Americans don’t know much about Africa. Given a blank map of the continent, I think most of us would be lucky to place more than four countries in their proper locations. We are equally unfamiliar with the auto trade to Western Africa. Europeans would buy used (and these are not “gently used” by any means) Mercedes clunkers and drive them through Spain to Morocco and points southward, with the intent of both car and driver arriving intact at a destination, where the car would be sold for a profit. This is the basis for Jeroen Van Bergeijk’s journey from the Netherlands to Benin, My Mercedes is Not For Sale.
My lack of knowledge about this area describes my fascination with learning more about travel through places unknown, and this journey through cities like Nouakchott, Bamako, and Ouagadougou certainly is eye-opening. This is not a detailed study of the continent, but a unique and fascinating journey into the foreign.
The commerce of auto trade in Africa occurs in varied ways. The author introduces us to formal auto dealers and the underground ones, who deal in cash and create bogus papers to save import duties. In Suame, Ghana, he encounters an entire town built on the business of fixing cars. In Mali’s capital, so many people screamed at him on the street to buy his Mercedes that he taped a sign on the window in French: “This Car is Not for Sale.” And he takes us to the port where Europe’s junk cars (operational and not) arrive by the hundreds for their new lives on another continent.
During his journey, Van Bergeijk manages to describe the African landscape and cityscape honestly (“Things in Africa come in two forms: broken or almost broken.”) but seemingly without prejudice. He introduces us to expats, who range on a continuum of sanity to madness, as he takes us from nation to nation. And he leaves us with some indelible images, this of Nouakchott, Mauritania: “a city with no cinemas, department stores, theaters, bookshops, discos, concert halls, or bars. Everything that makes a city fun is missing here. Everything that makes a city unpleasant—people, cars, filth—can be found here in spades.” We encounter the border crossings, where he nearly always bribes the bored customs attendants. At some, he hires “hustlers,” not for their unique ability to cut the red tape to get him through customs easily, but merely to keep other hustlers away. The map and photos in the book help us to experience the journey as he sees it.
Throughout the book, he shares with us some history of Europeans’ attempts to explore West Africa. In his retelling of the stories of past travelers, he removes the air of romance to replace it with terrible tales of starvation, kidnapping, and bribery. He recounts Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s tales of desolation and loneliness, and, for those desiring total Africa fright, he recounts Sufferings in Africa. Even recent Europeans attempting a car-sale journey like his, have found their deaths (by various means) in the desert in the 1990’s. But these are not to provide an in-depth study of the history of these varied countries, but instead to provide perspective on his journey. Or perhaps to terrify himself during the dark African nights.
If I could suggest one improvement it is that Van Bergeijk tries to give his car a personality by visiting the factory where Mercedes are made and telling tales of where the car had been before he bought it. But the journey the car takes after he buys it is much more interesting than any journey it had before
Overall: Well-written tale of an odd journey across Western Africa, but skip the parts about the history of the car.
Book review of My Mercedes is Not For Sale by Jeroen Van Bergeijk (2006) (translated by John Antonides, 2008) – Review of best travel books of all time.