Lion Attacks and Safaris

Travel Book Review:  Man Eaters Motel (and other stops on the railway to nowhere:  an East African Traveler’s Nightbook) by Denis Boyles (1991)

I love reading books about Africa (see previous review).  I know better than to think the whole continent is the same, but the history is fascinating.  Colonialism.  Exported slave labor.  Imported Indian labor.  Wars for independence.  Civil wars.  Malaria.  Lion attacks.  A lot has happened there.

I recently uncovered an older (1991) book Man Eaters Motel about travel through Kenya.  It is set up to be read as you journey along the railroad through Kenya.  But, unlike a simple travelogue, Boyles is an astute journalist and researcher who uncovers primary and secondary sources (I sound like a high school English teacher) to add a sense of history to the story.  This is not a fluffy story about lions and safaris, nor is it a tale of the struggles of (and against) colonialism.  But the observations and historical references, provide a unique insight into how this touristed area of Africa came to be.

While the bulk of the book focuses on the lion attacks on the Indian laborers brought in to build the railroad in the early 1900’s, I did not find this to be the most interesting part of the book.  I loved the dispatches from Zanzibar and Nairobi.  I was captured by the first chapter tracing Zanzibar’s history from the Arab settlers and slave traders to its decline and near destruction at the hands of modern African leaders.  It even foreshadows the tropical resorts which have come more recently.  In a particularly sad foreshadowing, a meeting with a Zanzibari official reveals the desire to increase tourism, without adequate consideration for effects on the local culture or lives.

Boyles also has a rich look into the lives of white Kenyans, who are usually of British descent.  The interesting post-colonial paradox is here–people still living their comparitively wealthy lives in the midst of a city growing too rapidly by poor settlers.  But it is not as simple as that.  Many of these “expats” have lived all (or nearly all) of their lives here in Nairobi.  And while they may look different (and perhaps act different) from the “locals” they are every bit as Kenyan as many of those of darker skin.

The book is a well-researched look at a world we don’t often encounter.  And if we do, it is from the safety of armed guards on our private safaris.

There is no easy way to talk about Africa.  There are racial divides, tribal divides.  There are atrocities committed by whites, Arabs, and other Africans.  Boyles seems successful at bridging these gaps, trying to maintain a neutral viewpoint when there is not much at all neutral on the surface.

We could begin a discussion with one simple page, which I quote below.  In Africa, nothing, whether building a railroad or running a country, is ever as easy as it seems.

“The arrival of Europeans in Africa was a probably good thing from a contemporary point of view–disease was reduced, tribal warfare was suppressed, slavery was eliminated, schools were built, and the colony-nations of Africa were brought into the global community.  From a modern point of view, however, we despise the good intentions of the victorians, and the colonial era is now seen as an ugly exercise of racial dominance, one that has engendered not only the somewhat understandably excessive antiwhite bias of African nationalism, but also the impassioned, sometimes poorly reasoned reaction to history on the part of those who live outside the continent.”
“Power during the process of decolonization, was passed with tremendous expediency from the colonizing government to whomever had the next most power, despite the fact that the only recipient of power without exception represented only a single tribe’s interests and was bound to put those interests ahead of all others– except, perhaps, important personal ones.” (page 150)
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