The complete guide to Literary Africa
Africa, vast and varied, has inspired an equally diverse and challenging canon of literature. Follow in the footsteps of the many writers drawn to this fascinating continent
Saturday 15 November 2003
THAT SOUNDS LIKE A LOT OF READING
THAT SOUNDS LIKE A LOT OF READING
Absolutely. With a potential literary landscape of more than 2,000 different dialects and languages, spread over 12 million square miles of territory covering the geographical spectrum from jungle to desert, it's little wonder that Africa has inspired so many people to write. If you packed every good story written in or about Africa, you'd never be able to lift your rucksack - besides the fact that many of the continent's most important works have not been written at all, only spoken. However, hopefully this will introduce you to some of the better-known literary journeys around the continent - and inspire you to see for yourself what's been described on the page.
WHERE SHOULD I START?
With Alexander McCall Smith, since his bestselling novels about Mma Ramotswe of Botswana's No 1 Ladies Detective Agency form the basis of one of the very few literary tours available in Africa. The books are almost a hotter publishing property than the Harry Potter series in the United States, and they are now starting to create the same buzz over here. McCall Smith's stories about this kind, sensible and female Botswanan detective look set to become classics.
Africa Insight (00 267 7215 6717 or 00 267 7255 5749; www.africainsight.com) runs two one-day "Mma Ramotswe's Botswana" tours. The first takes in Mma Ramotswe's favourite tea stop, the President Hotel in Gaborone, along with her ancestral home, Mochudi, a traditional lunch at a local restaurant, the site where McCall Smith met the woman who inspired his famous character and the location of Mma Ramotswe's detective agency and house. It costs US$75 (£50) per person.
The second tour - only available if you have completed the first - is priced at US$125 (£83) and ventures further afield in Mma Ramotswe's footsteps, to the edge of the Kalahari desert, the towns and villages of Molepolole, Lobatse and Otse and to the Mokolodi Nature Reserve. It ends with an early-evening barbecue under the stars.
It's a long way to travel for a couple of day trips, though. If you would rather see more of the country while you're there, Rainbow Tours (020-7226 1004; www.rainbowtours.co.uk) can arrange trips to Botswana. Options include a luxury 10-night trip taking in the two Mma Ramotswe tours outlined above, the Moremi Game Reserve in the Okavango Delta, Gudigwa Camp on the outskirts of the largest remaining San Bushman village in Botswana, and Victoria Falls. The trip costs from £2,640 per person, including flights, accommodation, all meals and several excursions. Fan of Laurens van der Post will enjoy the trip all the more, since it was this area, and its people, that the prolific South African author explored in The Lost World of the Kalahari.
WHAT ABOUT BOTSWANAN AUTHORS?
This is Bessie Head territory, too. The writer's life reads like a novel. She was born in 1937 in South Africa to a rich, white heiress and a poor, black stable boy, brought up by foster parents, and later in an orphanage. She eventually fled to Botswana, where she remained until her early death at only 49. Her first book, When Rain Clouds Gather, is set around a groundbreaking agricultural project; it used to be given to visitors when they arrived in Botswana.
Head's most renowned book, A Question of Power, and her final novel, Serowe, Village of the Rain Wind, are based around Serowe, in the east of the country, where she lived at the end of her life - and where she is buried. It's not on the usual circuit, but if you want to make the pilgrimage, a company such as Rainbow Tours will be able to organise an itinerary for you.
You could head north to Nigeria to explore the literary terrain that inspired both Onitsha market literature, a kind of African Mills & Boon, and the more highbrow works of the journalist and author Chinua Achebe - generally credited as the inventor of the modern African novel. Achebe's acclaimed first book, Things Fall Apart, was published just before Nigerian independence in 1958 and unsentimentally depicts the country's tribal life before and after colonialism.
Nigeria is also the home turf of the Booker prize winner Ben Okri and of Wole Soyinka, the first African winner of the Nobel prize for literature. Again, none of these authors features specifically on tours to Nigeria, but Ecotour Africa (001 514 637 5139; www.ecotour-africa.com), based in Canada, runs one-week cultural tours of Nigeria. They take in Lagos, Ibadan, Kano, Abuja, various markets and several Yoruba sites. The price of US$1,139 (£670) includes accommodation, transport, food, entry fees and guided tours, but not international flights.
