John Preston

Africa’s excesses

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Crazy River

Richard Grant

Little Brown, pp. 272, £

There are an awful lot of prostitutes in Africa and most of them seem to pass through the pages of Richard Grant’s book at one time or another. All this puts him in a terrible lather — ‘I had been so long without a woman’, he moans at one point, this while weighing up the attractions of a woman called Felicia ‘with extraordinary skin’ in the Rwandan capital, Kigali. But Grant also has a girlfriend back home who he’s determined to remain faithful to, and a mind set on higher things.

He wants to become the first person to navigate the second longest river in Tanzania, the Malagarasi. The reason why no one has navigated the Malagarasi before soon becomes plain: it’s rumoured to be impassable, swarming with tsetse fly and renowned as a ‘river of bad spirits’. One man who tried to navigate it in 1960 was rescued after seven days and only survived by eating his clothes.

Grant, though not necessarily made of hardier stuff, wants to follow in the footsteps of his hero, the explorer Richard Burton, who travelled this way with John Speke in 1850s. His journey does not get off to a promising start. In Zanzibar, he goes to the old British consulate where Burton once stayed and finds the windows smashed and the floor littered with human turds. But eventually he casts off his gloom, valiantly turns his back on yet more imploring prostitutes and sets off downriver with a white hunter called Ryan.

Sure enough, he’s soon feverish, fed up and fearful that he’s coming down with sleeping sickness — one remedy for which turns out to be to eat a tube of women’s facial hair removal cream. The Malagarasi duly proves unnavigable and Grant has to scale down his ambitions and just go down part of it. This leaves him — and his book — a bit stuffed. His solution is to journey round Rwanda and Burundi trying to soak up as many impressions as possible. As he says, plausibly enough, the real terra incognita of Africa today is its ever-expanding slum cities.

In a lot of respects, Grant has the makings of a first-class travel writer. He’s wide-eyed without being too trusting, good at ferreting out unlikely people and possessed of ample reserves of both masochism and self-pity. But the big problem here is that he doesn’t have anything new to say. Instead, he falls into the familiar trap of becoming besotted by Africa’s excesses — by its hookers, witch-doctors and feckless barflies — while simultaneously lamenting what a rotten state it’s in.

All this makes for an uneasy, as well as shapeless, mix. One moment Grant’s in pursuit of a killer crocodile in Burundi called Gaston which is rumoured to have eaten 300 people including the Russian ambassador’s wife; the next he’s conducting a — not particularly revealing — interview with the President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame.

He also proves to be a tremendous sucker for the myth that Richard Burton was heroically unfettered by convention, while Speke was a watery little stuffed-shirt who wasn’t fit to wax his moustache. As Tim Jeal’s wonderful Explorers of the Nile proved last year, this is nonsense. Jeal revealed Burton to have been a rampant egomaniac with a broad vindictive streak, while Speke — far from being repelled by black people, as Grant claims — was an engaging romantic who fell deeply in love with a Bugandan princess.

Unlike Burton, Grant eventually finds the source of the Nile. It turns out to be a ‘moss-fringed rabbit hole with a thin dribble of water leaking out of it’. Gazing at it, he’s overcome with a sense of anticlimax. Was this what all that effort, all that yearning, was directed at? But before long he’s reminded of another sort of yearning and catches the next plane home, back to his girlfriend.