Tag Archives: africa

“Henderson the Rain King” by Saul Bellow

I sort of liked the “adventure” parts but the philosophy was pretty much lost on me.  Recommend skipping unless you are an English undergrad…

Eugene Henderson is born into wealth, but by his forties/fifties he is frustrated with a lack of purpose.  He thinks he might want to be a doctor; his wife humiliates him by laughing at such a dream at his age.  He has a chance to accompany a friend to Africa and feels like there, in the wild, he might find whatever he is looking for.

The first tribe he spends time with, the Arnui (sp? Audio book…), are friendly but suffering from a plague of frogs in their water cistern, which means they can’t give it to their cows.  Henderson thinks that here is my chance, here is my purpose – to help these poor people.  He had some experience with explosives in the war and so rigs up a bomb to kill the frogs.  It does; but also breaks the cistern, making the Arnui’s problems infinitely worse.

He and his guide quickly make tracks, and end up in the tribe of the Wariri (sp?).  They are kind of suspicious people, but during a rain ceremony he once again jumps in to “save the day” when the village strongman fails to budge the huge statue of their goddess Mumma.  Henderson is a big, strong fellow and is able to move the statue with some effort.  He didn’t know it beforehand, but this entitles him to be the Sungo, the rain king.  He becomes friends with the actual king, Dafu, and becomes familiar with their customs: when a king first shows signs of weakness, he is murdered by his harem.  The body is dragged to the bush and left, but kept under observation.  No beasts are allowed to eat the corpse, except for a lion cub.  The cub is marked and released – this cub is said to now possess the soul of the dead king.  The Sungo gets to be the new king, and after some period of time his duty is to capture the now grown up cub and keep him as a pet of sorts.

Well, King Dafu captures a different lion in his first attempt, and decides to keep it.  He therefore is now facing insurrection as all other lions besides the old king are considered to be magical troublemakers.  Dafu admires lions in general; and embarks on program of familiarizing Henderson with the lion in an up close and personal manner, so that he takes on some lion qualities – nobility, confidence.  Soon, the actual lion Dafu is supposed to capture his spotted, but Dafu dies in the capture attempt (might have been sabotage by his enemies).

Henderson is held captive until his “coronation” but wisely escapes this death trap.  Before he goes, he swipes the lion cub designated for Dafu and flies it back to the states.  He resolves to become a doctor after all.

What’s the meaning here?  Maybe to follow your dream.  Maybe it doesn’t really matter.  One quote from near the end: “What is the universe?  Big.  And what are we?  Little.  So I might as well stay at home, where my wife loves me.  Or, if she is only pretending to love me, maybe that’s good enough, too.”


“Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton” by Edward Rice


Richard Burton, British. Occupation: Adventurer, Linguist, Author. Intensely driven by a compulsion to explore the unknown and then write it up in books.

He started out traveling all over Europe as a boy and young man. Then he was off to India as a soldier with the East India Company. He didn’t see much military action, but carried out numerous “secret missions” for Gen. Napier. (Unfortunately, they were apparently so secret that nothing really remains to document what he did; a shame.) Wherever he went, Burton liked to mingle with the natives, seemingly trying to become one of them by participating in their rituals, learning their language, and … sleeping with their women. Burton completely rejected traditonal Victorian morality. This and other character traits (I never got the impression of Burton as a “nice guy”) undoubtedly ruffled some feathers with those back home.

Burton also seemed to be seeking for some sort of missing spirituality in his life. He had great interest in immersing himself in the “mystical” aspects of the cultures and religions he studied. At one point he joined a Hindu snake cult and later a group of Sufi Muslims. Disguised as a native, he became a hajji by making the pilgrimage to Mecca, one of the first Europeans to (illicitly) do so and then live to write about it.

Still not done with adventuring, he journeyed through eastern Africa, searching for the source of the Nile with the (comparitively) bumbling and boorish Speke.

Burton was quite popular due to his books and his skills were ackowledged by the British government, although many seemed to be wary of him as somewhat of a loose cannon or a foreigner himself, despite his British birth. Some of these misgivings forced him out of a choice diplomatic post in Damascus, and saw him shuttered away in a much “safer” post in Trieste. The days of adventure were mostly done; he passed the time continuing to write and translate, particularly erotic works (see above re: Victorian morality…)

In somewhat less exotic circumstances, Burton also visited Salt Lake City to investigate the Mormons.  He wrote a book about it, and was apparently not unimpressed with Brigham and the Saints.  He also described Mormonism as at least as mature and fleshed out as any of the other religions he knew.

Interesting fellow who traveled far. I hope he found what he was looking for.

Scramble for Africa, Civ 4 Scenario never to be

A while back I planned on making a Civ 4 scenario called “Scramble for Africa” that would deal with the European colonization/conquest of the continent from 1880’s til WWI.  I thought it would be interesting … but I never made it due to time constraints.  Now Civ 5 is out, but still I don’t think I’ll ever make the scenario.

Anyway, I just wanted to put my notes somewhere.  So here they are.


Now as I reflect on my original design, I wonder if it could work well, since the “homeland” of all those European nations would not be represented on the map.  Might have needed some significant off-map production bonus or something….

“Stanley” by Tim Jeal

Subtitle: “The impossible life of Africa’s greatest explorer.”  No kidding!  Quite an amazing life indeed.  Courage, toughness, grit, and defying the odds – that’s my impression of Stanley after reading this book.

John Rowlands was an illegitimate child in Wales.  His mother wanted nothing to do with him; he was raised by his grandfather until the age of five when the grandfather died.  The extended family wanted nothing to do with him either, so he was sent off to be raised in the workhouse (orphanage / poorhouse of Victorian Britain; think Dickens).  The young man, when grown, understandably wanted to get as far away from his sorry situation as he could.

He first ended up in New Orleans and worked as a shopkeeper’s assistant.  When the Civil War erupted, he joined the Confederate Army, not out of any sense of duty or sympathy for the cause, but simply because everyone else was doing it.  After the Battle of Shiloh, where he saw combat and was captured, he decided a life of soldiering was not for him.  He was offered release if he would join the Union Army, which he did and then promptly deserted.

Somewhere along the way, he started calling himself Henry Morton Stanley.  He invented a story that grew with the years of being adopted by and thereafter taking the name of a Henry Stanley in New Orleans.  Years after, when he became famous, this lie came back to haunt him as he got caught in a web of contradictions.  But he stuck with it – no way would he want to return to the status of an illegitimate, unwanted Welsh boy.

Stanley wanted adventure.  Inspired by the likes of Richard Burton, he and some friends traveled to Turkey, intent on exploring, adventuring, and then writing about their experiences afterward to get rich and famous back home.  Things did not turn out – their supplies and horses were captured and the group was arrested.  Luckily they were able to talk their way out of the situation, and made it home.  Stanley got a job basically as a war correspondent for a newspaper, traveling around the hot spots of the world.

The newspaper job led to the event which made him famous: discovering Dr. Livingstone in Africa.  (His famous line, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”  is almost surely something made up for the newspaper readership.)  A grueling expedition to be sure, but no where close to the length or severity of the others he later made.  He was inspired by Livingstone’s anti-slavery convictions and manner.  Writing about Livingstone for the press back home, Stanley covered many of his faults and inflated his good attributes.  Ironically, this had the effect of creating the impression, still in effect today, of Livingstone as a saint but Stanley, due to later “bad press” surrounding his later expeditions, as a ruthless imperial oppressor.

After Livingstone died, Stanley wanted to go back to Africa to finish Livingstone’s geographical work on nailing down the source of the Nile River.  Setting out from Zanzibar on the East coast (the same point at which the Find Livingstone expedition started), and after circumnavigating Lakes Victoria and Tanganyika, Stanley traveled to the Lualaba River and followed it until it became the Congo, not the Nile as Livingstone had thought.   Traveling down the river was no picnic due to hostile tribes and numerous cataracts that made boat travel difficult.  But Stanley made it all the way to the mouth of the Congo, on Africa’s West coast.

Stanley was again hailed as a hero.  He tried to get Britain interested in setting up a series of trading posts and eventually a colony in the Congo Basin (convinced that this was the only way to save the Africans from the Arab slave traders), but with no success, probably because he was not very diplomatic with members of the Royal Society and also because he was thought to be an American.  The Belgian king Leopold eventually hired Stanley to go back, setting the foundation of the Belgian Congo.  In later years, Leopold’s greed and the brutality of Belgian officers in the Belgian Congo in the 1890s (after Stanley had left the king’s employment)  unfortunately cast a dim shadow on Stanley, even though Stanley was seen by all who knew him as a compassionate, fair, and good leader who admired Africans and Europeans alike.

