The Glorious Beauty of the Sahel
I had a wonderful time reading Africa’s Ragged Edge – Journey into the Sahel the cover story for the April 2008 edition of the National Geographic magazine. I have previously written about my love affair with the NG so this should not come as a surprise to anyone who reads this blog.
Paul Salopek’s perilous adventure through the Sahel was reminiscent of Tintin – who to this day remains my favorite fictional character – accounts of his capture and imprisonment by the janjaweed in Darfur were in the mainstream media for weeks – he was eventually released following the intervention of the governor of New Mexico – Bill Richardson. Daoud Hari, Mr Salopek’s fellow captive, who served as his translator during his Sahelian adventure has also written a book describing his ordeal – The Translator: A Tribesman’s Memoir of Darfur available at amazon.com. A recent article in the Washington Post also provides a horrifyingly vivid account of Mr Hari’s experiences in the region. The pair were imprisoned along with their driver Idriss Anu
Someone who went through an unimaginable ordeal like Mr Salopek’s and lived to tell the tale, would be forgiven for writing explicit graphic details focusing on vivid images of the ugliness of this war, but he turns it around, opting rather to serve as an indefatigable champion of the region. He takes offence when a fellow compatriot dismisses it as a land of nothing, quickly admonishing a perspective of that nature as ‘an outsider’s delusion’.
Into the story of his experience as a captive of the janjaweed, he weaves poignant tales and wonderful descriptive images of an Africa that many are too myopic to see. He stops to pay a beautiful and moving homage to a woman he calls Fatim –
You will always be with me…for three days in Darfur, you were my mother
She had shared gourds of asida – a lentil paste – with him while he was imprisoned, a gesture which he appreciated as he acknowledged that she barely had enough for herself.
I like the way that Mr Salopek describes the good and the bad with unequivocal ease – the Sahel is the oldest killing filed in human history where Cain is still trading blows with Abel.
In the Gaga Refugee Camp, Chad he meets an only son, who has been named George Bush, whose family belong to the Mansalit tribe that has been terrorized and displaced by the janjaweed while in In Kirou Bugage, Niger, he juxtaposes two different theories of the regeneration of vegetation in the savanna contemplating an occurrence which has stymied researchers who attribute this to the increased rainfall as a result of global warming, while the local village chief attributes this to the leaf a tree called the gao. Our author is quick to highlight this important take-home message – Today, without fanfare or mercy concerts, some of the the world’s poorest farmers are busy stitching huge tracts of the Sahel back together
In Kano, Nigeria, he dissects the issues which have made the area a hotbed for religious fanaticism – astutely observing that in Kano, the real enemy was poverty since ordinarily Muslims and Christians cohabit peacefully in this space of the world. His brief sojourn in Nigeria, takes a hopelessly hilarious dimension when it climaxes with his ‘narrow’ escape out of the fear of an imagined menace in the form of a matinal visit from a secret policeman…our author conjures up images of being imprisoned on some trumped charge and while his description of panicking, scrambling and later jumping out of the window of a two story building is funny, it is hard to blame him giving the ordeal he has had to go through in the hands of the janjaweed in Darfur. He needn’t have worried his mysterious visitor grew tired of waiting and left, after all he concludes …this is Nigeria
In Timbuktu, Mali, he visits the bedrock of Arabic intellectual history, which he describes as the Oxford of the Islamic world. His guide is a Malian albino who is clad in a loosely fitted garment decorated -oddly enough – with antimalarial capsules! It is in Timbuktu that he has what I considered to be another hopelessly hilarious episode which occurs during the conversion ceremony of a US Army veteran, an unmissable event as a modern centurion embraces Allah in exotic Timbuktu. The ceremony takes place speedily in the middle of a European league soccer match – the imam had to catch the end of the match.
His trajectory through the Sahel ends at Saint Louis, Senegal – at the edge of the Atlantic ocean where along with our author we are confronted with the harsh reality of our times…we meet Didier who has the incongruous honor of transporting African migrants to their uncertain future in destinations in Europe. Mr Salopek evokes the memory of a similar exodus through the same route although in a different direction when millions of Africans were taken to the New World reminding the reader that even now it is impossible to escape the Sahel
This was one of the most gratifying pieces of writing that I have read in recent times. Sometimes I laughed while simultaneously fighting back tears, other times, I squirmed as I reminisced a little and contemplated the vicissitudes of modern life. I grew up in the land he describes and while I savored the splendid photos on the glossy pages of the magazine – courtesy of Pascal Maître…I knew that Paul Salopek was right you can’t escape it…I for one carry it with me all the time
Post ScriptBig shout outs to my fellow-bloggers (no names necessary, you know yourselves) who sought me out during my brief absence from these ‘colorful’ pages…I am doing great…thank you.
In addition, to the splendid NG article on the Sahel, I have managed to catch up a reading a few great books worthy of mention
Imagine This ~ Sade Adeniran – You know a book is really engaging when you are reading it in your car at the traffic lights and praying that the lights don’t change and are reminded where you are when the cars behind you start honking. Not that Ms Adeniran’s excellent debut novel (self-published and award-winning, I must add) is a catalyst for minor traffic infractions – I brought that on myself – just that it is so easy to get caught up in it. Chalk it up to a combination of the author’s brilliant writing style and the fact that the tales she weaves is so easy to relate to and uncannily familiar. Available from the author’s website (Psst…if you order it from there, you get an autographed copy of the book) special thanks to Molara Wood for the heads-up
The Kabul Beauty Shop ~ Deborah Rodriguez – I took a foray into the non-fiction world to satisfy my continued fascination with Afghanistan…this time looking at it from another perspective. Great book!!!
The Memory Keeper’s Daughter ~ Kim Edwards – I found it a bit eerie that the night I completed this book, the TV movie premiered on Lifetime, especially since I was just channel hopping looking for something to do since I was on the last pages of the book. It was one of the few times when I was grateful for the commercial breaks and was able to finish it up and watch the movie at the same time
A Fine Balance ~ Rohinton Mistry – I already talked about this here but could not help mentioning it again. Excellent vivid narration
Yellow-Yellow ~ Kaine Agary – I have waited a long time to read this and I need to say I love her writing style, read it in a day and half…one of those books like Ms Adeniran’s that you can almost relate to
If Fate allows, this weekend I am off to a place I like to call ‘Zem city‘ – a special prize awaits the first person who correctly guesses where that is…
For lack of something witty and creative to say … I am going to be unabashedly stereotypical and end with a That’s All Folks! (too lazy to search for an accompanying graphic to do justice to this age defying phrase)
Welcome back. I can see your time away was well spent. I enjoyed this piece and feel inspired to read this NG (also grew up on NG and still believe they have the best photographs in print).
Beloved is reading Ms. Lahiri’s latest book and sounds like one I would like to read. She is currently narrating Memory Keeper’s Daughter, her birthday present from last year.
Yay! She’s back! And she’s reading while driving!!!!!
Oh no, Jola Naibi! You know that is just not good, oh!
I’m liking your recommendations and might pick one up for the summer.
Hope all is well!
I just read read the april 2008 edition of the NG and I really enjoyed it. Cancelled my subscription in january but I have now signed up AGAIN!