on 18 January 2001
I very much enjoyed Biddlecombe's style, particularly the many funny anecdotes. One that sticks out in my mind is his description of the hordes of unbelievably tenacious street vendors in Dakar (the same vendors are "breaking out" all over Europe these days, he tells us, and he's right). The author's experiences in a wide range of French-speaking African locales, from Kinshasa to Bamako, give him a special perspective; it's rare to find an Englishman (or for that matter anyone) who's so well versed in that part of the world. He illustrates each country and city with a story from his many business trips, his meetings with government and private sector leaders, and his interactions with common people.
The thing is, one loses something by relying on French to get by, even in cosmopolitan cities like Abidjan or Dakar. The actual majority of people in these places do not speak French, so one tends to interact with a relatively small subset of the population. (In the Congo this subset is estimated at 30-40 percent; in Chad it's only 5-10 percent.) This is not Mr. Biddlecombe's fault of course, but the reader should keep in mind that there is much more to the societies being presented than their educated elites.
I surprised myself: I did enjoy this book. It was a last minute desperate purchase for no other reason than that I wanted to fill in some time.
Now, I never know if the facts are right in this sort of book: I got rid of all the books I had by one travel writer that I swore by when I discovered that most of his characters and conversations were invented. However, I got the feeling that these encounters were based on truth.
Unlike the previous reviewer, I didn't find conversations were in French - the French tended to be mainly when the author was telling the story or putting across his opinions: even then, they tended to be very brief. But they were annoying for a different reason. Mr Biddlecombe would be giving his thoughts and then suddenly interject un morceau de Francais. First time, it struck me as mildly amusing; then it became arch. Finally, it bugged me a lot.
Reading this book enlightened me more, however, than Michael Palin's Sahara, for example, because I didn't feel that situations were being set up 'off-camera', so to speak.
Best insights? The reasons francophone Africa has better relations with the country of its mother language than anglophone Africa has. I also found the Togo and Senegal sections particularly interesting.
One other downside - the frequent use of 'African' as a generalisation, not only by those he meets but also by him. For a book that so excellently demonstrates the difference between cultures, countries and individuals (the people he meets in Zaire, for example) this seems a little bit lazy and insulting.
on 25 July 2004
This book looks at Peter Biddlecombe travelling around the french part of Africa, or "Francophone Africa" as he calls it. Reading this book in 2004, after it was written in the 80's, and being only 18 I occasionally struggled to understand some of the political references he makes to other countries and the live style that occured in the UK then, however I also learnt a lot.
This book was well written giving great insight into the culture of many of the people in French Africa. Each chapter covers a different country however links are made between the too making it flow much better than in some of his other books.
The only problem with this book was the quantity of french. Many of the conversations he has are in French, not very difficult french but french none the less. I expected this due to previous books I have read of his and managed to muddle my way through. I would not recommend this book to someone who knows absolutely nothing of the French language unless they are willing to miss out the odd paragraph or two.
Overall, however, it was an excellent read.
on 18 March 2009
Despite myself, I am enjoying this book a lot. It is out of date, opinionated, does mix in a wee few words of errant French, but gives a nice overview of the countries Biddlecombe works in and a sense of his (sometimes profligate) experiences there. I've worked in Africa for over 20 years (off and on), mainly in the more adventurous-sounding area of natural history and exploration, but I found much of relevance in this read. Reading it is like having a whiskey with a slightly annoying, but very entertaining, raconteur.