Review

Angry Wind
Through Muslim Black Africa by Truck, Bus, Boat and Camel

by Jeffrey Tayler (Morocco 1988–90;
PC Staff/Poland 1992, Uzbekistan 1992–93)
Houghton-Mifflin Co.
February 2005
256 pages
$25.00

    Reviewed by Darcy Meijer (Gabon 1982–84)

    JEFFREY TAYLER’S Angry Wind: Through Muslim Black Africa by Truck, Bus, Boat and Camel is the most absorbing travel book I have ever read. Tayler combines the objective eye and toughness of the seasoned African traveller with a personal need to determine what lies at the root of the myriad problems in this part of Africa.
         Tayler journeys through the Sahel — the southern “coast” of the Sahara Desert — in order to “hear out the people of the Sahel, to record and transmit their grievances, and to learn their views on the conflict between the West and the Islamic world.” He begins his journey in N’djamena, Chad, and continues on to Cameroun, Nigeria, Niger, and Mali. His trip ends in modern, salt-aired Dakar, Senegal, a biting contrast to the ravaged countries he has been through. His journey takes several months, in which he covers 4,000 miles. It is apparent from the first pages of Angry Wind that Tayler is a near-scholar on the Sahel, in particular its history. He combines this knowledge with interviews and observations, thus educating the reader on the past and present, the politics and religion of each region. Among the places Tayler visits are:

    • Kano, Nigeria, once “one of the greatest emporia of the Sahel, a rival of Timbuktu and Gao.”
    • Zinder, Nigeria, supplier of slaves to North Africa, the Middle East and the Americas.
    • N’djamena, capital of Chad, whose name is an African version of the Arabic “irtahna”, meaning “We rested. We had a good time.”
    • Ile de Goree, Senegal, and the House of Slaves, in which fifteen million slaves waited for the boats that would carry them to the New World. Poet Boubacar Joseph Ndiaye described the House in this way:
         De cette petite porte
         Pour un voyage sans retour
         Ils allaient les yeux fixes
         Sur l’infinie de la souffrance.

    Tayler describes the miserable Bella, a tribe enslaved by the nomadic Tuareg till this day. He feasts on camel and finds it to be perhaps the tenderest flesh he has ever eaten. He stays in Niger, the second poorest country in the world, where the unluckiest survive on tree bark and leaves. He attends the Muslim Feast of Tabaski in a Tuareg camp and witnesses dancing and rituals that are among the most beautiful he has ever seen. On his route, Tayler encounters much suspicion as a post 9/11 American, narrowly escapes violence at the hands of desperate teenage thugs, and witnesses the mind-blowing poverty that ravages the Sahel. He also recounts the many acts of generosity shown him and describes vividly the stark beauty of the desert and sky. Throughout the book blows the Harmattan, the powerful dust-wind from the Sahara that rages for days over Central and West Africa, de-foliating vegetation and causing sickness and misery for humans and beasts.
         Tayler’s vocabulary is very impressive, and this command of English entertained me in an otherwise saddening book. He is also fluent in French and Arabic, which facilitates his travels a great deal. His writing flows easily from narrative to dialogue to description. Like many travel writers, he has the detachment necessary to continue his travels and render a public narrative, yet he also transmits his frustration with the poverty and despair that permeate the lives of the Sahelians. Tayler writes that the problems of the Sahel are caused by humans and could be solved by humans, but his pessimism that this will happen is clear.
         In his search to understand how once-great Sahelian empires have fallen to their current state, Tayler focuses on the false boundaries imposed in the Scramble for Africa, the tug of war between Islam and Christianity, and economies hampered by corruption and lack of infrastructure. He points out that the West — in particular the United States — has virtually forgotten the Sahel since it is not considered economically important.
         Angry Wind should be on the reading list of everyone interested in the history, politics or religion of the Sahel, and concerned about the future of Sahelians. It is a compelling book — not an easy read by any means — but worth your time.
         Jeffrey Tayler is a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly and a contributor to Condé Nast Traveler, Harper’s Magazine, the Smithsonian, and National Geographic Magazine. After studying in New York, Florence, and Madrid, and receiving a Master’s Degree in Russian and East European history, Jeffrey served with the Peace Corps in Morocco as a Volunteer, and worked in Poland and Uzbekistan as a staff member. In 1993 he moved from Tashkent to Moscow and traveled across Russia and Ukraine for his first book, Siberian Dawn. His second book, Facing the Congo, recounts his ill-starred attempt to descend the Congo River in a dugout canoe. It received the Peace Corps Writers 2001 Award for Best Travel Writing. His third travelogue, Glory in a Camel’s Eye, describes his journey across the Moroccan Sahara with Arab nomads. He is currently working on a book about descending the Lena River in eastern Siberia. His writing is currently featured in the January 2005 issue of National Geographic, in an article about the mountain Berbers of North Africa entitled “A People Apart.” He lives in Moscow with his wife, Tatyana.

    Darcy Meijer has taught English composition and ESL since her Peace Corps service in universities all over the U.S. She now edits the Gabon Letter, the quarterly newsletter of the Friends of Gabon, and lives with her husband and three children in Maryville, Tennessee.