WHAT'S IN THE SOUTH?
You could pick up the trail of such literary luminaries as the Nobel prize winner Nadine Gordimer, who was born just outside Johannesburg, or the reclusive Nobel and two-time Booker winner J M Coetzee, from Cape Town. With both writers still active, it's not surprising that there are no tours running round their backyards, but you can get a good introduction to Coetzee country on a Sunvil (020-8232 9777; www.sunvil.co.uk) self-drive tour of the Cape. Prices start at around £1,520 per person, including flights, car hire, accommodation in small hotels and individual guesthouses, some meals and a detailed information and map pack.
If you want a more specific literary attraction, head for Pietermaritzburg, in KwaZulu Natal. This was home to Alan Paton, the author of Cry, The Beloved Country. Although he actually wrote his seminal novel in Norway, after his death in 1988 his study room was carefully recreated on the Pietermaritzburg campus of the University of Natal, where he had been a student. The Alan Paton Centre (00 2733 260 5926; http://library.lib.unp.ac.za/paton8.htm) is open Monday to Friday, 8.15am-4.30pm.
WHAT ABOUT OUT OF SOUTH AFRICA?
Head to Kenya, where the Danish expatriate Karen Blixen set Out of Africa, her autobiographical novel about running a coffee plantation. The house she lived in, near the Ngong Hills beyond Nairobi, was later bought by the Danish government and given to Kenya on independence. Since 1986, when the film version of the book appeared, it has been open to the public as the Karen Blixen Museum (00 254 288 2779; www.museums.or.ke). Current hours are 9.30am-6pm daily; admission 200 Kenya shillings (£1.50) for adults or Kshs100 (75p) for children.
Similar colonial ground has been covered by several writers: Blixen's friend, and later romantic rival, Beryl Markham in West With The Night; Elspeth Huxley in The Flame Trees of Thika; and James Fox in White Mischief (not to be confused with Evelyn Waugh's controversial satire Black Mischief, set in fictional sub-Saharan Africa).
For a post-colonial view of the region, try A Grain of Wheat or Petals of Blood by the Kenyan teacher and writer, Ngugi Wa Thiong'o. Or, make your own notes on living in the African bush. Exodus (0870-240 5550; www.exodus.co.uk) has a one-week Safari Skills Course in the Masaai Mara game reserve. Prices start at £1,095 per person, including flights to Nairobi, accommodation in a luxury camp, all meals and tuition.
For a more cultural trip, try the 14-night Kenya Insight tour from Into Africa (0114 255 5610, www.intoafrica.co.uk). This starts at $1,575 (£930) per person and includes visits to remote villages and schools. Transport, accommodation and food are provided, but the price does not include international flights.
ARE THERE ANY OTHER SPECIALIST TOURS?
Frustratingly few, given how popular literary tours are elsewhere in the world. If you have specific places you want to see, the best option is to ask a tour operator with specialist knowledge to arrange an itinerary that includes them for you. Companies able to provide tailor-made trips in Africa include Acacia (020-7706 4700; www.acacia-africa.com), Wildlife Worldwide (020-8667 9158; www.wildlifeworldwide.com), Tribes Travel (01728 685971; www.tribes.co.uk) and Discovery Initiatives (01285 643333; www.discoveryinitiatives.co.uk).
However, it may be more economical to wait until you arrive in a particular country and then fix up a tour with a local agent. In Morocco, for example, try Itineranceplus (00 212 4444 9965; www.itineranceplus.com). This company can arrange a six-day trip in the footsteps of the 19th-century French explorer, Charles de Foucault. The journey takes you across the High Atlas and Anti Atlas Mountains from Marrakech to Essaouira. The price starts at DH5,050 (£320) per person, including accommodation, meals, transport and guides but not international flights.
AND IF I WANT TO GO MY OWN WAY?
