BOOK REVIEW: The lost Kingdoms of Africa by Jeffrey Tayler
Wow. A huge wide smile spread spontaneously across my face when I stumbled on Jeffery Tayler’s travel book “The lost Kingdoms of Africa” – its tagline– “through Muslim Africa by Truck, Bus and Camel” wetted my appetite so much so I immediately started looking for a cozy corner where I could sit and start reading I was so excited. But it was to be the back summary of the book that made me thank the heavens above that I had found another way of travelling back to where I had just come from, an abrupt return which I am only now beginning to fully accept.
“This is the account of a journey through the realms of Africa so remote, so geographically and culturally isolated that their frontiers have rarely been breached. The Sahel region of the lower Sahara, whipped by ferocious winds and shrouded in secretes, home to a vast Muslim population is the southernmost outpost of Islam’s dominance in Africa. Comprising the southern Sahara regions of Chad, Northern Nigeria, Niger, Mali and Senegal, it once witnessed the emergence of Africa’s wealthiest and most exotic Kingdoms and Empires. To this day it produces some of the continent’s leading writers, musicians and artists, perilous and poverty-stricken, it rarely sees travelers I was already jealous of this guy, Jeffery Tayler, I mean he gets to travel the Sahel by truck, taxi, bus and boat, something I have always wished I could do and he gets to do it! Wow.
Tayler –an American travel writer based in Moscow – already sounded amazing to me, with three titles of travel novels under his belt. Moreover he was well prepared for his adventures into Muslim Africa having learnt and being fluent in both Arabic and French. Wow. Anyway what lay between the pages is the most uncomfortable ride of my life full with so many sweeping patronizing derogatory generalizations and misguided judgments of Black/African people that I literally had to force myself to read it through to the very last line, just to be fair.
I, like him struggled through the Harmattan (from the twi haramatta, a derivation of the Arabic haram, forbidden, evil, cursed) which he describes as a parching easterly wind that originates above the wastes of the Sahara and blows for days over Central and West Africa. The Harmattan is his constant and most loyal companion through out his travels and is the most visible character in the book apart from himself – the narrator. He spends so much time describing it that at one point when someone asked me “how’s the book” my response was “I feel as if I have grains of sand stuck between my teeth”. He does have a way with words. Jalil a name which Tayler uses to introduce himself during his travels.
Tayler prides himself (rightfully so) on his purely classical Arab language skills but has almost nothing positive to say about the countries he visits (the African kingdoms he so lustfully desires are lost to him) nor the people who host him along the way. Perhaps the timing of his travels as an American in “Muslim” Africa was a miscalculation on his part. He travels to the Sahel shortly after the 2001 September 11 terrorist attacks in the US. But the Muslim extremism he tries to excavate from the “Sahelians” seems to only to exist in his head. “how about Bin Laden?, al Qaeda?” he keeps asking as if expecting an answer more congruent with his perception of Muslim Africa as the breeding ground for Muslim fundamentalists bent on launching a full war against the West.
My envy of his travels vanished and was soon replaced with sheer sympathy for him. I had the heavens to thank for that I had not read the book before traveling to one of the lost kingdoms of Africa because the book does an excellent, if not superb job of discouraging the reader to never dare set foot there.
Page after page is littered with the same monotonous accounts of religious fundamentalism, Christians against Muslims and visa versa, black Africans hating themselves, abusing, enslaving, oppressing and killing and maiming their children mercilessly in the name of culture or tradition and let’s not forget their collective yet secrete hatred for all Arabs, which is trumped only by their collective love and admiration of their truest savior – the white man. Poverty, corruption, disease, tribalism, hatred, back-ward and uncivilized cultural and traditional practices are highlights of his trip. At some point he admits to recoiling at the mucus ridden dry faces of black children greeting him and wanting to touch him ” I couldn’t help it” he says. It is ultimately “nature” in the form of the snake like Niger River and the moon which offer him some solace during the 2500 mile trip. It’s as if he never moves from one country to next, as if he is constantly and mercilessly trapped in the blinding epicenter of the harmattan orbit The last three chapters pretty much some up his experience of the Sahel —-Djennes bitter winds (the book was initially published with the title Angry Wind in 2005), Death in the Sun and Misere.
His description of Bamako -Mali in Chapter 19 (Misere) sums up his entire book:
“The chants of the mendicants, the hyena-honks of taxis, the grunts of the women, and the oaths shouted by angry drivers all compose a cacophony of urban distress as grievous as it is in vain. Vain because beyond the Sahel the voices of these people cannot be heard, their stories will never be told. They are born to live poor and die hard, leaving nothing behind: their misery once the subject of ideologies of liberation and revolt now inspires no one. ‘The Wretched on the Earth” Franz Fanon called people like them in another time, but he is dead, and his oeuvre, passé. However, in defiance of intellectual fashion the wretched remain orphaned of Western defenders, ever leaner, ever hungrier, increasingly angry, serving their sentences, awaiting an emancipator, a commander. For now , poverty and despair banish thoughts of revolution among these masses, but later when a savior appears, he will exploit their suffering to create an army of the enraged that will swamp coalitions of the willing, breach the walls and storm the west”.
It is of course hard to maintain or sustain the self-righteous anger that so easily bubbles up to the surface as I read what I can only describe as well written yet putrid account the Sahel because that is ultimately his experience, moreover the facts of what he observes; civil wars, disease, hunger, corruption and general lack of progress in many African counties is frustratingly still true today. What is upsetting is he posits all of judgments as truths ‘that will never change. He is so confident and self assured and misunderstandings I wished I could talk to him about it. Take his description of a typical greeting:
“How was I she asked, and how was I doing with ‘la journee? Et ta famillle? Et ta sante? Et la fatigue? Et las journee? Et la famille? Et la santé? Et la…. ‘One did not answer each inquiry but responded simultaneously with an echoing litany of languid verbiage, interspersed with “merci, merci, ca va, merci, oiu merci,et vous?”
He concludes that this greeting ritual must have been inherited from North African Arabs whom are the only people he seems to have modicum of respect for throughout the book. Another misguided assumption. Despite my efforts to free myself from mental slavery and not reduce Tayler’s’ work to a simplistic black and white racial interpretation of us and them – I also just couldn’t help it. The book makes it hard for one to go anywhere else. He does at time try to provide some semblance of objectivity, or balance. In the final chapter of the book he tries to collect create some context to WHY Africa is so “Wretched and miserable” but his deep seeded Afro-pessimism prevailed to the very last line:
“Western companies continue to control African export markets, fixing the prices they pay Africans for the commodities they take from their shores. These impersonal facts and figures add up to a bleak but human truth: Sahelians will suffer in the future more than they do now, and die more than ever. Their imams will tell the survivors whom to blame.”
That’s where the book should have started. But I am grateful to Jeffery Tayler for writing this book – because now I will make it my personal life’s mission to ensure that there is another account of Africa, written from a Black African Female perspective….of love, triumph , prosperity and freedom, because there is life in the Sahel – he just didn’t want to see it