Learning the lessons of African travel, one painful lesson at a time

Review: David Bristow

African Traveller: Twenty years of adventures as a documentary filmmaker,  by Neil Shaw (self-published)

Neil Shaw is hardly your typical African traveller, whatever that might be. As a lad in Malawi collecting chewing-gum packet cards of the flags of Africa, he dreamed of visiting all those countries.

Years later, on an impulse, he decided to become a documentary filmmaker, bought a Panasonic mini DV palmcorder and a train ticket.

That was also when, on his first documentary-making trip – taking public transport from Cape Town to Dar-es-Salaam – he learned his first lesson in African travel: anything that can be stolen will be: padlocks on backpacker inn doors notwithstanding.

A quick five-minute visit to the local market and his digital film camera, battery charger, all his recorded tapes and his backpack gone like a robber’s dog.  That was first but not the last he had all his stuff stolen.

But Shaw learns, after several days of drowning his sorrows, how to turn coconuts into coco-rico: he hunts down a store in the burrows of Dar, and also learns rule number two: in Africa if you cannot buy it, you get someone to make you one, or a close facsimile. It’s the land of can-do out there. So he filmed the return trip instead. In the can.

After that it was Morocco, the East Coast Swahili islands, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Malawi, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Madagascar, Angola, Namibia, Rwanda, Zambia, Gabon, St Helena and Congo … eventually, if you are a real African traveller, your road will lead you to Congo. It always ends in high adventure, usually of the type two kind.

Some adventures are what we, back in my own travel journalism days, used to call “type one” fun (the kind when you have fun at the time), and others are more “type two” fun (those that reap their rewards afterwards in the telling).

Sticking your nose and your movie camera into sticky situations – corruption, poaching, illegal logging, you name it – in countries where human rights and the rule of law are not exactly the order of the day, is likely to get tricky. And it does on many occasions.

Shaw also takes hard looks at the local effects of foreign aid, and pokes a stick at some aspects of ecotourism – “where five-star prices are charged for a hotel made cheaply of local materials, thus being sold as ‘sustainable’.”

In northern Mozambique (where he covers an ecotourism “poverty tour” – rich tourists paying big bucks to experience how the locals survive), after being robbed the umpteenth time, Shaw learns rule number three: when in Rome, or Praia de Xalala, do what the locals do. When once again the cops are about as interested in his troubles as they are about the weather in Calgary, he pays a local curandeiro, or shaman, to perform a ceremony that will bring back his stolen property. Rule number four: if you enact rule number three, don’t be a typical mzungu and be in a rush. Rule five: in Africa it takes time to get things done. The corollary of this rule is: if you are impatient you will pay the price.

Some of the stories are political, some environmental, others social. But, usually travelling alone.

The story is written in the first person, present tense, which in some cases (most really), comes across as artful, but not in this one. Shaw tells his stories of high adventure in a direct, and oftentimes down-played manner. He also tells it straight, as it happened, very much like matter-of-fact journalism. And, always the documentarian, he divulges little personal detail.

The book is self-published, and I am surprised a mainstream publishing house did not snap it up, because his really is a road less travelled. Then again maybe it was written too matter-of-factly for them, not hyped up at all (image people are not, by nature, discursive). Or, perhaps, some of the politically incorrect things he records (black racism is one example) was not woke enough, who knows.

But f or any actual or virtual African traveller, this story of a self-made movie maker is a first-class read.

His final adventure before packing it all in and heading off to live in Greece: Cape to Cairo, by rail.

The book is available on Amazon, Kindle and paperback editions.

  • David Bristow is an author, travel journalist, and former editor of Getaway magazine


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