Travel Madness (Congo Journey by Redmond O’Hanlon)

“The Western Bantu word for hero comes from the verb meaning to enter oblivion, to be lost, to become a spirit.”

If these are the terms and conditions for becoming a hero, then Redmond O’Hanlon is a hero: he enters oblivion; he becomes lost; and enters dark places of the spirit. O’Hanlon is a traveller, a student of natural history, and a serious risk-taker. In Congo Journey, O’Hanlon searches for a mythical dinosaur – Mokélé-mbembé – that is believed to live in Lake Télé deep in the equatorial swamps and forests of the northern Congo.

The story opens with a visit to a féticheuse who tosses a handful of cowrie shells and forewarns O’Hanlon’s traveling companion – American university professor Lary Shaffer – that he will die if he remains in the Congo for a day more than two months. To O’Hanlon she says, “You don’t speak your desires. You think them.”  It seems observation, complaint, and foretelling. The mood and tone are set for increasingly surreal and nightmarish experiences. At times, I wondered if the book actually relates a traveler’s tale or if it is pure fiction.

O’Hanlon has credentials: as a travel writer and as a naturalist. He did a doctorate at Oxford on Conrad and Darwin, and it is clear that in key ways he’s caught in the era of British exploration. The Guardian calls O’Hanlon a “legendary bonhomie.” He is a throwback, entering the unknown – not as an observer – but as a full participant, an informed participant. The party paddles through rivers, trudges along barely discernable pathways, and take refuge in villages right out of a bygone era. Scattered among these harrowing experiences are fascinating details about the birds that enamour him as:

I was woken at dawn by a loud and discordant chorus of alarm, the ka-ka-ka of a flock of Plumed guineafowl disturbed at their scratching through the leaf-litter, somewhere off to the left. You’re ancient birds, I thought, and you sound like it, you cackling old aunts in a tizzy, you fossils, you date from forty-five million years ago.

One book close by in his pocket is Birds of Tropical West Africa that we learn grows mouldy and mottled (but O’Hanlon provides an extensive bibliography, more than seven pages long.)

Redmond O’Hanlon made an extraordinary journey that took him to his destination. It simultaneously carried him deep within himself, testing him on the deepest levels. All this is shared with bluntness and honesty, blindness and seer-like vision. Readers gain more than glimpses into a man’s determination, more than knowledge about the natural history of the Congo, and more than a superficial snapshot of the people who inhabit the swamps, jungles, and villages. (Speaking of snapshots, Congo Journey includes a section of photographs.)

Highly recommended…especially for armchair travelers who want more than the common gloss of travel articles, and for those dreaming of such an adventure, Congo Journey will inform and also make you stop and think.

20 Congo Journey

Available through your local bookstore or online: Congo Journey

A Young Life: without sentimentality or cynicism (Notes from the Hyena’s Belly by Nega Mezlekia)

“I was born in the year of the paradox, in the labyrinthine city of Jijiga. After a three-year absence, the rains had come, swelling the rivers and streams. The clay desert, as dry as the skin of a drum, became green once more. Queen Menen, wife of King Haile Selassie, lay dying. She was as reluctant to leave this world as I was to leave the womb.”

Nega Mezlekia tells a tale that spell-binds, and he does it with dark humour – an extraordinary feat for the story of Ethiopia’s coup and counter-coup history. The first paragraph sets a tone Mezlekia maintains. In Notes from the Hyena’s Belly we journey into a child’s world of paradox, a world in which innocence and awareness, love and cruelty co-mingle. We glimpse the roots that nourish a precocious, curious and stubbornly confident boy as well as the socio-economic-political reality of Ethiopia – accomplished with lightness (even through life-threatening situations). Mezlekia shows us how deep this complex duality runs: “In Ethiopia,” he writes, “poetry is second only to the achievements of kings. Poets are sought after and treated with great reverence by the ruling class. …The most popular form of poetry, known as the kinae, offers one message to the untrained ear and another to cultured listeners.” Notes carries on the tradition.

Mezlekia is a skilled, insightful poetic writer, one who has mastered nuance and the twist that both informs and surprises. His language and rhythm, his lack of sentimentality and cynicism carry us through Ethiopia’s sad history as we keep turning pages. Mezlekia provides insight into his journey from boyhood shenanigans into manhood within a revolutionary and war-torn context. He has written a powerful story of lost innocence and of survival.

Notes from the Hyena’s Belly goes beyond the personal story; it offers insight into what it is to be human, a connection and an awakening for each reader. On the one hand, this biography is specific to Mezlekia, but it also tells a story that is far too common across the post-colonial African continent and, I’m afraid, even beyond. We can draw parallels to what is happening in the world today.

Given the skilful writing and master storytelling, it is little wonder that Notes from the Hyena’s Belly: An Ethiopian Boyhood won Canada’s prestigious Governor General’s award for literature (2000). (It was published in the U.S. simply as Notes from the Hyena’s Belly.) Highly recommended.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Notes From the Hyena’s Belly