late sixties) Krystall provided cross cultural training for several groups of Kenya bound PCVs (including mine).  

Anxious to get back to Africa, in the early 70s Krystall took an assignment with FAO to develop family planning projects in Kenya.  Except for a brief sojourn at FAO headquarters in Rome, he has been in Kenya since responsible for a series of family oriented projects – family planning, rural communications, anti-corruption and AIDS education.   Throughout, he proved himself – certainly by his own admission, after all this is an autobiography – to be capable, effective, innovative and sensitive to Kenyan bureaucratic culture.   No doubt he was.

Krystall is an unabashed name dropper and he drops hundreds in this book.  It is astonishing that he remembered so many folks, but each anecdote is complete with the names of people involved. Some Krystall remembered fondly, others he skewered unmercifully. He kept his knife sharpened especially for fuzzy headed government or UN bureaucrats who did not understand or appreciate how the development process functioned.  In that regard he was ever faithful to the ideas of local input and sustainability. He lamented the predilections of donors, especially the UN family and USAID, to fund and support the development flavor of the year, then to drop it abruptly and move on to something new. Similarly he documented the self-interest and corruption that plagued the Kenyan side.  Indeed Krystall’s insights and critiques of the development process and his successes and failures (of which he admits a few) should be mandatory reading for development personnel - both international and Kenyan. 

There are some interesting Peace Corps comments.  First, Krystall claimed to have been among the students on the steps of the University of Michigan administration building when Senator Kennedy revealed his plan for international service.  Later Krystall was drafted by several RPCVs from Tanzania who put together an organization to do PC training in the mid-sixties. Among the groups trained was mine for Kenya in the summer of 1968. Krystall was responsible for cross cultural training.  I remember the language and technical training much more vividly than anything cross cultural.  Although he got the North Dakota location correct, he mistakenly reported we were on an Indian reservation.  Although we did a “live-in” on Standing Rock reservation, our training site was at a defunct job corps facility just outside Bismarck.  Krystall later told of trying to get more black Americans into the Peace Corps.  A project that had limited success, in part because Kyrstall alleged - in a bit of hyperbole -  that potential volunteers  required twelve references and no police record.  He stated ”few blacks, especially black men, grew up in the south without one.”   Krystall also asserted that “Peace Corps administration… was located in the State Department.”   That statement is just wrong.  These errors and exaggerations about issues I knew something about, compel questions about what else in this book is similarly affected.

My nit-picks aside, Krystall’s narrative of his life reads well.  The recounting of his youth and coming of age as a Jew in apartheid era South Africa shows how he came to be liberal, progressive and an activist for change. He reveled in playing a similar role in the American civil rights movement, but truly found his calling as a development expert in Kenya. In addition to broader topics, Krystall keeps the reader informed of his family, friends, loves, religious and political views and activities. In sum it is a revealing portrait of a man who has long come to terms with himself and his life.