Africa Archive

Teju Cole and the ‘yahoo boys’ of Lagos

everydayisforthethief.jktEver had one of those emails asking you to provide bank details so that your long-lost relation’s bequest can be deposited in your account? Many of them are sent by the young men who haunt the cyber-cafes of Lagos, Nigeria. In Every Day Is For the thief by Teju Cole, which Faber & Faber is due to publish in Britain on April 17, there’s a particularly good passage on how these “yahoo boys” peck out their messages on keyboards at night, when it’s cheaper to get online.

Teju Cole won the PEN/Hemingway Award, the New York City Book Award for Fiction and the Internationaler Literaturpreis for his novel Open City. He was also short-listed for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Ondaatje Prize of the Royal Society of Literature (of which you’ll be hearing a lot more on Deskbound Traveller over the next few weeks). Cole, a writer, photographer and historian of early Netherlandish art, grew up in Nigeria and then moved to New York. The narrator of Every Day Is for the Thief is a young man returning to Nigeria from New York. A note on the copyright page says that this is “a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.” Is it, now?

The places and locales are real enough to be pinpointed on a map, among them the Mayflower School in Ikenne, Ogun State, attended by one “character”, and the Tejuoshu Market (razed by fire in 2007 and still being rebuilt), the Ojodu-Berger bus terminal and the National Museum, all in Lagos. The book has the slimness of a novella (163 pages), but it might better be described as creative non-fiction. Its author, after all, told The New York Times recently: “‘The novel’ is overrated, and the writers I find most interesting find ways to escape it.”

However you read it, Every Day Is for the Thief is a vivid portrait of a country where everyone with authority or power is on the take, and the narrator in constant search of “a moving spot of sun”. There’s an extract on the website of The New Yorker.

On safari with Jackman

Totting up all the trips he has made over 40 years for publications including The Sunday Times and The Daily Telegraph, Brian Jackman reckons he has spent more than three years of his life on safari. Few Britons know the African bush and its inhabitants as he does, and fewer still can match his ability to conjure them on the page.

In an introduction to a new collection of his pieces, Savannah Diaries, he asks, “How do you begin to describe [Africa’s] magic to someone who has never been? How can you explain the fascination of a land whose oldest roads are elephant paths?” Time after time, everywhere from the Maasai Mara to the Kalahari, he proves himself more than equal to that challenge. I’ve chosen an excerpt in which he reports from one of the driest places on earth, the Namibian desert – after getting soaked to the skin on arrival.

(The man who was Jackman’s guide on his trip to Namibia, Louw Schoeman, has died, but his sons are still introducing visitors to the wonders of the country on flying safaris. One of them, Henk, flew Richard Grant, who reported for the Telegraph Magazine in February.)

Bringing West Africa a little nearer

Deskbound Traveller is here to draw attention to the best in narrative travel writing — including writing that, in journalistic terms, has passed its sell-by date. The media’s attention span is short; if a book hasn’t been given space within the month (sometimes the week) of its publication, it’s unlikely to be given space at all. I don’t think Mark Weston’s The Ringtone and the Drum got the attention it deserved on its publication in Britain in October 2012. But then that’s partly my fault: short of reading time, and far from short of pieces from Africa, I glanced at it when a review copy came in to Telegraph Travel, and then put it on a shelf. It stayed there until I was having a clear-out last Christmas, dipped into it, and carried on reading. It’s a book about the far reaches of West Africa, a part of the world which, as Weston reminds us in his first chapter, is “nobody’s idea of a dream holiday destination”. A child there is fortunate to be born without losing its mother, to reach its first birthday and to survive a cold.

What keeps people going in such places? How do they not only keep body and soul together but maintain poise and spirit and summon the energy to make music? Weston, despite having spent years working in developing countries, decided that he didn’t really know, so he set off to find out, travelling through Guinea-Bisseau, Sierra Leone and Burkina Faso, three of the poorest and most unstable countries in the world, to document the daily round. “I felt I needed a deeper understanding of this neglected corner of the planet,” he says, “and thought that perhaps, by writing about it, I might help bring its inhabitants’ lives a little closer to ours.” In The Ringtone and the Drum, he does just that. You can read an extract under “New writing”.

Algeria, where Camus is an outsider

theoutsiderjktThe current edition of Five Dials, the excellent free magazine published by Hamish Hamilton and edited by Craig Taylor (author of Londoners), is devoted to Albert Camus, who was born 100 years ago this year. It includes a piece by the Canadian writer Curtis Gillespie, who travelled from Edmonton to Algiers to look into the legacy of the Nobel prize-winner in the land of his birth. It turns out that there isn’t one – not officially, anyway.

“If Camus’s work remains as vital as ever,” writes Gillespie, “his political significance has never been more relevant. Yet in the country that might benefit most from his message of justice and acceptance of the other, he is instead in danger of being culturally disappeared.”

Of Algiers itself, Gillespie told Five Dials that he had been ready for chaos. “But I suppose I was expecting a city where the chaos and differentness is exciting. In Algiers it was heartbreaking, possibly because I’d pre-romanticised it through Camus’s influence on me. The Kasbah is a Unesco World Heritage site, but it’s tragic what’s happening there. I don’t just mean garbage falling out of tins and so on. I mean heaps and heaps and mounds of stinking, steaming, rotting trash strewn all over the place… There have been very few places I’ve ever been where the tragic history of a country is so obviously felt on the street.”

The whole magazine can be downloaded as a PDF from the Five Dials site.

Four Fields that stand for the world

fourfieldsjktI can’t help imagining an initial pitch to agent or publisher, made over a beer in a Cambridgeshire pub.

