Where tourism is out of place. Traveling Africa
The Other Nile, by Charlie Pye-Smith, with illustrations by Eric Parry. New York: Viking. 239 pp. $18.95. Africa of the Heart: A Personal Journey, by Joseph Hone. New York: Beech Tree Books, William Morrow and Company Inc. 287 pp. $16.95. ``There is no room for tourists in a world of displaced persons,'' observed Evelyn Waugh. The comment is aptly quoted in Charlie Pye-Smith's introduction to ``The Other Nile''; it might serve as prologue to ``Africa of the Heart'' as well. Both books recount journeys through an Africa so beset by political turmoil, economic disorder, and social disruption that travel is nearly impossible and ``tourism'' distinctly out of place.
Pye-Smith, a young British ecologist, was very much a tourist as he journeyed up the Nile in 1984, and his book is a traveler's account -- and a very good one. Pye-Smith is in many ways the consummate traveler: observant, appreciative, supplied with stamina and a sense of humor, and apparently undaunted, whether by delays, illness, or the threat of physical danger. He also writes very well and he doesn't fight his material for center stage: ``The Other Nile'' is a personal story, but the author yields the drama to Africa.
The Nile region, Pye-Smith finds, has changed since he was there in 1975, and the changes are ``mostly for the worse.'' His trip starts in Alexandria and grows progressively more difficult as he moves up river. In Alexandria, the author is still the civilized tourist, enjoying the city's seediness and harking back to previous inhabitants, such as the poet Cavafy, and to previous visitors, such as Hadrian and Durrell.
It isn't long, however, before Pye-Smith perceives himself as a tourist among displaced persons. Even in Cairo's City of the Dead, he finds that the cemetery houses some 500,000 refugees, who have converted the large tombs into homes and shops. But the perception intensifies in Khartoum, where he spends a month in a hotel with refugees (Ugandans, Ethiopians, Eritreans) who share their stories with him, making him aware of ``their very personal misfortunes -- each individual carrying around his individual tragedy like a tortoise in its shell.''
The Sudan itself is besieged by civil war, drought, and the controversial imposition of Islamic law in 1983. Khartoum, in 1975 ``remarkably clean,'' in 1984 is filthy; it is filled with beggars. And Pye-Smith's foray into Ethiopia reads like a nightmare: In Gondar, he sees a dead child on the pavement near his hotel; outside Addis, pit latrines full of rats; everywhere, fear, suspicion, and disease.
Not all of ``The Other Nile'' is about suffering: Pye-Smith visits St. Anthony's monastery; he talks with farmers, camel herders, bureaucrats; he reflects upon the beauty of the Nile. But the suffering is never far off, and he records it with clarity and sadness.
If ``The Other Nile'' tells of a difficult journey, ``Africa of the Heart'' tells of a frustrating one. Joseph Hone, a novelist and British Broadcasting Corporation radio producer, had dreamed of going to Africa since childhood. His Africa, he explains, was the Africa of the great explorers, and originally he had hoped to cross the continent in the steps of H. M. Stanley.
Arriving in Zaire, Mr. Hone discovers he cannot make the journey he intended: There are no more working riverboats, ferries, railways, roads. Clearly, this is no place for tourists. Grounded in Kinshasa, Hone hangs about the expatriate community, growing increasingly depressed -- about the people he meets, the climate, the inefficiency, the corruption, and, above all, his inability to leave. At length, he links up with Eleanor Smith, a young British woman given to drinking, and the two -- after many delays (and half a book) -- finally fly east.
Although Hone eventually escapes from Kinshasa and finds several things to engage him -- a view of a wildebeest migration from a hot-air balloon, a safari into ``vanishing Africa'' -- he never succeeds in redeeming his trip: ``I don't seem to have managed very well in Africa,'' he remarks in his final chapter. Unfortunately, his account of the trip fails as well. His continuous complaining grows tedious. Much of the book is devoted to his unsettled relationship with the much younger Eleanor; but the dialogue is so trite -- ``We can't pretend we're just friends anymore'' -- the relationship has a cardboard quality. One keeps wishing they would stop quarreling in hotel rooms and get out into Africa.
What is most interesting about this book is Hone's avoidance of Africa. He is ambivalent toward the land itself: He seems to want to experience the jungle without being physically inconvenienced. And for all his oratory about poor and dispossessed Africans, he has virtually no contact with natives. ``You don't go near the blacks out here, I notice,'' was one missionary's comment to him. Hone acknowledges that he is afraid of Africa. But though he dramatizes his fear -- with vague references to ``the huge, secret, dangerous world of Africa'' and with frequent, and quite inappropriate, allusions to Conrad's Kurtz and the ``horror'' -- he never explores that fear. Had he done so, he might have turned a frustrating trip into a fascinating book.