What is it with Africa? What is it about it that drives some people, particularly Europeans, so completely deranged with greed and grabbiness? I admit I am obsessed with most of the continent, particularly from the DRC southwards, but why? It’s not greed or grabbiness on my part – I swear it! I do not want to enslave indigenous people or steal diamonds or cobalt. I do not have white saviour complex – I am sure of it!
One of my five visits to Africa, (to Namibia,) was with a charity and there I saw very clearly this white saviour complex in fellow travellers. Some were weirdly desperate for photos with cute children from the village, presumably because they really wanted to be able to stick up a photo of themselves on their bedroom wall, holding a little child, when they were back in the UK. Look how worldly I am, look how I love the little child. But this was a child, a Black child, they literally didn’t know the name of, had never seen before that moment and would never see again. I wasn’t in it for that – if I was I would have applied to work with people, rather than with fence-lines and animals – and that behaviour felt exploitative. So what was I in it for?
I don’t have an answer, but whatever it is lurks somewhere in the pages of The Poisonwood Bible, which is not a new book but one I have read recently. It is about an American missionary family who journey to what was then Congo, to a doomed remote village outposting in the “interior” (which broadly means the jungle). The time period is roughly late 50s and 60s and covers a rocky regime change, which precipitates what is referred to as “The Congo Crisis”. Barbara Kingsolver, the author, spent some time in Congo as a child, (her father was a philanthropic doctor), and she knows what she is talking about. It is a magnificent book – to my mind explaining very well the tragedy and wrong-headedness and brutality of European involvement in this continent, while also telling a page-turning, compelling story of a family.
I suspended my “no sad or dead children” rule for this book but I had to read a few pages from behind a cushion, not least because I am extremely scared of snakes. Anyway I am sure you have already read this book as it is a million billion bestseller but if not and you, too, have a thing about this part of the world, go for it. I often think sometimes that if there weren’t so many snakes, I would have already been living in e.g. Mozambique for twenty years by now. And yet, I have never been confident that there is a way to live authentically in any part of Africa as a European without it, somehow, being exploitation.
From European bungling in Africa to British bungling in Belfast, Say Nothing is another tongue-out, gripping account (totally factual) but this time about Northern Ireland. I have lately come to realise I am excruciatingly ignorant about basically everything. Only the other day Kitty asked me whose side Russia was on in the war and I confidently said “Ours!” for Giles to say “Not at the start, though,” and I said “Oh really?” and he gave me one of his “What fucking planet are you from” looks.
Anyway, away we go to Belfast. Say Nothing tells the story of this conflict through many viewpoints but predominantly through the stories of Dolours Price, a young firebrand member of the IRA, and Jean McConville, a mother of ten who was abducted and “disappeared” by that same organisation. The true genius of the author Patrick Radden Keefe is not only that he can collate and handle the spooling reams of information required to write a book like this but that he can sympathise with our newcomer status. He assumes no knowledge. Everyone is called Bobby or Seamus and Keefe takes care every time he takes you back to a character to remind you which Bobby or Seamus this exactly is. There are also mercilessly few acronyms and it’s all just very plainly spelled out. Books – usually by men, sorry – on conflicts often revel in the soup of acronyms and it renders them totally unreadable.
Keefe is also very good at emphasising over and over again the importance of the close-knit culture in Ireland generally, but in the North particularly, the deep hatred of grassing people up or being “a tout”. It is only in this culture that something like the IRA can work. The whole thing strikes me as a lesson not in the dangers of extremism but in the dangers of self-righteousness, a thing which is so endemic and dangerous on social media.
But that’s a digression. None of the main players come out of this book looking good but they are all afforded the air of deeply tragic characters: the innocent bystanders caught up in the violence; young idealistic people horribly bumped off by the organisation they set out to serve; the architects of the violence, left deranged with guilt, PTSD, depression, all the while thinking that they were doing these terrible things for a united Ireland only for that not to happen. The deeply damaged, weird Gerry Adams.
The only non-tragic participants are the British, who just stagger about being so British about everything, getting it all wrong. They really could have gone about things in a much smarter way. And do you know what? It’s partly the fault of this British army strategist Frank Kitson who learned everything he knew about counter-insurgency by his time spent in… wait for it… Kenya.
