Fear and loathing in East Africa as travel writer Grant (God's Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre, 2008, etc.) traverses the ravaged continent in search of a mysterious river and the source of the Nile.
The Malagarasi River in Tanzania had not been fully traveled by either Westerners or Africans. So, in the tradition of 19th-century British explorers, first and foremost Richard Burton, who became his spectral travel companion, Grant set out to do so. But his adventures on the river—disease and disappointment, danger from crocs, hippos and bandits—became but part of his larger story about what Africa is and how to make sense of it. The author narrates his stops in Zanzibar, where he befriended a golf pro (on an island where there is no golf course), across Tanzania to Lake Tanganyika and on to Burundi and Rwanda, both ravaged by genocide and ethnic civil war. The journey nearly destroyed him: “Africa had ground away at my sanity and well-being.” In Grant’s Africa, verdant plains had become a “devastated moonscape” due to cattle overgrazing, mammoth slums overwhelmed cities overseen by corrupt leaders who got fat on the spoils of the Western “aid industry.” He concludes that Africa “was a shambles and a disgrace.” This may be a selective and overly harsh conclusion, but he tempers his indictment with an unerring eye for detail that imbues those he meets with dignity and humanity. The hustlers and whores of the dive bars he often frequented are seen, if blurrily, with compassion, and Grant marvels at the hope and enthusiasm of so many in the poorest nation in the world, Burundi. The joy of Congolese pop music and the craze for the country music of Kenny Rogers reassure him that resilience and resurgence may also be part of Africa. The source of the Nile, it turned out, was merely a “moss-fringed rabbit hole with a thin dribble of water leaking out of it.”
Dyspeptic, disturbing and brilliantly realized, Grant’s account of Africa is literally unforgettable.