Tuesday, April 29, 2008

West With the Night by Beryl Markham: Review

Disclaimer: I read this a few months ago now and I seem to have misplaced my copy of the book, so I’m going off memory here.

As I said before, my parents brought this book when they came to visit and left it behind. Neither of them could stop talking about it, so I picked it up right away and was pleasantly surprised. This is one of those books that I found baffling—for two different reasons. First, that I had never heard of it before. It’s just too good of a book. Everyone should know about it. And not just those who have an interest in Africa. Second, I was baffled by the writing. It’s just too good. And it’s not fair. How can this woman excel at everything she does? How can she raise thoroughbred horses single-handedly, as a teenager, and then become this pioneering woman by flying planes in the 1930s, and then write as beautifully as she does?

Beryl Markham was raised by her father in Nairobi at the turn of the century. She grew up on a farm, befriending hearty, faithful animals who would follow her anywhere and strong, honorable Masaai warriors, who take her hunting and who would risk their own lives to save hers. A Masaai boy is her best friend and later in life becomes something like her servant, a constant companion, completely devoted. Written in an era when the British in East Africa were kings, there are moments like this that make you feel the complications of the times and how things have changed. Markham loved and respected her best friend and yet to her it was so normal that he woke her each morning with a tray of tea, that he cleaned and maintained her plane, that he seemed to cater to her every need.

The middle part of the book Markham devotes to her teenage years as a horse breeder. After a few years of drought, her father sold the farm in Nairobi and moved to South America. He gave the 17-year-old a choice, to go with him or to stay in Kenya on her own. Having lived in Africa since she was a child, it was in her blood to stay. Her love for the land and for the people is deeply felt.

The last, and perhaps most exciting, part of the book is left to flying. Markham was the first woman to complete a solo flight across the Atlantic going from East to West. (Her destination was New York but she crashed the plane in Canada — and obviously lived to tell about it.) Prior to this, though, her flying — like most things in her life — is built on friendships. What fascinates is not the small details of flying, delivering goods to remote areas of the country or even tracking elephants for safaris (actual hunting safaris, to kill the elephants for their tusks), but the rescue of a fellow pilot in the Serengeti and the motherly advice from the man who taught her to fly.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Shoddy, Shoddy

Last night J and I went out for Thai food at the Metropole Hotel on Acacia Avenue. We planned on eating on their deck, under the stars, overlooking the golf course, only to find upon arrival that the deck was under construction. How, after having been open less than six months, do they already need to completely redo their deck?

Friday, April 25, 2008

Africa Reading Challenge: List

For the Africa Reading Challenge I’m supposed to have six books about Africa on this list. I can promise I will read six books about Africa by the end of the year, no problem, but I can’t really promise what they will be. The first two are definite. The last four are probablies.

1. West With the Wind by Beryl Markham — Review forthcoming.
2. Abyssinian Chronicles by Moses Isegawa — Our next book club pick, currently a quarter of the way through.
3. Scribbling the Cat by Alexandra Fuller — I read Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight years ago and loved it. Always meant to read this, too.
4. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe — It seems sort of shameful that I haven’t read this yet. Interesting recent article on this book and this author by David Kaiza from the East African here.
5. Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee — Loved Disgrace, have been meaning to read this for a while.
6. We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch

Also considering King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild, A Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul, Emma’s War, and others. Tried reading The Poisonwood Bible but just found it too tedious.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Kiwani the Movie

A few months ago, I was sitting in the lounge in Kabira using the Internet in the midst of a film set. Kiwani, a Ugandan film, which debuted in Kampala recently.

J found this still online, but I didn’t make it into the shot. But I was there, people, I was there.

Saturday, April 19, 2008


I heard about Fahreed’s used bookstore only recently, though it’s been open since late 2006. It’s located in the Ntinda shopping complex on Old Kiira Road; a second, larger shop has apparently opened more recently in Nakawa, though I have yet to visit it. Like the Bookend, Fahreed’s also imports used books from England; unlike the Bookend, it does not buy books back. It has a larger selection of titles—thriller, chick lit, and general fiction is lumped into together, and there are also cookbooks, health and fitness books, textbooks, encyclopedias, children’s titles, as well as some old VHS movies. Hardcover fiction runs for Ush 10,000 and paperbacks for Ush 5,000. The setting is not as attractive as the Bookend, nor is as much care taken in displaying the titles. Fiction books are stacked three deep on the shelves, making two-thirds of the store’s stock very difficult to see. Be prepared to dig. Also, the titles did not appear to be arranged alphabetically by author when I was there, so again: be prepared to dig.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Bookend

I’ve been meaning to write about the Bookend for months now and Uganda Insomniac beat me to it. It’s also mentioned on Jackfruity, though my Internet connection isn't good enough to find the exact links to either right now. I had coffee with the proprietress, Karen, the other day for an article I’m writing about literary Kampala and she said there was an obvious increase in sales after the Insomniac post. (The Insomniac also seems to have won just about every award given out at the Uganda Best of Blogs Awards.)

