Bill Bryson - Bill Bryson_s African Diary (v5.0)

By Eugene Boyd,2014-03-28 06:00
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Bill Bryson - Bill Bryson_s African Diary (v5.0)

    Table of Contents Title Page Bill Bryson’s African Diary Saturday, September 28 Sunday, September 29 Monday, September 30 Tuesday, October 1 Wednesday, October 2 Thursday, October 3 Friday, October 4

    Saturday, October 5 CARE SAYS THANKYOU ... THE FACTS ABOUT POVERTY CARE MOVING AHEAD WITH CARE ALSO BY BILL BRYSON Intro to Excerpt An Excerpt from Bill Bryson’s At Home Outro from Excerpt Copyright Page Bill Bryson’s African Diary

In the late 1940s and early 1950s after he became a little too saggy to fit into a Tarzan

loincloth without depressing popcorn sales among cinema audiences, the great Johnny Weissmuller

filled the twilight years of his acting career with a series of low-budget adventure movies

with titles like Devil Goddess and Jungle Moon Men, all built around a character called Jungle

    Jim. These modest epics are largely forgotten now, which is a pity because they were possiblythe most cherishably terrible movies ever made.

    involved aThe plots seldom got anywhere near coherence. My own favourite, called Pygmy Island,

    lost tribe of white midgets and a strange but valiant fight against the spread of Communism.But the narrative possibilities were practically infinite since each Jungle Jim featureconsisted in large measure of scenes taken from other, wholly unrelated adventure movies.Whatever footage was available—train crashes, volcanic eruptions, rhino charges, panic scenesinvolving large crowds of Japanese—would be snipped from the original and woven into JungleJim’s wondrously accommodating story lines. From time to time, the ever-more-fleshyWeissmuller would appear on the scene to wrestle the life out of a curiously rigid andunresisting crocodile or chase some cannibals into the woods, but these intrusions weregenerally brief and seldom entirely explained.

    I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that no more than four people at a time ever paidmoney to watch a Jungle Jim movie. The series might well have escaped my own attention exceptthat in about 1959 WOI-TV, a television station well known in central Iowa for its tirelesscommitment to mediocrity, acquired the complete Jungle Jim oeuvre and for the next dozen or soyears showed two of them back to back late every Friday night. What is especially tragic aboutall this is that I not only watched these movies with unaccountable devotion, but was indeliblyinfluenced by them. In fact, were it not for some scattered viewings of the 1952 classic Bwana

    Devil and a trip on the Jungle Safari ride at Disneyland in 196I, my knowledge of African life,I regret to say, would be entirely dependent on Jungle Jim movies.

    I can’t say it actively preyed on me that my impressions of Africa were based so heavily on aseries of B-movies made in California more than half a century ago, but when a personable youngman named Dan McLean from the London office of CARE International, the venerable and worthycharity, asked me if I would be willing to go to Kenya to visit some of their projects andwrite a few words on their behalf, it occurred to me that there were some gaps in myfamiliarity with the Dark Continent that I might usefully fill in. So I agreed.

    Some weeks later, I was summoned to CARE’s London offices for a meeting with Dan, his bossWill Day and a rugged and amiable fellow named Nick Southern, CARE’s regional manager forKenya, who happened to be in London at the time. We sat around a big table spread with maps ofKenya, while they outlined what they had in mind for me.

    “Of course, you’ll have to fly to the refugee camp at Dadaab,” Will observed thoughtfully atone point. He glanced at me. “To avoid the bandits,” he explained.

    Dan and Nick nodded gravely.

    “I beg your pardon?” I said, taking a sudden interest. “It’s bandit country all roundthere,” Will said. “Where?” I asked, peering at the map for the first time.

    “Oh, just there,” Will said, waving a hand vaguely across most of east Africa. “But you’llbe fine in a plane.”

    “They only rarely shoot at planes,” Nick explained.

    This wasn’t at all what I had had in mind, frankly. By way of homework, I had dutifullywatched Out of Africa, from which I derived the impression that this trip would mostly takeplace on a verandah somewhere while turbaned servants brought me lots of coffee. I knew thatwe would probably visit a clinic from time to time and that someone in the party mightoccasionally have to shoot a charging animal, but I hadn’t imagined anything shooting at me inreturn.

    “So how dangerous is Kenya then?” I asked in a small controlled squeak.

