Angry Wind by Jeffrey Tayler
So much for my personal interest. Tayler’s first stop was N’Djamena, the capital of Chad. From there he made his way—by taxi, truck, bus, train, boat—and briefly, camel, across the continent from East to West. The book is memorable primarily for his encounters with the people of the Sahel and of his attempts to understand them. He routinely hired guides and drivers—all but the real scoundrels became friends whose families he met and from whom he learned much of the culture, friends he was often sorrowful at leaving, because of his insights into the lives they led. He talked about the tough subjects: religion and nationality (because he recognized that tribal and religious loyalties meant more than nationhood—most West African borders after all were set by British and French colonials). He talked about family and food and traditional beliefs—like female circumcision which he found was followed religiously even though the practice is never mentioned in the Qu’ran.
In fact the whole question of what was valuable in traditional culture kept reappearing as a theme until a schoolteacher in Djenné pointed out that since the UN had declared the city and its Great Mosque a World Heritage site, now by law no one can repair a mud house with any other material than mud. The city stagnates because of "historic preservation" restrictions. But Oumar, the schoolteacher who was so liberal and Western in his views of education and urbanization, supported the circumcision of all woman for fear they would “go wild”, though his educated parents had had him circumcised in a hospital. In Bamako, Tayler went to a night club with a friend of a friend who said, in the upper classes (her caste) circumcision for girls was just beginning to die out. Looking at the gorgeous woman, Tayler could not help but wonder if she had been cut—but didn’t ask.
Another subject he focused on again and again was the distinction between slaves and master—even in sophisticated youth at the night club he found patrons joking (but only half joking) about their ancestry. It still matters among the Fulani and other tribal groups, whether your ancestors were masters or slaves. In one village Taylor visited, the slaves had their mouths darkened by ashes so as to make status visible. Of course in slave trading days—and Tayler visits an island holding tank for slaves in the harbor of Dakar—Africans sold each other to the traders who plied the coasts.
Everywhere he went there was fear of bandits or rebels. Serious rebellions had hampered the development of viable states for centuries. One, by the proud Tuareg nomads, had concluded only recently. (Since I was reading that chapter at the VW dealer waiting for my car, I couldn't help but glance at the Touareg behind me and wonder if those dessert warriors were the source of the name.)
I liked Tayler’s political discussions with people he met. Among other things he wanted to know how these Muslims regarded the US in the Post-911 world. (The trip took place during the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003.) Almost to a person his interlocutors hated Bush and thought he had led Americans into hating Muslims. A few expressed their disillusion that in America a President had come to power “by force”—the beacon of democracy had failed them. A few hated all Americans—and showed it to Tayler—but most separated individuals from their nation, possibly because they themselves didn’t identify with their nation.
The book’s conclusion was powerful as Tayler muses on the misery of the people he had seen on this trip and the unlikelihood that their lot would improve soon. Let me quote one paragraph. It gives you a sense too of his style, somewhat fanciful, certainly rhetorical, but controlled enough to be effective I thought:
“They were 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 of the Earth, Frantz 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, every 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. Or perhaps a few determined fanatics or seekers of martyrdom will take terrorist action on their behalf; after the carnage, it will seem impossible to fathom how such an abyss could have been allowed to widen between the north and south, between the whites and the rest, and how we could have tolerated, in a continent neighboring Europe, the deaths of millions from hunger and disease, and the radicalization of the survivors.”He's talking about the poor of Bamako, but in a sense of all the people he met on the trip through the Sahel. He also wrote in several places about how it's the cities that breed radicalism (that in the rural areas they want to practice their religion and where they say the Quaran doesn't condone killing so there were no terrorist supporters). There are zillions of pundits who will tell you that the urbanization of underdeveloped countries is a top level problem in the world today—with cities growing to 14-15-20 million or more, dwarfing any city most of us know. And the rural traditional people driven by economics to the city often lose their traditional heritage—their children find nothing useful in the rules by which their parents lived and didn't thrive.
The last time a book affected me so much on this topic was Robert Kaplan's The Ends of the Earth.