Crazy River is one of the best travel books about Africa that I’ve ever read. It’s up there with Blood River and Dark Star Safari. And like both of those books, Richard Grant excels in going beyond the “I went from A to B to C” to using the journey to meet a cast of characters that provides real insight into the region.
He deliberately picks one of the most challenging routes possible – one of the few officially unmapped areas of the world left – and writes an engaging and entertaining travelogue.
What I Liked
I really liked how he had an itinerary (due to magazine assignment), but also did not have a real timetable. He was able to develop a very diverse route and actually spend time letting things happen. His route went from Zanzibar across Tanzania to the Malagarasi River to Burundi to Rwanda. His route went from old colonial town to bustling African megacity to hard-up rural plains to remote, impenetrable jungle to dense, raucous democracy to strict, developing authoritarian nation.
I liked his approach to journalism and really listening to people I knew from his excellent Dispatches From Pluto that he had a really good eye & ear for navigating race, class, and place. And it shows in Crazy River. He is certainly a rich, white, male, American in Africa with all the attendant tension, paradoxes, hypocrisy, and inequality that comes with it. But he does well openly explaining and working through those tensions. The chapter on Burundi and Rwanda is especially eye-opening in his observations and interviews that mention the aid industry, foreign workers, and how that intersects with the unspeakable tragedy* of those countries in addition to poverty, culture, and inequality.
*quick note that We Wish to Inform You by Philip Gourevitch is still *the* book about Rwanda & Burundi. It sticks with me 18 years after reading it.
I also liked how he didn’t stay on the sad, depressing parts of Africa. I hear a lot of Westerners only pay attention to the awfulness that comes out of Africa* without ever hearing the exciting, happy, inspiring stories. Grant captures so much of the everyday-ness in this region of Africa (like the musical tastes and food fusions). He does this, again, by just hanging out and letting things happen. I liked that.
*And yes, that is very meta thing to say…because unfortunately, Westerners (including myself) will group an entire continent together with the awfulness rather than at least separating out regions and countries. The problems of east Africa, where he traveled, are very different than the issues of west Africa, the Sahel, or southern Africa.
What I Didn’t Like
Maps. I know that a good travel book should stand without maps, but wow, I wish I had some maps in this book. One issue about traveling to a region that has not been officially mapped on the ground by surveyors…is that Google Maps is wildly inaccurate. A few maps would have been helpful.
There’s nothing like a good travel book to remind you just how complex the world is. In the US, even people who want a simple solution for government / social / cultural problems usually acknowledge the complex reality about our own country. But it’s often hard to remember that the *same* complexity exists *everywhere*. This book was a good reminder of that.
I’ve read a lot about the aid industry. I studied it in college. I know close friends & family who work in it. It is completely and thoroughly broken. In fact, this book shows multiple situations where it is *actively* harming the people that it’s supposed to help. And yet…foreign aid is also something that simply can’t be abandoned or given up on. It has also done massive good in the world. There are really smart people working to reform it. I hope reform happens or maybe someone pioneers a way for aid to be unnecessary. I don’t know, but it was good to read about.
I hope to travel somewhere in Africa someday. I’m most interested in Ethiopia (food), Senegal (history), and Namibia (nature), but it definitely seems to take a different type of planning and a whole different mindset compared to other regions that I’ve been to.