Located next to the Surgery and Rocks & Roses on Acacia Avenue, the Bookend is a lovely place to stop if you're looking for something new to read (or waiting for a doctor's appointment). You can buy used books for 6,000 shillings and sell books for 3,000 shillings. A good selection, too. (In the past couple of months I’ve picked up books by David Mitchell, Edward O. Wilson, Garrison Keillor, Philip Pullman, and J.R.R. Tolkien.) Karen travels to England twice a year to replenish her stock and most afternoons you can find her sitting on the porch of her kiosk, drinking coffee and talking books with customers. Not a bad life.

I’ve also found out about a couple more used bookstores around town I’ll be checking out in the next couple of days.

Monday, April 14, 2008

More Murchison: Fat Crocs, Dead Hippos

On our morning game drive, the best thing we saw was a pride of lions: 2 adult females and 8 cubs.

Which shouldn’t overshadow the stunning vistas, the giraffes and water buffalo, etc…but it sort of does. Murchison is a beautiful place.

In the afternoon, we took a boat ride down the Nile to the base of the falls. On the way we passed about 25 crocodiles piled on the bank and two of them were the fattest things I had ever seen, as though they had just eaten a buffalo or maybe a Cooper Mini. These pictures are not the best, but hopefully you can get an idea:

In the foamy waters just below the falls, a dead hippo floated belly up. I reached for my camera and paused, asking V, “Is it too morbid to take a picture?” And then we looked down the length of the boat at all the other passengers lined up at the railing, snapping away, and we shrugged and joined the crowd.

So as not to end on a sad note, I’ll leave you with this picture of a mother and baby monkey, resting on the roof of S’s room at the Nile Safari Lodge. (Noisy little suckers, especially at night when you’re sleeping under a tin roof and the monkeys are jumping down from the branches above you.)

Friday, April 11, 2008

Murchison Falls, Take 2

The first time I went to Murchison Falls, last July, I was sick and trying to be a good sport about it—if you ask J, I’m sure he’d say I failed miserably; but hopefully if you asked N or S they would say I didn’t do too bad a job. This time, traveling with V and S, (J stayed home to work—someday I hope you will be reading a blog of J’s year doing cool things while I slave away in an office somewhere) I felt totally healthy and we traveled in style.

Doing some last minute planning, I called up my friends at GeoLodges (same owners as Rainforest Lodge) and they put together a nice package for us. Last Wednesday a driver, Karim, picked us up at home at 7:00 AM. In the same size van that eight of us had packed into for the Red Chilli trip, the three of us now rode on the beautifully paved road to Hoima—the miserable road we had taken last June is now, apparently, completely impassable. After Hoima, though, the road turns to packed dirt for the remaining two to three hours and admittedly it gets fairly tedious.

We stopped in Masindi for lunch, Masindi of some Hemingway fame. He is said to have stayed at the Masindi Hotel. This is the story the Bradt guide tells: In January 1954 Hemingway and his fourth wife Mary Walsh crashed their Cessna in Murchison Falls. In the process Mary cracked some ribs and Hemingway dislocated his shoulder. They spent the night on the shores of the Nile and were rescued the following morning by a boat going to Butiaba, a lakeside village 8km from the Masindi road. From their the two charted a flight to Entebbe. “On take-off, however, the plane lifted, bumped back down, crashed, and burst into flames. Mary and the pilot escaped through a window. Hemingway, too bulky to fit through the window and unable to use his dislocated arm, battered open the buckled door with his head, to emerge with bleeding skull and a rash of blistering burns.” Then they spent a few days recovering in the Masindi Hotel. As it turned out, Hemingway also had a collapsed intestine, a ruptured liver and kidney, two crushed vertebrae, temporary loss of vision in one eye, impaired hearing, and a fractured skull. These injuries caused him to miss the ceremony for the Nobel Prize (he won the Prize for Literature that year).