I think many of our generation are horribly ignorant about many rather fundamental historical things. My (intelligent) parents certainly had this expectation that I just knew about stuff; they presumed I was taught it at school, I imagine recalling their own seemingly-broad education without any real sense of how little general knowledge GCSEs gave you beyond the specific period you were studying. I met blank disbelief from them if I said I didn’t know something, so obviously I got very good at non-committal conversational noises, a skill which has probably been more useful than a working knowledge of Ireland during the Troubles, but gets me the same Giles look from my husband. Who of course knows all about everything, because he is much better at absorbing and remembering.
I’m fascinated that it’s Africa or India for people, not both. I am definitely India, where I think it is infinitely less problematic to live as a European and especially as a Brit.
Both of these sound excellent recs, thank you.
As an aside, after your bra posts, I finally pulled myself together, sorted through my disgraceful underwear drawer, looked at some bra-fitting guides, identified my boob shape and ordered dozens of new bras in a variety of sizes and shapes and now I HAVE SOME WHICH FIT AND ARE COMFORTABLE AND THE STRAPS STAY UP, thank you for the much-needed kick.
The most comprehensive advice I found was here https://www.amplebosom.com/blogs/category/bra-advice-bra-tips
including mysteries like the ‘sister sizes’ when an assistant says oh, you’re a 34B but you can wear a 36A and you’re just thinking, huh? really? how does that WORK though? I would recommend taking half a morning for trying on bras at home, to spend enough time in each one and putting a few different tops over it etc.
You’re so right. I was going to say “you’re either Africa or India” but didn’t for a reason I now can’t remember
Yeah, can’t forget the non-aggression pact!
Don’t worry about it, speak to *some* french people and they’ll tell you that the war started in ‘39 and ended in ‘40 (all anecdotal of course). Lol.
Cindy Vincent says
I really enjoyed The Poisonwood Bible, it was one of the first books I remember properly getting into after baby/toddler fog and it felt like such a relief I too overlooked the usual sad children rule. I have not managed to repeat the trick with any of her other books though, unfortunately. I’ve not had a great time for reading recently but coincidentally I’ve watched and read a couple of good things related to Ireland and Northern Ireland in the last few weeks. One was a documentary on IPlayer called The Derry City Story, which told a story of the Troubles through the fortunes of the football club, and it was very moving, I suspect even if you aren’t particularly interested in football, although I am. The other was a memoir by the Irish writer and broadcaster Nuala O’Faolain, in which personal and social history blend together, frank writing about her childhood, career and relationships. Caroline O’Donoghue chose it on the Backlisted Podcast.
I was just thinking the other day about what an absolutely brilliant novel The Poisonwood Bible is. Might have to re-read…
OMFG, The Poisonwood Bible was THE book that totally got me hooked on Kingsolver years ago…it literally still haunts me…the ants, the ball of malaria tablets, the vegetables that kept withering and dying. the mad mad husband waaahhhhhhhhhh
I was reading Say Nothing in March 2020 and had to set it aside but am finally ready to return to it. I’ve listened to Patrick Radden Keefe’s latest book, Empire of Pain, and his limited-series podcast, Wind of Change; both were incredible, and Wind of Change is the best podcast I’ve listened to. Keefe’s structuring of story is so immaculate, as is his ability to structure a piece. I will read anything he writes.
Barbara Kingsolver is a big no thanks for me, though I understand why her work resonates.
I don’t think I have anything particularly useful to add here, but I LOVED both of those books and recommend them all the time. The Poisonwood Bible is a masterpiece, pure and simple. Kingsolver’s mastery of every aspect of the novel is remarkable.
Too late maybe but my son goes to a very very academic school (next to “Abbey”) and it’s astonishing, he’s being taught all this stuff. First long essay “would WW1 have been won without the Americans”, essay 2, “you have 20 years to change the medical and education systems in Lagos, what would you do”. Books to read on everything. Versus my daughter in a gorgeous school which is just supportive and good but wouldn’t dream of this setting one up in society ethos. Jealous of him is the truth.
Ah yes. My son is having a very similar experience at his new school which is a feeder for THAT school although I don’t think he’ll be going