    “Oh, not at all,” they responded in unison.

    “Well, hardly,” Will added.

“It depends on what you mean by dangerous, of course,” said Dan.

    “Like bleeding and not getting up again,” I suggested. “Being shot and stabbed and soforth,” I added.

    They assured me that that only very rarely happened, and that it was nearly always one or theother. You had to be very unlucky to be shot and stabbed, they said.

    “It’s mostly diseases you have to worry about,” Nick went on. “Malaria, schistosomiasis,trypanosomiasis.”

    “Rift Valley fever, blackwater fever, yellow fever,” said Dan.

    “Dengue fever, bilharzia—the usual tropical stuff,” added Will.

    But they pointed out that you can be inoculated against many of those and for the rest mostpeople manage a more or less complete recovery, given time and a considered programme ofphysiotherapy. Many even walk again. I asked if there was anything else I should know.

    “Well, the roads are a little dangerous—there are some crazy drivers out there,” Will said,chuckling.

    “But apart from that and the diseases and the bandits and the railway from Nairobi to Mombasa,there’s absolutely nothing to worry about,” Nick added.

    “What’s wrong with the railway?”

    “Oh, nothing really. It’s just the rolling stock is a little antiquated and sometimes thebrakes give out coming down out of the mountains—but, hey, if you worried about all the thingsthat might happen you wouldn’t go anywhere, would you?”

    “I don’t go anywhere,” I pointed out.

    They nodded thoughtfully.

    “Well, it’ll be an adventure,” Will said brightly. “You’ll be fine, absolutely fine. Justcheck your insurance before you go.”

    And so it was that I became irrevocably committed to the African adventure which follows.

    Saturday, September 28

    We meet at the Kenya Airways check-in desk at Heathrow, the five brave souls who are to formour party from London. In addition to me and Dan, they are: David Sanderson, a thoughtful andkindly fellow who is soon to take up a post in Johannesburg as CARE’s regional manager inSouth Africa, but joining us now in his capacity as urban specialist; Justin Linnane, an intentbut amiable young maker of television documentaries who has volunteered to make a video recordof the expedition; and the photographer Jenny Matthews, whose brilliant and compassionate snapsgrace this volume. White-haired and sweetly unobtrusive, Jenny is easily the wonder of the lot.If you saw her in a supermarket you would take her for a schoolteacher or civil servant. Infact, for 25 years she has gone wherever there is danger—to Chechnya, Bosnia, Afghanistan,Rwanda. She is fearless and evidently indestructible. If things go bad on this trip, it is herI’ll hold on to.

    The first good news is that Kenya Airways has given us all an upgrade on account of our genialgoodness and dapper manner, and so of course gets a glowing mention here. It is a nine-and-a-half-hour flight from London to Nairobi, and we are very pleased to pass it in comfort, with abetter class of drinks and our own party packs.

    An hour or so after we are airborne, by chance I come across an article in The Economist

    declaring Nairobi to be the new crime capital of Africa. My attention is particularly arrestedby the disclosure that street children come up to cars waiting at traffic lights demandingmoney and if it’s not given they rub balls of human excrement in the victim’s face.

    I share this information with my new companions and we agree that Dan, as group leader, will beour designated “rubbee” for the week. Conveniently, Dan is in the lavatory when the matter isdiscussed and so the motion carries unanimously. In order not to spoil his enjoyment of Nairobiwe decide not to tell him of our decision until we see children advancing.

    It is nighttime when we land at Jomo Kenyatta Airport and pleasantly cool. We are met byKentice Tikolo, an immensely good-natured Kenyan lady who helps run CARE’s Nairobi officeand who shepherds us into waiting cabs. In Out of Africa, Nairobi was depicted as a sunny

    little country town, so I am disappointed to find that at some time in the past 50 or 60 yearsthey took away that pretty scene and replaced it with Omaha, of all things. Nairobi is merelyyet another modern city with traffic lights and big buildings and hoardings advertising Samsungtelevisions and the like. Our hotel is a Holiday Inn—very nice and comfortable, but hardly aplace that shouts: “Welcome to Africa, Bwana.”

    “Oh, you will see plenty of Africa,” Kentice assures me when we convene at the bar for around of medicinal hydration. “We’re going to show you lots of exotic things. Have you evereaten camel?”

