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I pulled myself out of The Ringtone and the Drum feeling rather disorientated. I’d been reading it solidly for a day and a half on trains and in hotels in Germany, reading about West Africa where daytime temperatures of 40 degrees or more are normal, and where a ceiling fan would be a luxury if there hadn’t been a power cut. This doesn’t apply in Guinea-Bissau, where there simply isn’t any mains electricity at all. When the power cuts happen at night in Sierra Leone, you wake up instantly, drenched by your own sweat on the sheets. (If you have sheets.) Night-time temperatures in Burkina Faso are in the high 30s. I was feeling limp at midday highs of 33 degrees in Munich, but I wasn’t feeling sorry for myself once I’d finished this book.
The heat in West Africa can drive people mad, even well-fed and healthy people like the author, Mark Weston, who records the remarkable effects of soudanité on his own mental health. It’s not just the heat that brings on soudanité; semi-starvation and isolation from traditional community ties will also tip people over the edge, imperceptibly, until they’re walking into traffic on the roads and arguing with shadows.
These conditions seem normal for most of the populations of these painfully poor and troubled countries. It seems astonishing that the people can keep themselves from going under. The hopeless political systems tyrannise the countries’ economies – those that have economies still in any shape to still be looted – which has produced a primitive feudalism as the only functioning social system. Weston’s description of how this process emerged made a lot more sense for me of why these countries operate in such a self-destructive way. They function, barely, under a system of obligation to patrons and dependents that seems to have either replaced or duplicated the traditional tribal relationships of giving and taking. Life in these countries is a backwards struggle under staggering tribal and cultural demands as well as the new impositions of gross corruption and heavy weaponry.
But this is not a tale of total misery. I loved this book, because it’s a powerful and uplifting read. Mark Weston keeps a clear perspective and tells a balanced story by focusing on the people he meets and stays with, and the ways they live now. Small economic miracles gladden the heart. The Dollar Boys of Freetown make a scanty living by providing change to taxi drivers and charging a small commission, taking advantage of Sierra Leone’s rocketing inflation and a country-wide lack of small change. Some Dollar Boys die because they get murdered for their satchels of cash, but they soldier on doggedly, simply to survive. Their ingenuity, and their brilliant business acumen and maths skills, are wholly admirable.
This book is like the best kind of journalism from The Economist: sound explanations of brutal economics, heartfelt empathy for the sufferers, and a clear understanding of history, and the political conditions that are making everything worse. Weston did his research by personal interviews, and simply talking to the people he met. The American missionaries were easy enough to talk to, though the demands of their religion became difficult, but West African countries are largely francophone. “English and French were generally enough in Sierra Leone and Burkina Faso, though I sometimes asked Burkinabe friends who spoke French to ask non-French speakers a question or two. And for Guinea-Bissau I learned Portuguese before I went (I speak Spanish so it’s not a big leap) and that was fine with most people – they speak Kriolu there but that’s similar enough to Portuguese to get by.” He’s learning Swahili now, for his next African journey, to Tanzania.
In the background of this book, where she apparently insisted she stayed, is Weston’s wife Ebru. She accompanied him on all these travels, stopped him from probable suicide in the depths of soudanité, talked to the women in Islamic areas whom Weston could not speak to, kept an eye out for possible assassins after Weston posted a rather rash blogpost about witnessing a new method of drug smuggling, and appears to have been the voice of sanity and rational thinking that every traveller needs in the scarier parts of the world.
The mission statement of the publisher, Zero Books is refreshingly aggressive: ‘Former public spaces – both physical and cultural – are colonized by advertising. A cretinous anti-intellectualism presides, cheerled by expensively educated hacks in the pay of multinational corporations who reassure their bored readers that there is no need to rouse themselves from their interpassive stupor”. Their mission is to publish “another kind of discourse – intellectual without being academic, popular without being populist” because “in the unthinking, blandly consensual culture in which we live, critical and engaged theoretical reflection is more important than ever before”. I’ve read too much bland and depressingly shallow long-form journalism by the First World about the Third World. I’d like to see Zero Books take on travel more vigorously, to combine their politics with development issues as successfully as Weston has done with The Ringtone and the Drum.
Mark Weston, The Ringtone and The Drum, Travels in the World’s Poorest Countries (Alresford: Zero Books), October 2013, £15.99, $26.95 , ISBN 978-1-78099-5586-1.
Kate podcasts fortnightly about books that she really, really likes, on http://www.reallylikethisbook.com.
We'll be back on Sunday 12 April with the details of our latest investigation, on alternative publishing: how to do it, who does it, how it works, and what it's really like. Till then, we invite you to read books about eggs, chocolates, the return of life to a hopeful world, and the wonder of seasons changing.