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The Independent Travel
Mali Blues, by Lieve Joris

(Lonely Planet Publications, pounds 6.99)

It is very difficult to write about Africa without perpetuating stereotypes. The Dark Continent, the land of mystery, the cradle of humankind ... seductive if insubstantial concepts.

In Mali Blues, Lieve Joris may not want to fall into this trap, but she seems unable to avoid it. Her account of her journey through Senegal, Mauritania and Mali is a series of reflections on the contrast between tradition and modernity, the value of the extended family, the role of magic, the importance of music, and the ambivalent relationship that West African people have with Europe.

All these are classical themes of African literature because they are part of African everyday life. Yet Joris's writing never quite goes beyond the schematic exposition of foreign customs, and somehow fails to move the reader. It is not enough to just state the difference between a Westerner's desire to travel around the world and the locals' total indifference towards visiting the nearby cities of Timbuktu or Djenne. Most travellers accept such cultural differences as simple matters of fact. What one expects from a travel book is an emotional as well as a factual, geographical journey, and Joris's encounters with musicians, marabouts and Moorish aristocrats should have given her plenty of occasions to be bewitched and amused.

As a foreign woman in Africa, Lieve Joris is privileged. She is perceived as an "honorary male" and has access to all-male clubs, and to the confidences of the individuals that belong to them. In the "Mali Blues" chapter she establishes a delightful relationship with Kar Kar, a grumpy Malian musician who, reluctantly at first, accepts her friendship and then tells his story to her: his international success, his love for the half-caste Pierrette, and the underlying envy and then sorcery that eventually destroyed their happiness. The ingredients for a modern African fable are all there. Pity about the cliches.