Bryson, Bill: African Diary

It really is, just a diary. Bill describes what happened to him over an eight-day visit to Kenya, sponsored by the charity CARE international. It isn’t an analysis, it isn’t especially thoughtful, it’s merely a diary written up with entertaining and generally cheerful comments. It’s only about 11 thousand words on 56 pages. Please don’t think we are shirkers this month; the proposer of the book has added this book to the month’s reading because he thought the main book was a bit short. It was light relief after Loung Ung’s First They Killed my Father. 

Despite being short, it provoked much discussion about the nature of Africa and Africans, and the nature of Aid.

Why do African cities have so much abject poverty, and why does Africa not develop economically like India and many of the SE Asian countries, especially when they are so blessed with natural resources? Bryson describes the slum of Kibera, the biggest slum in Nairobi. The rural poor come to the city to earn small money, but perhaps enough to afford education for their children. He tells of their poverty in a way that makes us smile rather than cry; for example the ‘flying toilet’. One shits in a plastic bag, and then hurls the bag as far away as possible. The stock answer to the question, of course, is that ‘greed and corruption’ takes the money away from where the need is greatest. We are told of a dirt road that is marked on the map as a highway to disguise the fact that the money that was suppose to pay for a proper road was siphoned off into someone’s pocket. 

All of us that have been to Africa can tell tales of corruption, but our own society has corruption too (the example given was ‘cash for Honours’ but there are many others such as MPs expenses). Our corruption might not be on the same scale, or perhaps we are better at hiding it. 

We reflected on what we think may have happened, or ‘gone wrong’, in the colonial era to make Africa what it is today. The imposition of European statehood on a tribal system was heavy-handed by today’s standards. To some extent the behaviour of today’s Africans must have been influenced by the way the colonial masters were perceived. In Britain the colonial era was the era of ‘fair play’, where British behaved decently towards each other, wasn’t it? Well no, not entirely. We had our own brand of abject poverty, we had child labour, sexual exploitation of women and so forth and so on. Well, let’s not go there. Keep Pandora’s box closed tonight.

Bryson tells stories of incidents and accidents with trains and planes, all of which serve to re-inforce our general view that the place is, above all, disorganised. I’ve been to several West African countries and that, for sure, is my abiding impression. Disorganised and sweaty. Yet, like me, he sees the positive side of things. One of these was his meeting with William Gumbo, a man who was shown how to be a small-scale market gardener, and he’s taken to it in spades. 

What about Aid? CARE’s philosophy, we are told, is to make a little go a long way, and to help people to help themselves. For example, make a bore hole and install a pump. It means people can grow crops in the dry season which transforms their lives. No-one would disagree, so why do the government of these resource-rich countries (in some cases oil rich) not take similar actions? Like most people, I find this question especially hard to answer; as one who has talked to academics and a few government people from Africa I can say that I find them erudite, thoughtful, and compassionate. Perhaps they are on average more excitable than most of us are, and certainly they are more inclined to laughter, and more inclined to believe in God.

India is a bit different. Ghandi’s influence perhaps. Who knows?

As with all of Bryson’s books, it’s well-written, engaging, and hard to put down. There are good photos of life in the slums and in a refugee camp, taken by Jenny Matthews. The revenue goes to CARE international, so we didn’t begrudge our £9.99 for this little book. 

This was Bryson’s first visit to Africa. I wonder if he will return.