Friday, May 8, 2015

At the Mercy of the River by Peter Stark ***

The Lugenda River travels northeast through northern Mozambique from near the southern end of Lake Malawi (near the Malawi border) to the Tanzania border in the north. You might be thinking, "I've never heard of any of these places." You'd be right and in good company.

At the Mercy of the River by Peter Stark is a adventure memoir of the first Europeans to travel the length of this river. Well the first ones in recent history. Or the first ones who published a book, or at least the first ones to publish a book in English.

In between recounting this kayak journey, author Stark muses about the meaning of exploration and discovery. Mozambique has been discovered multiple times, by Arabian traders, by Chinese explorers, by Portuguese colonizers, and finally by this white party of four men and one woman (the leader and organizer) from Africa and the U.S.

This book has three intertwined narratives. First, it chronicles the voyage down the Lugenda, the crocodiles and hippos, the rapids and waterfalls, and even the few native villages. Second, it follows the personal bonds and conflicts formed and broken as the trip progresses. Finally, it offers historical context for European exploration and discovery of Africa. If one or two of these threads are not interesting to you, then you'll need to skim through one or two thirds of the book, because these topics are mixed in every chapter, and some paragraphs.

Some of the encounters with native residents were frightening, but most were friendly or even humorous.
[I] pushed my hands on the rudder pedals. ... [The rudder] waved back and forth, like some strange animal tail. [The natives] began laughing hysterically, as if they couldn't believe a boat would have anything so silly as this.
I think they found it both clever and ridiculous..., a frivolous and complicated way to perform a very simple task. All the effort and good metal that went into making this thing? Why can't they just steer their canoe with a paddle like everyone else?
This well-researched book included many interesting tidbits: such as Swahili, the language of southeastern Africa, is an amalgam of Arabic and Bantu; there is no domesticated livestock in the area because of tsetse flies; wild game hunting is more ecologically sound because each visitor pays 10x to 20x more than ecotourists, thus reducing the tourist footprint/damage.

This book is a wonderful introduction to Mozambique, though it jumps from historic times to daily adventures, and the mixes internal dialogue with river-running excitement. This can be distracting at times.

No comments: