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Bill Bryson's African Diary
Bill Bryson's African Diary
By Bill Bryson
Doubleday Canada, 64 pages, $19.00


If it's Saturday, this must be Nairobi. At least that's the way it seems Bill Bryson experienced Africa during his week-long visit to Kenya. His journey, sponsored by CARE International, an organization committed to the eradication of world poverty, is chronicled in a book that is as brief and dense as was his visit. Clocking in at a mere forty-nine pages, this pouch-sized travelogue is as jam-packed as an African bus on an Election Day.

Bryson's diary begins in London, where he admits to having some "gaps in his familiarity with the Dark Continent," his perceptions formed mostly by watching Out of Africa and Jungle Jim movies. What follows after his arrival in Kenya is a whirl wind tour of CARE projects that blows away his naive image of Africa—with its charging animals, sprawling verandas and obsequious turbaned servants—and reveals a country brimming with poverty, slums, disease and, thankfully, laughter and hope.

In an enormous Nairobi shanty town, Bryson encounters a "sea of tin roofs" that shelters nearly a million residents, including an estimated 50,000 AIDS orphans, who survive without running water, electricity and garbage collection. Conditions are better in Dadaab, a refugee camp for Somalians fleeing unfavourable conditions in their own country. Here, at least, with world attention and CARE's administration, people aren't "malnourished or in desperate need of medical attention," although government watch dogs ensure the standard of living doesn't exceed that of Kenya's. Otherwise, states a CARE representative, "everybody would want to be a refugee."

Other areas Bryson visits are the town of Kisumu, where Wedco—a CARE financed bank—benevolently offers loans to business women; Ogongo Tu, where the organization has fostered a self-help group whose sole purpose is to maintain the village well; and the Tuscany-like Lambwe Valley, home of farmer William Gumbo, a member of CARE's Dak Achana, or Happy Households, Program, who shares his knowledge on how to grow successfully in a tse tse- and drought-prone region. Although African Diary is predominantly a fundraiser for CARE—every cent the book earns is donated to the organization—it doesn't dwell solely on the squalor it battles. Bryson scatters among his descriptions of slums and hardship some hilarious episodes that will make you giggle like a laughing hyena. His passage to Mombasa on the "Lunatic Express" train and his hair-raising flight back to Nairobi during a thunderstorm prove he isn't interested in delivering the book version of an Oxfam commercial. Through his descriptions of landscape—both geographic and political—and his visits to historic sites, Bryson takes us on a brief but extensive Kenyan tour, where the cost of a ticket (the price of the book) directly benefits those who can little afford life's most basic needs.