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Author Archive: "Julian Smith"

African Travel Writing Clichés

One of the toughest parts of writing Crossing the Heart of Africa was trying not to fall into the morass of cliché that pervades the body of literature about the continent, at least the majority of it written by non-Africans. Sitting down to write about Africa as a Westerner is to step into a minefield of hackneyed images, stale themes and stereotypes that date back centuries. The problem bloomed in the 19th century as European explorers, missionaries and travelers started churning out breathless accounts of the "Dark Continent." Although Grogan isn't nearly as bad as some, he certainly has one foot in that camp; some passages in his book are genuinely cringeworthy.

One of the best descriptions of the issue I've found is Binyavanga Wainaina's acidic essay in Granta titled "How to Write about Africa." "Africa is to be pitied, worshipped or dominated," he writes with blistering irony:

In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving.


The Things We Carried

Aside from the route, my journey across Africa was obviously light years away from Grogan's. He and Harry Sharp, Gertrude's uncle and his partner for part of the trip, moved by boat and boot leather — and occasionally, when one was too sick to walk, in a hammock slung from a pole. They were in no hurry; safety and security were far more important than speed. Apart from the food they were able to kill and trade for along the way, they had to bring everything they needed with them, and since they were 19th-century gentlemen it was a long list:

Compared to most African expeditions, Grogan and Sharp traveled light. Their main weapons for hunting and defense were two magazine-fed .303-caliber rifles, which could bring down anything from ducks to large antelopes. Grogan brought a giant black-powder "elephant gun" for bigger game [each four-inch shell held a bullet as big as a man's thumb], and both men had backup rifles and cases of ammunition.

Wooden boxes held tents and folding cots, shoes and clothing, fishing rods and mosquito nets. They took surveying tools and a camera, three


Ewart and Winston

I'm always astonished at how few people have ever heard of Ewart Grogan. His trek equaled anything other world-famous explorers like Henry Stanley and Richard Burton ever pulled off. Yet, after his return in 1900 and the burst of publicity that followed, Groan faded quickly from the public eye, and died virtually unknown.

More than anything, he just didn't seek fame like other explorers, who in a way were the rock stars of their time. Grogan seemed content to be a big fish in the small pond of colonial Kenya, where he and his wife Gertrude spent most of the rest of their lives.

When it comes to attention-seeking — or not — it's interesting to compare Grogan to Winston Churchill. The two men were remarkably similar in background, ability, and temperament — both gifted, iconoclastic, ambitious, unpredictable and larger than life — but their lives took very different paths.

Churchill was born just two weeks after Grogan in 1874. He was just as independent and defiant as Grogan early on, and he also served as a soldier in his 20s. Churchill came from a more aristocratic family, but he also ...

Who Wants to Go to Africa?

Many thanks to Powell's for having me as a guest blogger this week, and for helping kick off my speaking tour for Crossing the Heart of Africa: An Odyssey of Love and Adventure in December. We had a great crowd, including a special guest, who I'll get to in a bit.

What's CHA about? Ah, the elevator pitch: fifteen seconds to describe your project before the bell rings and the doors slide open. It's a mouthful, but I've whittled the plot down to two sentences: It's about retracing the route of the British explorer Ewart Grogan from one end of Africa to the other. The 26-year-old Cambridge dropout traveled 5,000 miles from South Africa to Cairo in 1898-1900 to prove to his beloved's jealous stepfather that he was worth her hand in marriage, and I followed in 2007, right before I married my wife, in part to help face down my own pre-marriage jitters.

So — an adventure-travel-historical-romance-memoir. Simple enough, right?

The book is really three stories woven together, which made it a particular challenge to write: there's the story of ...

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