I buy books. And sometimes I read them. This blog is for the times when I do more than just store shelf candy.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

I Flipped the Pages of Bill Bryson's African Diary

Photography by Jenny Matthews

My copy:
Hardbound Pocketbook
ISBN 0767915062
Purchased: August 7, 2010
from National Bookstore Greenbelt
Read: October 26, 2010

In 2002, CARE International commissioned travel writer Bill Bryson to write about a trip to Kenya, where they visited CARE communities. His musings were published in a pocket sized hardbound book. It was a fundraiser of sorts -- all book sale proceeds, plus the author's royalties, were coursed through CARE International to implement poverty alleviating projects all over the world.

Bill Bryson chronicles his eight days visiting places like Kibera, the biggest slum in Nairobi; and Kisumu, Kenya's poorest city. It would have been tempting for any writer to be patronizing or preachy, writing about the experience with extreme poignancy, riddling the piece with cliches about hope amidst poverty.

But Bill Bryson is not any writer. He narrates with abundant wit a journey that had him in a train that's part of a fleet that had "a tradition of killing its passengers" and a light aircraft that they were certain would send them to their violent deaths. Several times, I found myself chuckling out loud.

His honest and comical disclosures about his expectations being inspired by the movie, Out of Africa, and then his apprehensions about the dangers of visiting the country (bandits, beggar kids rubbing feces on their faces, etc.) were more about poking fun at himself than disparaging the country. Bryson ably balanced humor with relevant insight, while peppering the piece with quick descriptions of Africa's beautiful scenery and wildlife.

With his wry sense of humor, sharp observation, and engaging storytelling, Bill Bryson is the travel writer I want to be.

The main drawback of the book is its brevity -- only 49 pages plus a few more pages for information about CARE.

Though Bryson shared some specific, inspiring examples of the people he met, of how a micro-finance project for women is changing lives and brining in hope, this piece is merely a rippling of the surface. No time nor space for intelligent discourse on poverty and corruption here. A reflection of CARE's mindset: " It's not about spending huge amounts of money, but about spending smaller amounts intelligently."

Bringing this to a personal level -- I read that just before the hostage incident here in Manila, Leonardo di Caprio was supposed to come to the country, stay in one of our plush resorts for a week, and be paid a million dollars to give this country a better reputation. I wish somebody had thought of bringing Bill Bryson or some other intelligent travel writer here instead. We don't need to tell other people how beautiful our country and its people are, because that is just stating the obvious. What we need is somebody to present a balanced view that includes, and not clumsily hides, poverty, corruption, and other ills but balances all that with a message of hope, not just in miracles, but in the ability of the people to do something about their lot. But that requires positive change amonth the leaders and the citizens. Then, maybe we can start believing our own publicity.

1 comment:

  1. Hi!
    I've read a book by Bill Bryson, too. "Neither Here nor There." One thing I like about him as a writer is that he doesn't hide the ugly side of the country he has visited, however popular it is.

    Grat reads you have here!:-)



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