From Zanzibar to Timbuktu

“What will become of Africa?” That is the most common question asked by anybody who has spent any meaningful time on the continent. It is realism, not racism – that facile solution which is so common today in the minds of the know-nothings, a scapegoat that offers no real answers but only interrupts any questions, leaving them stuck like a jagged pill in the throats of people like me who have lived for so long in Africa, and who have the right to ask the questions. For we have suffered with Africans.

So too Anthony Daniels. “From Zanzibar to Timbuktu” is a travel book by Daniels, written in the late 80s as his sort of ‘farewell’ after serving for several years as a village doctor in Tanzania. Back then a lot of people, Peace Corps or aid worker or missionary alike finished up a season in Africa by making the treks across the continent. A former boss of mine went from Zimbabwe up to Khartoum. Anthony Daniels went from Zanzibar to Timbuktu.

The extraordinary thing about Daniels’s travel book – for me – is that I’ve been to most of the places he writes about. Zanzibar and Bujumbura and Gisenyi and Kigali and Goma and Butembo and Beni and Kisangani and Kinshasa and Maiduguri and on to Timbuktu. I’ve been to all of them. The thing that strikes me is how little they have changed. Daniels’s descriptions of the environmental degradation, the poverty, the ignorance, the corruption, the ragged dirty decay of everything – that is the same. Outside a few 5 star hotels and luxury condos existing at the inverse side of African entropy, the continent has not changed.

Except in one way – the violence.

Anthony Daniels could never make his cross-continental trek today. He would have been abducted perhaps a dozen times. He would have been murdered in his sleep for his shoes. The bribes he paid to get through, $3 here and $.25 there become five-and-six-figure ransoms. He might have been blown up by a jihadi bomb. Perhaps he would have strayed into the line of fire in one of the civil wars that rage now out of control.

Yes, I too have walked where Daniels walked. Zanzibar, on R&R from Uganda, much as it always was; there, at the beginning at least the entropy has not yet taken over. Stone town and Livingston’s cross and the caves under the church where the slaves were held. In Bujumbura I sheltered in a hallway surrounded by other aid workers as tracer bullets and mortars and RPGs flew over my house, a gun battle raging between the rebellion and the Tutsi army. I served in Goma, feeding centers filled to bursting with starving children. Bullet holes in the vehicles I sent from village to village on errands of mercy. Pulling a local woman off a Rwandan army truck before they had a chance to drive her into the forest to rape her. Running from a rebel attack on a market one step ahead of the bullets. I have driven the road between Goma and Butembo under the protection of two Canadian mercenaries driving a UN APC. Beni, under siege now by the Allied Defense Front (ADF), a Ugandan jihadi group linked to ISIS. You cannot ride the Congo river; my trip to Kisangani in a UN airplane, into Kinshasa where an ICRC woman had recently been pulled from her vehicle, raped and murdered.

Maidurugi where I also have been under the protection of three US Embassy security vehicles and 6 personal SSS bodyguards; body armor and modern weapons at the ready. Abuja, hostile surveillance and concertina wire. I flew into Timbuktu on a charter plane a few times, the first American back in after the French military chased Al Qaida away. A personal bodyguard beside me, an advance car with 12 UN soldiers from Burkina Faso and a BearCat as my chaser. In Bamako, sheltering in place with my 3 year old as terrorists attacked my neighborhood.

Robert Kaplan wrote about the coming anarchy, only a few years after Daniels took public transportation across Africa. He recognized that after the great power competition fell away, Africa would be left to its own – to flap in the wind, fraying as the weather and neglect tears away at the fibers that might one time have held things together.

Now Africa is in real trouble; the violence is spreading along with population growth and environmental degradation. I spent 10 years on the continent so I, at least, have earned the right to my observations. I have many friends there and have extraordinary memories laced with tremendous significance. I raised my little boy there, and I am grateful to Africa.

But I am not optimistic about what the future holds.

Incidentally, I also wrote about my wars in Africa, in a novel – “I, Charles, From the Camps”. It is by far my best work, but it is not an easy read. How could it be?

About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright. His most recently released work is "Dreams of the Defeated: A Play in Two Acts" about a political prisoner in a dystopian regime. His novels include "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps and "Lords of Misrule" about the making and unmaking of a jihadist in the Sahara. "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio" are about the rise and fall of socialist Venezuela (with magic).
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5 Responses to From Zanzibar to Timbuktu

  1. Lynda says:

    I’m a great admirer of Anthony Daniels, also known by the pseudonym Theodore Dalrymple, but I haven’t read this one. I’ve traveled, not extensively by any means, in Africa, specifically to Zanzibar a few years ago for an “exotic” vacation trip. It was quite an adventure. Zanzibar has one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever visited, with fine white sand dotted with washed up marine life, but very clean in spite of the tourists, and beautiful turquoise waters. The fishing boats with fishermen dressed in the bright colors and geometric designed local fabrics were picturesque. The people were open and friendly. The history of Zanzibar is tragic, being a major slave trading location. Arriving in Zanzibar, I took a taxi to my hotel, and was a little surprised to see how poor it was along the route and nothing like the tropical paradise my imagination had envisioned. My hotel was in the old city, Stone Town, where the architecture and ambience of its historical hey-day has been preserved. Of course I bought a dress and a top made locally in the fabric of local design and I have to say they have both worn well through many washings and wearings. I truly wish I’d purchased more.

    I read “I, Charles, From the Camps” a couple of years ago and yes, hard to read from the point of subject matter, but so well written and respectful of the culture and the character of Charles. You deserve a wide readership, and I hope you are getting it.


    • Hi Lynda – ya Zanzibar is wild. Stone town feels like it should be in Arabia but full instead of black Africans, with a few indian merchants mixed in. I too was surprised that despite being famous and beautiful, it was extremely ill-prepared for tourists. There weren’t even any restaurants to say nothing of bars. One nice hotel. The resorts were self contained and lovely. I got to Africa first time in 1999. Daniels was there in the 80s. While Dubai or Doha or Shanghai became amazing, everything in Africa is as it was – colonial constructions decaying from an additional 20 years of lack of maintenance. I am not sanguine!! Thanks for your comments on I, Charles. Your lips to God’s ears!! Finally, I first read dalyrimple in “The terror of existence” and then my friend recommended wilder shores of marx — there’s a new one that just came out “neither trumpets nor violins” which I’ll read next. Hope you are well!!!


      • Lynda says:

        Thanks for the mention of “Terror of Existence” and “Wilder Shores of Marx” along with “From Zanzibar to Timbuktu”. I haven’t read any of Dalrymple’s travel books, but now I’ll have some winter reading to look forward to. Oh, and I just purchased your “Lords of Misrule” đŸ™‚


      • Thanks Lynda! I think you’ll enjoy Misrule. It is less raw and bitter than “I, Charles”. I wrote it when I was living in Bamako working on the peace process there. I did A LOT of research on the sahara and sahel and even went to Marrakesh (highly recommended! much cooler than Zanzibar). It is the “making and unmaking of a jihadist” and how some Aristotelian traditions in Islam (specifically the Mu’tazila though that word is not used) deradicalized an angry Tuareg youth. It is a novel of hope.

        On Dalrymple – Wilder shores was very funny, sort of acerbic and ironic. Its hard to take people like Ceausescu seriously, except he was so evil and dangerous.


  2. LESTER HIRST says:

    Another stellar blog Joel. You have experienced too much for one soul. We pray always that the lord will heal you and protect you from the residue of being a witness to the things you have experienced. We thank the lord for your love for others and life of service to those least able to save themselves.


    Sent from my iPhone



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