Tag Archives: Africa

“My Mercedes Is Not For Sale”

A quick summary: a memoir wherein the author, Jeroen Van Bergeijk, drives a Mercedes into West Africa to have a bit of an adventure as well as to turn a profit selling it to an African car dealer, or deserving cabbie, or whoever ends up actually producing the cash in the end.

It may be that in translation, pulled off by one John Antonides, the tight, clever character of the writing was utterly lost. But whatever the reason, a chant of the writer’s commandment to SHOW DON’T TELL grew in volume in my head as I progressed through the book.

Also, I think there is some kind of guideline about not treating your reader like a blockhead. If every time I read an analogy, and three sentences later the only thing I can think is, “DUDE! I get it…” then something needed to be edited, methinks. Let me soften this by saying, I was never actually insulted by the overexplaining; it is not pompous, just annoying.

That said, where else are you going to be able to read about an automobile trek across the Sahara? I’m sure there are other places, but there are enough things in the plus column to warrant joining Van Bergeijk’s trek:

1. It’s a pretty quick read, assuming you don’t have little kids interrupting you for food every couple of minutes.

2. The narrator is successfully presented as somebody you’d actually want to hang out with (even if he is a bit circuitously long winded).

3. He pulls in a lot of references to other relevant texts and some historical facts to illustrate the events and his observations, so you feel like you’re exploring the continent from several angles.

4. It takes a fairly balanced look at Africa – I’ve been studying the continent’s history and art for a few years, so I’m attuned to some of the common pitfalls as far as assumptions and prejudices go. The narrator manages to present his feelings (which tend toward compassion) but makes sure to include enough alternate testimony that you feel you’re getting a sufficiently broad crosscut of various points of view.

In conclusion: it’s worth a go, if the African continent holds any fascination for you.

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“What is the What”

Since I have almost zero time free to read, when I do read something it had better be good!

The book I just finished fit the bill.  What is the What by Dave Eggers is part autobiography and part fiction, recounting the life of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese man who survived the civil war that destroyed so much of his homeland.

I find the mixture of truth and fiction intriguing, but as Mr. Deng explains in the preface, “It should be known to the readers that I was very young when some of the events in the book took place, and as a result we simply had to pronounce What is the What a novel.”  But he goes on to assure readers, “The book is historically accurate, and the world I have known is not different from the one depicted within these pages.”

It is also interesting that Mr. Eggers helped him write it, and is the only author listed on the cover.  One might ask, whose story is it, really?

Having studied in college the genre of testimonio, a category of writing that includes texts which tell the true story of individuals who have survived oppression and hardship, I am sure that theorists would go nuts over the truth/fiction blend going on in this book.

For me, I find it worth reading for the history as well as for the perspective of a person who has lived in both the US and Africa and can inform us of the contrast.

It is a story that never stops for a moment.  It will take you out of wherever you are and move you through a world that few of us, thankfully, will experience otherwise.  

It was worth reading just for the moment when my husband was watching a rerun of a goofy sitcom while I had my nose in the book, and I could hear the characters on the TV joking about their party-gone-sour while in the book young Achak is riding in the back of a military truck with a load of dead bodies… I had to stop reading.  Just to let it all digest, that we are all on this planet together but our realities are separated by light years.  Just to feel that moment when our realities existed, paradoxically, in the same space, when they came together in my conscious mind.

If you get a chance, join Mr. Deng’s reality for a moment.  How can we resist someone who wants so badly for us to hear his story?  As he says in the book, talking to us, the readers, about his storytelling, “…I speak to you because I cannot help it.  It gives me strength, almost unbelievable strength, to know that you are there.  I covet your eyes, your ears, the collapsible space between us.  How blessed are we to have each other?  I am alive and you are alive so we must fill the air with our words.”

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New release of a brilliant movie

One of my favorite writers and directors, Sembène Ousmane, about whom I have previously posted when he passed away last year, directed a movie called “Camp de Thiaroye” which is coming out on DVD on November 11th.  I am so excited that I even pre-ordered it.

Normally I wouldn’t shamelessly plug something, I’m a fairly mellow consumer, but to most people, African cinema is so obscure that I feel like if speak up, there might be a couple more people in the world that know they have another choice besides a Hollywood flick for their entertainment.

There are a lot of reasons that these movies stay obscure.  People don’t like subtitles.  Non-Hollywood movies tend to move slower and so spectators used to rapid-fire action can’t sit still ’til the end.  These movies aren’t widely available (I haven’t checked Netflix) but you have to know someone to borrow them from or else order your own copy through Amazon (definitely worth owning!) The budget that an African director works with is so much smaller than what is available for a Hollywood film that the movie’s set, costumes and such sometimes seem amateurish compared to what spectators are used to.  And sometimes, people don’t want to view a new perspective of the world in a movie, they just want the same rehashed plotline with more cleavage and a bigger explosion.

But there is so much that the average American doesn’t know about the history of the world.  Did you know in the 1880’s the big European nations got together for the “Berlin Conference” and agreed who got which part of Africa, so that they didn’t waste their energy fighting each other over parcels but could focus their efforts on suppressing (that is a nice word for killing and enslaving) the indigenous African populations?  Did you know that many African nations got their independence in the 1960’s, but that Europe and the US essentially maintained control over the countries through puppet dictatorships (which Sembène shows clearly at the beginning of his movie “Xala”)?

The movie coming out in a couple of weeks, called “Camp de Thiaroye,” tells another important, and true, story, that of the soldiers from Senegal who fought alongside French soldiers against the Nazis.  The movie exposes what happened when the Senegalese soldiers returned home and were “rewarded” by the French.

I can’t say much else without spoiling the movie.  I wish I could hold a screening in my living room and invite everyone.  I feel it is so important for us to get outside our comfort zones and our narrow points of view and see the world through totally new eyes.  Sembène achieves this result, plus entertaining us, making us laugh, endearing us to characters, and amazing us with things we’ve never seen before.  Making us think and realize a new truth are just the icing.

If you somehow get a chance to see it, I highly recommend this movie.

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