Stanley has a bad rap as being harsh to Africans, even though he was actually more fair and respectful than many of his contemporaries.  Part of the blame is Stanley himself embellishing accounts of his expeditions.  If he had to shoot an African, then he wrote that he had shot 17 Africans, because that’s a more exciting story, by Jove!  (He was a newspaperman, remember?)  His African name, Bula Matari, means “rock breaker”.  Kind of sounds like a strict dictator … but actually he got the name by working side by side with the black laborers to break rocks in constructing some of the first roads in the Belgian Congo.

A few years after the work for Leopold, Stanley headed up another expedition, this to rescue Emin Pasha, leader of Equatoria.  Stanley and co.  this time crossed Africa from West to East.  Although Stanley’s conduct was admirable, that of some of his European officers was not.  (One of them bought a slave girl and gave her to cannibals, just to see how they would eat here.)  Stanley took the blame for a lot of the disaster that came upon this expedition.  To make matters worse, Emin Pasha was not very grateful for his rescue and was kind of a shady figure himself.

After the Emin Pasha Expedition, Stanley married Dorothy Tennant.  He had fallen in love with her before the expedition, but she turned him down.  Harshly.  After trying to win the favor of another (married) man, she heard word that Stanley had emerged successfully from Africa, more famous than ever.  She won back his affection after telling him how fervently she had prayed for his safety for the three years he was in Africa.  After their marriage, she nixed any further ideas of Stanley returning to Africa as an official in the British East Africa Company, a position he desired and was offered several times.  She instead forced him to run for Parliament, which he won, but disliked very much.  Despite his marriage (can you tell I am less than impressed by his choice of woman?) he found peace and joy in his adopted son.

Stanley was quite a tough cookie.  I’m impressed at his determination and stoicism – he was often sick with malaria or other tropical diseases and endured numerous privations.  But he loved what he did and thought he was doing something positive for the world.  I liked Jeal’s book, especially his conclusions about Stanley’s motivations.  A lot can be explained by his origins and temperament.

“A Bend in the River” by V.S. Naipaul

Salim, of Indian descent although his family has lived on the coast of east Africa for generations, takes an offer from a family friend, Nazruddin, to buy and manage a shop hundreds of miles inland.  (Although the city and country is never named, it’s pretty obviously based on Kisangani in DR Congo, formerly Zaire, formerly Belgian Congo.)  Salim arrives in the city shortly after the end of colonialism – the Europeans have been kicked out.  There is a period of peace for several years, then a new President comes into power and things start to get dangerous.  Salim’s shop is eventually “nationalized” and given to a native African.  Salim is later arrested, but is helped by the province commissioner, who frequented the shop as a teenager at the beginning of the story.  He sets Salim free and advises him to get out of the country, since everything is going downhill.  The book ends with Salim riding the steamer down the river.

I think a lot of symbolism in this story may have been over my head, but I kind of see the story of modern Africa (at least up until the 60’s or 70’s) in Salim’s life.  He has an affair with a Belgian woman – this is like colonialism.  There are some benefits, but he eventually gets (irrationally?) enraged at their relationship and beats her – this is like the revolution against the Europeans.  Afterwards, he has a crisis of confusion regarding his purpose in life and visits Nazruddin, now in London.  When he returns to Africa, his shop has been nationalized and things go downhill.  It seems like one of the main themes in the story is how Africa is trying to come into its own and follow the Western path to success, but that path just doesn’t fit with African culture for some reason and so chaos takes over.

I thought it was interesting that Naipaul wasn’t from Africa, for as much as he seems to know about it.  He is of Indian descent, but is from Trinidad.

Another interesting point is how different the various tribes in Africa are to one another.  The anecdote is told of European missionaries buying slaves and setting them free, establishing villages for them to live in … but the villages are far, far away from where the slaves came from.  The villagers are quickly terrorized by the locals and driven off, killed, or recaptured as slaves.  They were among fellow Africans, true, but the local Africans were strangers to them just as Eskimos would be to citizens of the US.  Eskimos and Americans occupy the same continent, but live quite different lives.  Similarly, many African tribes are as different from each other, but the Western tendency is to lump them all into one group.