Anyway, next stop Murchison Falls, followed by the Nile Safari Lodge.

In my next post: crocodiles the size of small cars, dead hippos, baby monkeys. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The End of Love

Mystery Date: once a portrait of young dreamers looking for love, once filled with anticipation and over-dramatized emotions, now a business opportunity, now filled with indifference.

Two Saturdays ago I bought the New Vision seeking the latest Mystery Date column after a long hiatus and I was disappointed. Week after week the column is now the same, the couples have become a cliché: a singer or some other performer looking for publicity, already married or seriously involved, meeting a producer or promoter, or worse, someone actually looking for a relationship who is left humiliated, if charitably not on the date, then certainly on the page. What was once rather comical—how half of the couple would suddenly drop the information of their marital status into the interview—has become merely sad, tiresome, if no less unfathomable.

I can’t help thinking this turn coincides with the move from Kyoto to Choma restaurant. Choma, after all, lacks a swing under the stars. Perhaps this is why the New Vision no longer carries a photo of the couple together on the date. Now it merely has two mug shot-like images of each person at the top of the column.

Take, for example, Julius and Stella, from the March 22 issue. Julius is a videographer; Stella an artiste. Stella has a boyfriend; Julius is married. Stella’s summary amounted to this: “When I told him I was an artiste, he was happy because he is a promoter. He said we could make good money since he knows the trade well.” Julius said, “We exchanged greetings and I realized she was familiar. I had seen her on stage, singing. She said she liked me and I was happy to meet her because, as a promoter, I can benefit from her talent.”

The mystery has been removed from mystery date. Is it really so hard to find two people looking for love? Two people who want nothing more out of the endeavor than the chance to meet someone special? Shame on you, New Vision, for turning Mystery Date into such a farce.

Monday, April 7, 2008

The Other Kind of Africa Day

V and S flew home to Idaho yesterday and J and I sat around watching Friday Night Lights (the TV show, not the movie) having no idea what else to do with ourselves now that the house was empty again. This morning I dusted off my desk and now Sarge is napping next to the computer, resting her head on half the keyboard, occasionally opening one eye when I reach for the delete or return keys and disturb her nap. How easily we fall back into our routines—and how much more gratefully so after a long break. What had once become commonplace, almost boring, now seems delightful again. One day I am watching a family of lions dozing in the shade of a tree, the next I am back at my desk writing a novel (this might not sound like heaven to everyone, but it is to me). It’s enough to make a girl feel downright content.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

An Africa Day

I have posts, I do. The Internet at Kabira is down. Bubbles' gate was closed and supposedly there's another entrance, but I couldn't find it. Now I'm at Protea and my pictures won't post, I assume because the connection here is so bad. Tomorrow I'm heading to Murchison Falls with V and S. Probably won't be able to post again until next week.

Am I making excuses? Hell, yes, I'm making excuses. If I'm going to have an Africa Day, so are you.

Sipi Falls

About a week after my parents left, my friends V and S arrived from Idaho. We spent the first few days poking around Kampala and sitting by the pool at Kabira. Their first weekend in Uganda coincided with N’s last weekend and we wanted to get out of the city and into the country to see something new. It also happened to be Easter, a four-day weekend in Uganda. Little did we realize everyone goes away and because we started planning quite late, most of the hotels and lodges we called were already booked. We managed to get a night at Lacam Lodge out at Sipi Falls in eastern Uganda, close to Mt. Elgon and the Kenyan border.

Sipi Falls from the Lacam Lodge:

The hut V and I shared with views out over the valley:

In the morning we hiked to the base of the falls.

Lacam Lodge was so comfortable, the view so peaceful, that we endeavored to stay another night in the vicinity. We reserved beds at the Crow’s Nest, a campsite with bandas recommended in the Lonely Planet, but when we arrived there in the late afternoon, we discovered the restaurant had burned down a few months prior. With no place to really hang out, staying there became less appealing. Instead we drove back down to Mbale, in the shadow of the hills (and supposedly Mt. Elgon, though it was so cloudy the whole time we never saw it), and stayed at the Landmark Inn, a big, rundown but still charming, old house run by an Indian family who makes fantastic food.

We drove back to Kampala on Easter Sunday in a torrential downpour that never let up. We stopped in Jinja for lunch—Mexican food at the Palmtree Hotel, which is never disappointing when compared to your only other option for Mexican food at Fat Boys—and to show V and S the source of the Nile,