When Peter Moore visited the West Sussex Writers’ Club to talk about his travels and the books he wrote about them, I bought a copy of Swahili for the Broken-Hearted.
Peter embarked on his African adventure in an effort to escape his misery after his long-term girlfriend and former travelling companion dumped him. He decided to travel overland from Cape Town to Cairo by using a combination of public transport and lifts from people he met along the way. He is good at befriending people.
I’d expected to read a series of adventures delivered with the author’s laconic Aussie understatement that would leave me chuckling – while deeply grateful that it wasn’t me out there experiencing them. Well, that part was right. The sheer physical rigour of travelling in knee-buckling heat over cratered roads that wouldn’t look out of place on a battlefield in an overcrowded bus or train for hour upon hour, shouldn’t be underestimated. And I bring it up because, while Peter gives those facts a mention – his toughness means that conditions get really dire before he starts moaning about them. And the book is generously sprinkled with amusing tales – like the indignation of his drinking buddies in a South African township over his choice of beer when buying a round. Apparently, he’d bought them a woman’s drink so they thought he was insulting their manhood.
I was impressed by his deft, insightful character sketches and his sympathetic, unsentimental account of the grinding poverty and corruption he encountered. And there is an awful lot of poverty. Like the pavement sellers weeping when forced to part with their wares at prices they couldn’t afford. Things we take for granted – like adequate safety standards on public transport – are non-existent. To the extent that many Africans were shocked on learning that he was travelling on local buses and would warn him they weren’t safe.
Every so often, events would slide from the farcical into the outright dangerous – like the riot that Peter nearly walked into in Addis Ababa where he escaped by hiding in a coffin-maker’s shop while the mob outside destroyed a Toyota pickup truck.
The spare writing style ensures the book moves along at a brisk pace, with quick, clear descriptions as each new scene unfolded along the journey. My one niggle is that I would have preferred a few more word pictures throughout the book. It is, after all, a tale of travelling.
Those of you who attended the meeting will already know that Peter possesses sufficient self deprecating charm to stop a charging rhino and his amusing anecdotes left me slightly unprepared for the sombre undertone running through the book. As you’d expect of someone fleeing a broken heart, his mood is rather melancholy – which aptly reflects the appalling plight of many Africans in their daily lives. I was struck by the Zimbabwe man who told Peter that Jesus would soon be coming again as described in the Bible – as we were living through the end-time of war, plague and famine.
I had picked up the book anticipating an amusing romp through a part of the world I’d known as a child. What I actually got was a far more thought-provoking account of a continent in crisis – without any moralising or political harangue. It’s a neat trick to pull off and Peter Moore ably manages it. I think the jokey blurb on the cover sells this book short and despite the fact that travel books aren’t normally among the piles beside my bed, I shall be looking out for his other work.