    “Only in my junior high school cafeteria, and they called it lamb,” I reply. I take theopportunity, while Dan is at the bar, to ask her about the street children I read about on theflight.

    “Oh, that’s the least of your worries,” Kentice laughs. “Car-jackings are much worse. Theycan be quite violent.”

    “What a comfort to know.”

    “But don’t worry,” she says, laying a comforting hand on my arm and becoming solemn, “ifanything goes wrong we have excellent hospitals in Nairobi.”

    We retire early because we have an early start in the morning. I am disappointed to find thatthere is no mosquito net around the bed in my room. Unaware that Nairobi is malaria-free, Islather myself with insect repellant and pass a long night sounding like two strips of partingVelcro each time I roll over in the bed and dreaming terrible dreams in which Jungle Jim,assisted by a tribe of white pygmies, chases me through the streets of Omaha with dung balls.

    Sunday, September 29

    In the morning we drive to Kibera, a sea of tin roofs filling a mile or so of steamy hillsideon the south side of the city. Kibera is the biggest slum in Nairobi, possibly the biggest inAfrica. Nobody knows how many people live there. It’s at least 700,000, but it may be as manyas a million, perhaps more. At least 50,000 of Kibera’s children are AIDS orphans. At least afifth of the residents are HIV positive, but it could be as high as 50 percent. Nobody knows.Nothing about Kibera is certain and official, including its existence. It appears on no maps.It just is.

    You can’t just go in to Kibera if you are an outsider. Well, you can, but you wouldn’t comeout again. Kibera is a dangerous place. We were taken on a walking tour by the district chief,an amiable giant named Nashon Opiyo, and three of his deputies, all Kibera residents. They areemployed by the government to keep an eye—and occasionally a lid—on things, even thoughKibera doesn’t officially exist.

    To step into Kibera is to be lost at once in a random, seemingly endless warren of rank, narrowpassageways wandering between rows of frail, dirt-floored hovels made of tin and mud and twigsand holes. Each shanty on average is ten feet by ten and home to five or six people. Down thecentre of each lane runs a shallow trench filled with a trickle of water and things you don’twant to see or step in. There are no services in Kibera—no running water, no rubbishcollection, virtually no electricity, not a single flush toilet. In one section of Kiberacalled Laini Saba until recently there were just ten pit latrines for 40,000 people. Especiallyat night when it is unsafe to venture out, many residents rely on what are known as “flyingtoilets,” which is to say they go into a plastic bag, then open their door and throw it as faras possible.

    In the rainy season, the whole becomes a liquid ooze. In the dry season it has the charm andhealthfulness of a rubbish tip. In all seasons it smells of rot. It’s a little like wanderingthrough a privy. Whatever is the most awful place you have ever experienced, Kibera is worse.

    Kibera is only one of about a hundred slums in Nairobi, and it is by no means the worst.Altogether more than half of Nairobi’s three million people are packed into these immenselysqualid zones, which together occupy only about 1.5 percent of the city’s land. In wonder Iasked David Sanderson what made Kibera superior.

    “There are a lot of factories around here,” he said, “so there’s work, though nearly all ofit is casual. If you’re lucky you might make a dollar a day, enough to buy a little food and ajerry can of water and to put something aside for your rent.”

    “How much is rent?”

    “Oh, not much. Ten or twelve dollars a month. But the average annual income in Kenya is $280,so $120 or $140 in rent every year is a big slice of your income. And nearly everything else isexpensive here, too, even water. The average person in a slum like Kibera pays five times whatpeople in the developed world pay for the same volume of water piped to their homes.”

    “That’s amazing,” I said.

    He nodded. “Every time you flush a toilet you use more water than the average person in thedeveloping world has for all purposes in a day—cooking, cleaning, drinking, everything. It’svery tough. For a lot of people Kibera is essentially a life sentence. Unless you areexceptionally lucky with employment, it’s very, very difficult to get ahead.”

    Every day around the world, 180,000 people fetch up in or are born into cities like Nairobi,mostly into slums like Kibera. Ninety percent of the world’s population growth in the twenty-first century will be in cities. “For better or worse, this is where the future is,” Davidsaid. Yet, amazingly, aid agencies like CARE can do little for urban slums like Kibera. Thegovernments won’t let them. “Mostly they won’t permit any kind of permanent improvementsbecause they fear it would just affirm Kibera’s existence, and also they are afraid that itwould encourage more people to pour in from the countryside. So they’d rather pretend theseplaces don’t exist.”