That's easy enough in Morocco. Samuel Pepys visited the country in the 17th century, followed later by Edith Wharton and the French writer Colette. But the country's strongest literary connections involve Paul Bowles, Jane Bowles and the Beat writers. For these interesting characters, you should head straight for Tangier.
When Paul Bowles first arrived in North Africa he immediately felt "much excited; it was as if some interior mechanism had been set in motion by the sight of the approaching land." Understandably, given this pull, he eventually moved to Tangier in the 1940s, staying until his death in 1999. Visitors paying homage should check in to the rambling and bohemian Hotel Continental, overlooking the port on the edge of the medina. Bowles, along with William Burroughs, Tennessee Williams and Jack Kerouac, was apparently often to be found whiling away an afternoon on the hotel's idyllic terrace and the hotel later featured in the film version of Bowles' best-known book, The Sheltering Sky (36 Rue Dar el Baroud; 00 212 3993 1024). Double rooms here start at a bargain DH365 (£23).
Another Tangier hotel with literary links is the El Muniria (1 Rue Magellan, 00 212 3993 5337), where Burroughs wrote Naked Lunch in the late 1950s. It has been well spruced up since Burroughs' drug-fuelled days, but rooms cost a mere DH150 (£9.50). You can get to Tangier direct from Gatwick on GB Airways, which flies on behalf of British Airways (0870-850 9850; www.ba.com), from around £160 return.
CAN I BELIEVE EVERYTHING I READ?
Only if you don't want your illusions shattered. It took 500 years for the medieval scribes' claims that Timbuktu was paved with gold to be proved sadly wrong when explorer René Caille finally reached the city - and reported back that its main components were dust and sand. A good time to go will be during the Festival in the Desert, 9-11 January, when artists from all over West Africa will be congregating in Timbuktu, Mali, to perform songs, dances, camel racing, sword fighting and poetry. Tim Best Travel (020 7591 0300, www.timbesttravel.com) is offering 10-day trips that include the festival from £1,295 per person, including flights from Brussels, transfers, accommodation, some meals and entrance to the festival.
ARE THERE ANY OTHER LITERARY FESTIVALS?
There are plenty of music festivals in Africa, but not so many centred on books. Your best bet is probably the Klein Karoo National Arts Festival in Oudtshoorn, South Africa. This is a massive, week-long event that incorporates music, theatre and poetry reading. Its main aim is to promote the arts in Afrikaans, so it's fairly genre specific, although it's apparently fun for non-Afrikaans speakers too. The next one is due to take place from 3 to 11 April next year. You can get more information nearer the time by calling 00 27 44 203 8600 or e-mailing email@example.com.
TAKE ME TO THE HEART OF DARKNESS...
You'll have to stick to armchair travelling for the time being. Author Michela Wrong may have followed In The Footsteps of Mr Kurtz, but even if you wanted to seek out the gruesome trail up the river Congo described in Joseph Conrad's 1899 novel, it isn't currently safe to do so. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office advises against all holiday and other non-essential travel to the Republic of the Congo outside the main cities of Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire and against all visits outside Kinshasa and the eastern half of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). "Much of eastern and north-eastern DRC is emerging from war and internal conflict, and security conditions are still unpredictable and volatile", it states.
All of which means that it's the same story for fans of William Boyd's novel Brazzaville Beach, Ronan Bennett's The Catastrophist, Barbara Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, V S Naipaul's A Bend in the River and André Gide's Travels in the Congo. All of these are based, to a greater or lesser fictional extent, in the same area.
Also currently off limits is the City Hotel in Freetown, Sierra Leone, which appeared as the seedy Bedford in Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter. Although, from Greene's description, this is only likely to disappoint the most dedicated literary fan.
WHERE CAN I GO?
Head to the Gambia - the territory covered in the American author Alex Haley's mammoth Pulitzer prize-winning story Roots, based on his family's history. Juffure, the village from which his forefather, seven generations back, was captured and sold into slavery in the States, is now a big tourist attraction. One of the easiest ways to visit it is to book a package with specialist operator The Gambia Experience (023 8073 0888; www.gambia.co.uk) and then see Juffure as part of a Roots day excursion (£33 per person). Packages start from around £349 per person, including flights from the UK and bed-and-breakfast accommodation.
