Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Across Africa by Foot

"Traversa", Fran Sandham 

Often when I've left a job the parting gifts provided by colleagues serve to indicate that while you may well have spent a long time in proximity with these people, they haven't really worked out who you are. It was thus with some real pleasure, after almost a year in the library of a financial institution I was seen off with a copy of Fran Sandham's "Traversa", the sort of gift that carried with it a sense that real thought had gone into it, and which was very much appreciated.

The central premise of a lone walk from West to East coasts of Africa in the footprints of Stanley and Livingstone carries with it a certain quantity of baggage. One anticipates reading of an earnest, driven and somehow unattainable person undertaking a feat of endurance and adventure that few of us could aspire to. 

There's a time and a place for intimidating tales like that, I've read and loved Paddy Leigh Fermor, Rebecca West, and Adrian Seligman and felt a little bit in awe of what they've achieved. Similarly there's a time and place for "Traversa".

Walking across Africa, as "Traversa" makes clear, is not something to be undertaken lightly, okay it's not the journey into the unknown experienced by Livingstone, but mentions of places such as Katima Mulilo in the Caprivi Strip and a brief mention in the first chapter when Sandham plans his route recall the long conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the late 1990s and early 21st century, sometime referred to as Africa's Great War. Sandham's periodic concerns about landmines remind the reader that not so long ago this undertaking would be undertaken only by lunatics.

"Traversa" is imbued with a rich sense of humour; featuring sclerotic Afrikaners, recalcitrant donkeys, and amorous backpackers "Traversa" reassures the less intrepid that epic adventure is not beyond us. Indeed there is some genuinely useful advice for those of us who are not quite as ruggedly capable as a Ranulph Fiennes, including the priceless gem that when in a treehouse take care to not urinate on the head of a fierce dog. 

Any journey like this will reveal that Africa is not affluent, and that concepts of poverty and hardship that we apply in the developed world have a completely different meaning in Sub-Saharan Africa. Sandham doesn't make this the focus of his work, but makes clear that there is little romance to poverty, and the reality of existence can be nasty, brutish, and short. There is also the challenge that a lot of tourism doesn't necessarily help, and the reality that motivations for some, in particular an older American with "a keen eye for young girls" encountered by Lake Malawi, may not be the most wholesome.

Works like these are inherently autobiographical, as much about the author as the journey; in this light there is often a temptation to see them as voyages of personal discovery, in the process witnessing the author undergoing some form of catharsis of self realisation or mid-life crisis. Sandham, for that all his motivations for his traversa stem from a dissatisfaction with a life defined by commuting from Wimbledon to Waterloo, escapes this. Fleeting moments of wistful introspection - perhaps best encapsulated by an encounter with a beautiful girl in Livingstone which ends with him walking her to a bus stop and knowing he will never see her again - serve to illustrate, but not define the work. Reading "Traversa" is not an insight into a troubled soul, it is much more akin to a genial friend's recollections.

It's not a long book, and like many such works, the real pleasure is in the early game, when there's more discovery to be had, but it's a highly enjoyable read that bears taking some time over. You have fun reading it, and by the end of the process you feel edified. I'm not sure you can really ask for much more from a book?

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