    “But they must know it’s here.”

    He smiled and pointed to a big house—a compound— commanding a neighboring hillside only acouple of hundred yards from Kibera’s edge. The house, David told me, was the Nairobiresidence of Daniel arap Moi, president of Kenya since 1978. “This is what he sees everymorning when he looks out his window. Of course they know it’s here.”

    Walking along with us was one of our minders, a kindly man of indeterminate age named BonardOnyango. I asked him if he had always lived in Kibera. “Oh no,” he said. “I came here fromthe country twenty years ago.”

    “How bad can the country be that you’d prefer this?” I asked.

    “The country is very nice,” he agreed, “but there’s no work there and so no money. If youhave no money, you can’t send your children to school. But in the city if you work hard andyou are lucky you can educate your children and maybe they will have a better life. All thesepeople, they are here for their children.”

    “Really?” I said, impressed.

    “Oh, yes. Most of them.”

    Kentice had been listening to this and was nodding in agreement. “Just over there,” she said,pointing vaguely along some roof tops, “is the Olympic Primary School. Do you know, it is thebest primary school in all of Kenya?”

    “Truly?” I said, impressed.

    She nodded gravely. “Three of the eight top-scoring primary schools in the country are here inKibera. People from outside Kibera try to get their children into these schools because theyare so good.” She nodded some more. “People here will do anything to improve the lot of theirchildren.”

    “So it’s not completely hopeless?” I said.

Kentice gave a big laugh. “Oh, no,” she said. “In Kenya we always have hope.”

    In the afternoon, just to make sure the contrast was total, we drove out to the western edge ofthe city through a succession of wooded suburbs that seemed to owe more to Guild-ford orWeybridge than to Africa. Our destination was a formerly all-white preserve called Karen, whosemost famous resident was also, though coincidentally, called Karen. I refer to Karen Blixen of

    fame.Out of Africa

    We stopped at the Karen Blixen Coffee Garden, built around an old farmhouse that was once partof her coffee plantation, and now a popular spot for Sunday lunch. After Kibera anything wouldseem good, but this was almost painfully agreeable. Inside the farmhouse a lavishly variedbuffet was spread out, and outside, scattered around a large shady lawn, were tables of allsizes, mostly occupied by feasting white families. It can’t have been greatly different incolonial times.

    After lunch we strolled the few hundred yards up the road to Blixen’s house, the setting formuch of Out of Africa. I can’t say I was hugely interested in the personal history of KarenBlixen, but it was an interesting insight into the privileged lifestyles of the colonialperiod—which, not incidentally, didn’t last all that long: only about 60 years. Blixenherself spent only 17 years in Kenya, barely a fifth of her life. Anyway, it was a verypleasant house and the grounds were gorgeous, with long views across to Blixen’s blue andbeloved Ngong Hills. My big excitement, however, was that as we were walking back to the car Isaw my first Maasai—a young man with a long walking stick and a bolt of red cloth wrappedaround his waist and draped over a shoulder, loping past on the other side of the road. Itseemed almost preposterously unreal to see a genuine African icon walking through this littlelost corner of Surrey.

    “What’s he doing here?” I asked, surprised.

    Kentice looked at me with a touch of wonder. “He lives here,” she said. “It’s hiscountry.”

    Monday, September 30

    Knowing of my interest in ancient pre-humans (because of a book I have been working on) Kenticeset up a visit to the National Museum. There we met Dr Emma Mbua, the petite and cheerful chiefpaleoanthropologist. Thanks largely to the efforts of two generations of the Leakey family, themuseum has the finest collection of early human remains in existence.

    It is an exceedingly rare event when a human bone fossilizes—only about one in a billion doesso—and even rarer when one is found. You could easily fit all the early human bones thathave ever been discovered into the back of a small delivery van. If you include every lasttooth and chip of ancient bone ever found, only about 5,000 individuals have contributed to thehuman fossil record. Five hundred of these are held in the Kenyan National Museum in what isaptly known as the Strong Room, a slightly oversized version of a bank vault, with a heavysteel door and thick windowless walls. It is the greatest single hoard in the world, morepriceless by far than any collection of royal baubles. Almost never is a non-specialist allowedinto this room. I was honored indeed.