WHAT ABOUT A MORE NOVEL EXPERIENCE?
Take a leaf from the books of the writer and photographer Wilfred Thesiger and travel with the nomads in the Sahara. The best place for a brief, nomadic encounter is probably in Mauritania, which is included in Dragoman's five-week Morocco and Trans-Saharan trips (0870-499 4475; www.dragoman.com). Prices start at £1,150 per person including transport, meals and accommodation but not flights. Another good company for tailor-made desert trips is Wind, Sand and Stars (020-7359 7551; www.windsandstars.co.uk).
For a more straightforward desert experience, it may be easier to book a package to Tunisia, with a company such as MyTravel (0870-238 7788; www.mytravel.com) and then take one of the many day trips into the desert from your resort. If you're on a literary quest, look out for one that includes the sites where Michael Ondaatje's novel The English Patient was filmed. And pack a copy of Wind, Sand and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry to read on the bus.
WHERE CAN I GET MORE INFORMATION?
Try the Traveller's Literary Companion to Africa by Oona Strathern (In Print, £13.95). A useful website for more general travel information is www.africaguide.com.
CARRY ON UP THE NILE
The Nile is one of Africa's greatest features, a mighty river that spills from the centre of the continent to the Mediterranean, snaking through 10 countries. It is no wonder people have been writing about it ever since ink first touched papyrus.
From the ancient stories of Herodotus to Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile, people have been trying to commit this majestic stretch of water to paper. They include Gustave Flaubert, Sir Richard Burton and John Speke, whose expedition to discover the source of the Nile ended at Lake Tanganyika in 1858. You can read Alan Moorehead's 1960 account of the exploits of Speke, Burton and other Victorian adventurers in The White Nile.
But there's more to Egypt than its trademark river. Cairo boasts Nobel prize-winner Naguib Mahfouz among its literary sons. Alexandria can claim connections with the poet Constantine Cafavy, EM Forster, who lived there for a while, and Lawrence Durrell, author of The Alexandria Quartet. Durrell, Somerset Maugham and Noël Coward stayed at the Cecil Hotel (16 Saad Zagloul Square; 00 20 34 84 0367, pictured below); it's still open, although it is now owned by a chain. Rooms start at US$85 (£50).
For a more general Egyptian literary trail, Imaginative Traveller runs a 22-day Nile and Beyond tour from Cairo. It features the Great Pyramids and Sphinx at Giza, Aswan and Abu Simbel, a three-day felucca cruise on the Nile, Luxor, Karnak, the Valley of the Kings, the Sinai peninsula and Alexandria. Prices start at £575 per person, including transport, accommodation and some meals, but not flights. With flights, it would cost from £875 (01473 667337; www.imaginative-traveller.com).
'DR LIVINGSTONE, I PRESUME?' AND OTHER FAMOUS WORDS
"In the Moorish cafés in the Kasbah, it is men's bodies which are silent, which cannot drag themselves away, leave the glass of tea, and rediscover time through the pounding of their own pulse."
Albert Camus sums up 'Summer in Algiers'
"Morgan thought about replacing the gin in his filing cabinet, decided against it and poured himself another stiff three-fingers. He waved the green bottle at Dalmire who threw up his hands in mock horror. 'Lord no, Morgan, couldn't take another. Better let the sun hit the yardarm.'"
William Boyd sets the colonial scene in 'A Good Man in Africa'
"A common saying in the country after Independence was that it didn't matter what you knew but who you knew. And... it was no idle talk. For a person like me who couldn't stoop to lick any Big Man's boots it created a big problem."
Chinua Achebe satirises post-independence politics in 'Things Fall Apart'
"I had a farm in Africa."
The opening line from Karen Blixen's 'Out of Africa'
"The horror! The horror!"
Mr Kurtz bows out dramatically in Joseph Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness'
"Who is this old man? I ask myself. Is it Livingstone? Yes, it is. No, it is not. Yes, it is. 'Dr Livingstone, I presume?' 'Yes.'"
Henry Morton Stanley recalls his famous meeting, in 'The Life and Finding of Dr Livingstone'
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