“Right, Tim: The Running Sky was a beautiful book, but the second one is always harder. How are you going to follow it?

“Well, I want to write a book about four fields.”

“What – as in grassy fields?

“Yes, they are all grassed at the moment, as it happens…”

In The Guardian a couple of weeks ago, Stephen Moss (editor, incidentally, of The Hedgerows Heaped with May: The Telegraph Book of the Countryside) chose Four Fields by Tim Dee (Jonathan Cape) as one of his nature books of the year. I think it’s going to be one of mine, too.

The fields of the title are the Cambridgeshire fens, a colonial farm in Zambia, the Little Bighorn Battlefield in Montana, and a former cow meadow near the exploded nuclear reactor at Chernobyl, in Ukraine: “a few hundred acres standing for the world”. There are digressions and diversions, too, into other plots and acreages, other examples of this “best thing of man, and the thing of his that is nearest to becoming nature”. Dee wants us to look through these places at the wild and how we have messed it up, but also at how we have kept going alongside it.

So far (I’m on page 79), I’ve walked with him through the Fens and into the Maasai Mara. He’s been a compelling guide, combining the attentiveness of the birdwatcher he has been since the age of seven with the soul of a poet. He is as good on wild death as he is on wildlife:

“The new dead steamed as vultures stoked at open ribcages. The old dead liquefied under the sun in a meltdown to meaty molasses. Bones blurred in a hymn of flies. Grass grew livid from beneath, through bleached bone houses. Grass grew livid from within, pulling up from ruptured guts; a last meal germinated, juiced into life by rot. A wildebeest grazed on the grass that sprouted from the stomach of a wildebeest.”

I’ve read countless descriptions of the wildebeests’ great migration and their croc-imperilled crossing of the Mara River. Dee, as he does with fields in general, made me look at it afresh:

“Entering the slapping river they seemed stripped naked, forced to endure a swimming lesson by an instructor who, for all his severities, sits nowhere but in their own heads.”

I’m looking forward to following him further, but I’m conscious, too, that there aren’t many shopping days left before Christmas. So, from page 79, here’s a recommendation: one to buy.

Orania: where apartheid lives on

“Situated halfway along one of the main roads linking Johannesburg and Cape Town, Orania lies in a sparsely populated area, where huge skies meet a horizon punctuated by escarpments and triangular kopjes. It is an arid place, chosen… to be unattractive to all but those sufficiently desperate to come here – frightened Afrikaner whites.” On the eve of Nelson Mandela’s funeral, Neil Tweedie reports for The Daily Telegraph on apartheid’s last redoubt.

Obie Oberholzer’s Karoo

“I don’t like cities,” says Obie Oberholzer. “They’re a conglomeration of falseness. I like the outback, where you can sit and watch and feel.  You find the most interesting things in vastness.”

For his latest project, the renowned South African photographer has been documenting life in the Karoo, a parched expanse of baked red earth that fills the centre-west of his homeland. In today’s Telegraph Travel, he introduces the result, Karoo: Long Time Passing. For more on his work, see his own site.

The atom bomb and the crocodile

For a new book serialised today in the Telegraph Magazine, Snake Dance, Patrick Marnham and the film director Manu Riche travelled from the heart of darkness to the crack of doom: from a uranium mine in the Congo via Los Alamos in New Mexico, where the atom bomb was developed, to Japan, where in 1945 the bomb destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

En route, they learned that there are many ways to crash a plane in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which, according  to Africa News, “holds the word record for air crashes”. Among them is this:

“…you can fail to check the hand baggage at Kinshasa (2010) and allow a passenger to carry a small crocodile on board, packed into a large sports bag. The crocodile escaped from the bag during the final approach to Bandundu, causing a stampede of passengers and cabin crew on to the flight deck, where the Dutch pilot and his co-pilot, from Gloucestershire, lost control of the L-410 Turbolet – and all on board, except for one passenger and the crocodile, were killed.”

The rainy season in Rwanda

“I’d like to see her work in the travel pages,” Nicholas Shakespeare said to me recently of Lindsey Hilsum, international editor of Channel 4 News. Shakespeare, former literary editor of The Daily Telegraph and now chief literary critic of the Telegraph group, had been hugely impressed by her account of the Libyan revolution. In the latest edition of Granta magazine, published in Britain last week (and out in the United States on Tuesday), Hilsum reports on her return to Rwanda, where, nearly 20 years ago, she was living in Kigali when the massacres began. She finds shiny evidence of progress in the capital, but concludes that, “in the hills of rural Rwanda, the unrepentant and the unforgiven are living alongside the unhealed”.

I found myself haunted by that phrase long after I finished her piece. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles, and have been watching it closely since, wondering whether it really has renounced tribalism for the glossy new out-of-town Tesco. Others will find Hilsum’s piece haunting for different reasons. There is a short excerpt on the Granta website. The article as a whole is the most powerful piece of reporting I’ve read for years, and in itself worth the £12.99 you’ll pay for Granta.

Is it travel writing? It is in the view of Deskbound Traveller.

Highway N2 revisited

The N2 is the longest road in South Africa. It starts near the docks in Cape Town, roughly follows the eastern seaboard, then bends inland to end at the town of Ermelo in the province of Mpumalanga. It’s 2,241 kilometres long. Can you do it justice in 2,241 words? Without straying from the tarmac or the hard shoulder? That’s what Hedley Twidle, winner last year of the inaugural Bodley Head/FT Essay Prize, sets out to do in today’s Financial Times.