    All the specimens are kept in small wooden chests in cupboards lined up around the walls. Forone giddy hour, Dr Mbua brought out one celebrated skull after another. Here was the first Homohabilis, found by Louis Leakey in 1964 and long thought to be our earliest direct ancestor.Then came the famous Australopithecus boisei, 1.6 million years old and found miraculouslyintact, lying on the ground in the open, by Louis’s son Richard in 1969. Then there was theextraordinary Turkana boy, whose nearly complete skeleton was found in northern Kenya in the1980s and which at a stroke provided scientists with more Homo erectus bones than all theprevious finds put together.

    Dr Mbua’s most treasured relic was a 19-million-year-old skull of an ape known as proconsul.“It was sent to the British Museum for cleaning in the 1940s,” she said, “and it took usforty years to persuade them to return it.”

“Why?” I asked.

    “They coveted it,” she said, smiling serenely, but hinting at levels of darkness in the worldof paleontology that I hadn’t known existed. “Now we don’t let anything leave the museum,ever. They are too delicate and too precious. If you want to see any of these special things,you must come to Nairobi.” How glad I was I had.

    The scarcity of human remains isn’t just because few bones become fossils, but also becauseprecious few landscapes offer the right conditions to preserve fossils. The greatest of them isthe Great Rift Valley, and it was there we headed next.

    I had always imagined the Rift Valley as some kind of canyon—a comparatively confined spacewhere your voice would echo off walls of rock. In fact, it is a mighty plain, a hundred milesacross and four thousand miles long. It is immense, and startlingly sumptuous in its beauty. Asyou head south and west out of Nairobi there comes a place where the ground just falls away andthere spread out below you is the biggest open space you have ever seen: the Great Rift Valley.It is an amazing sight—a pale green vastness interrupted here and there by dead volcaniccraters, but otherwise infinite and flat and very hot looking.

    We were headed for a place called Olorgesailie, 60 miles beyond the Ngong Hills on the valleyfloor. When we arrived, we stepped from the vehicle into a dry, oven-like heat, which was allthe more startling after the comparative coolness of Nairobi. In 1919, a geologist named J.W.Gregory was poking around in the area when he came across an expanse of ancient and distinctiveteardrop-shaped hand axes of a type known as Acheulean. In the 1940s, Louis Leakey and hiswife, Mary, got around to excavating the site. What they found was that Olorgesailie was a kindof factory where these tools were made in incalculable numbers over about a million years, from1.2 million to 200,000 years ago. But here’s the thing. The stones from which the axes weremade aren’t found on the Rift Valley floor. They had to be brought there from two nearbymountains named Ol Esakut and Mount Olorgesailie, each about ten kilometers away. Why the earlypeople went to such trouble and what exactly they used the tools for have long been a mystery.Acheulean axes were beautiful pieces of technology for the time, and each represented a lot ofeffort to create, but they weren’t outstandingly good for cutting or chopping orscraping—certainly not a great deal better than almost any random unshaped rock would be.

    Yet for a million years early humans went to the considerable trouble of collecting andcarrying large hunks of quartz and obsidian miles across a baking landscape to make them intoaxes at this one ten-acre site. More than this, the excavations showed that there was one areawhere axes were made and another where worn axes were brought to be re-sharpened. It was allamazingly organized.

    Today thousands upon thousands of these stone tools are heaped and scattered everywhere aroundOlorgesailie, left where they were dropped hundreds of thousands of years ago by ancestors soremote from us that they weren’t yet even Homo sapiens. It is an extraordinary site. One othercuriosity is that no human remains have ever been found at Olorgesailie. We have to guess whothe early people were.

    I know all this because a very bright and enthusiastic young man named Jillani Ngalla from theKenyan National Museum conducted us around the site. Ngalla appeared to know everything thereis to know about Olorgesailie, Acheulean tools, the Rift Valley, and early hominids, and yet heseemed awfully young for an authority. I asked him how long he had been a paleontologist.

    “Oh, I’m not,” he said cheerfully. “I am an aspiring paleontologist. I’ve been accepted atthe University of Pretoria,” he added with a touch of pride, “but sadly I don’t have thenecessary funds.”

    “How much would it cost?” I asked.

    “Ten thousand US dollars.” He gave me an apologetic look, as if he had just said ten million.

    “And do you have any hope of getting that kind of money?” I asked.

    “As things stand at the moment,” he answered and considered the question carefully for aminute, “no.”

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