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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

another roll in the hay

Travel writing. 

On the second day of the Storymoja hay festival a travelling and travel writing session was held by Australian travel writer Peter Moore and Dutch-Moroccan novelist Abdelkadir Benali. These are two men who have travelled, not just over land but in their minds, travelling with people and through cultures, allowing themselves to be embraced by the places they had visited, allowing themselves to be changed and to gain a kinder world view. 

“Where are you from?” is a very common question posed to travellers, Peter Moore has received this numerous times “down south, ” is his answer but this simple exchange in different places shows how much people perceive the world as a construct of their realities. Giving this answer in Nottingham, England conjured up images of a suburb just a few miles south of that town. Giving it in Africa brings an image inextricably linked with Cape Town and Durban, diamonds and wine, South Africa. In his book, Swahili for the broken hearted he travels the famous explorer's route from Cape Town to Cairo using only public means. He remembered South Africa with fondness, talking about the hold it had over him, a country not ready to release him from its grip. When he finally had to leave to begin his trip the weather matched his mood, a heavy downpour accompanied farewell. The bus windows were fogged up and when he looked out all he could see was “mist and memories, rain and goodbyes.” 

From there he travelled to Lesotho a country where all you need is a blanket. A tool that could be a stand-in for your house, your table, your mattress even your wife on those days all she wants to do is cuddle. It carries all of you .In Swaziland he was able to witness a cooperation of modernity and tradition in the form of the reed dance. This is an annual ritual in which young nubile women model themselves for the chance to be chosen by the king as  consort. A few years ago the king would stand or sit in his throne out in the open and watch the women dance bare-chested but no more,(its not the barechestedness that has left) thanks to the advent of video cameras the king sits in comfort as his attendants take videos of the young girls, the images flashed(pun intended) to a bank of monitors and from that glassy exterior the king makes his pick. In Mozambique the feeling he remembered best was one of acceptance, of immediately being made to feel like part of the family, welcomed into a home to share their food, their space,their celebrations.

Abdelkader Benali had done a documentary for the Dutch BBC on football in Africa during the lead up to the world cup in South Africa. They had selected a few countries for reasons of both football prowess and its  power as a cultural cornerstone in those countries. Mali was chosen for their culture of storytelling,  football is more than a sport in Mali, it is a driving narrative force shaping and shifting tales told. Ivory coast was chosen because of the healing power that was being harnessed by the footballers themselves as they used their fame and hero like status to push peace and reconciliation. Most notably Didier Drogba's foray into local politics when he announced a match would be held in Bwake, a rebel stronghold. Such was the importance of football and footballers that this announcement and the subsequent match went a long way in healing the rifts and wounds of civil war. Ghana was also chosen, the first independent African country, football competition here is fierce, while in Europe football has become narrowed to success in Ghana it is used by individuals to logicise, to systemize and ultimately conquer the world around them, to define their individualism and let their reinforced sense of identity shape their country. South Africa was chosen as the site of the world cup. There the sinister side of football could be seen, the part that's about profits and money, concerned with deadlines and duties but here too the uniting power of football could be seen in the hope and joy on the faces of the people. 

As the session went on, Peter Moore suggested a very simple economic index to keep track of the strength of a country's economy. Just look out of your bus or matatu and count the number of goats. Jokingly he told us that the more goats you can see the lower on the scales of development that country is. He also talked about his border crossing into Malawi from Zambia. Entering the Zambia side the first thing he saw was a huge sign proclaiming that border outpost a “corruption free zone.” a sign that the official in charge seemed to take as a sarcastic scrawling. That official began a grilling on the vaccinations that Peter Moore had received, going down the list as he looked for more and more outlandish diseases finally settling on a request for a cholera vaccine, which was not then available or needed to get into Malawi
“if you don't have one we can help each other out.”
“are you asking for a bribe?”
“no, no nothing like that”(I earlier mentioned this official's love of sarcasm.)
there then ensued a blinking contest, a staring match. For a very uncomfortable few minutes nothing was done until finally the official backed down. When Peter Moore told his travelling companions that he hadn't paid the bribe their eyes were as wide as saucepans, shock and surprise etched into their faces.

Abdelkader Benali talked about the different levels of borders, the different frontiers where once an outsider crosses he becomes an insider. The citizens of Ivory Coast in Abidjan were so convinced that this crew of documentary makers were there as scouts for a team that every day he would get requests from people asking him to have a look at their sons or themselves, it got to a point he began to doubt himself and his function in the country. He had come to make a documentary but why couldn't he also scout after all he had a friend who had a cousin who was married to a girl who once knew the guy who was the manager of Ajax and other such degrees of seperation. One person came up to him and whispered to him in  a really low conspiratorial voice, “I know you are here for football, I have a kid and a ball just around the corner, come see him, he has all his papers and vaccinations, he can leave with you tomorrow.” and for a moment he considered it, he described the encounter as being hypnotized , he was about to do something he had never thought about doing, he was ready to go watch the kid play and see what he could do about it, the moment passed but the memory persisted.

Peter Moore came up with the title of his book walking around the streets of Nairobi where he found a little book of Swahili sayings, in it was a collection of proverbs in Swahili, their translations and meanings. It was then that the title for the book came to him along with an idea to open each chapter with a Swahili saying that had something to do with the content of the chapter. His advice to aspiring authors?  learn to kill your babies, to put to bed and death phrases, paragraphs and pages that you may have laboured over but that did nothing for the book ultimately. He said that his experience in advertising helped him write books in that he understood how to put a hook in the book, a clincher, a way to describe it in one sentence or less that could be used to promote the book. A huge part of publishing is promotion and its important to make this process easier. His writing technique used to be waiting for inspiration  but he admitted that this was not the most disciplined or the best way to go about writing, he said he couldn't even do that any more telling us that, “since I became a father my mind feels like its in a constant fog now.” 

Abdelkader Benali said that he used to have writer's block, “but now I have a mortgage.” The best thing to do is to focus on the now, “beyond the horizon is another horizon and this incredible monster of ambition can eat everything up. Remember a writer is only as good as his last sentence.” Writing should give the writer joy, it is the process of communicating thoughts to paper and having those thoughts re-communicated to yourself. His spiritual writing model is his grandmother from Morocco, growing up they would visit her once in a while and going back there was like a portal in time as his parents would instantly be transformed to the children they once were in the midst of sights and scents of childhood, in the middle of the  security of knowing your parents were less than a shout away. His grandmother was horribly honest. She cut down to the meat of the matter making up in truth what she lacked in tact. He thought that if he could write how she talked ,put some of her poison into his writing it would make for some compelling reading, “though you wouldn't have any friends.”Peter Moore remarked.

One of the most important things about travel writing? You have to learn how to handle boredom Peter Moore said as he talked about Thoreau's book Consideration of the Railway, and how the most constant companion of any travel writer is boredom. Thoreau is one of his favourite authors because he could make boredom seem so beautiful.