"Was I really here to take soundings about a massacre that happened 134 years ago in Manyuemaland? Or was I after another adventure?"... "I approach the end of my book wondering if I have contributed anything useful." Thus self-questioning begins and ends this odyssey that is Shelby Tucker's contribution to the vast interrogative that is Africa. 'The Last Banana' is not a travel book in the usual sense - Mr. Tucker can 'do' travel, as proven in his acclaimed 'Among Insurgents' (chosen as Colin Thubron's Book of the Year). Neither is it a 'History' in the mould of his scholarly 'Burma - the Curse of Independence'. It eschews categorization as defiantly as Africa itself, in all its "majesty,diversity and richness". At its conclusion, the reader is compelled to return to the beginning, to reread and recapture experiences, as the author himself felt compelled to return again and again to the continent, searching for the "echoes and drumbeats" of those who had passed before - Gordon of Khartoum, David Livingstone, and Philotas Ghikas. You will not have heard of the latter and therein lies the distinction of this record. For it celebrates, in a freshly personal light, yet with equal reverence, not only the great figures marking Africa's fraught history with the West, but also the faith and fortitude of unsung heroes, especially the Greek settlers, whose gritty entrepreneurial spirit opened up Africa - for good or ill - to "commerce and Christianity". The pretext for the journey at the book's kernel is an invitation by one such Greek, his friend Mario Ghikas, to help him spend "the last banana" of his "unremittable fortune" before his Tanzanian farm is nationalized. This account, illuminated as much with learning lightly worn, as with delight in the absurd, transmutes experiences of intense frustration or danger into occasions for dry humour worthy of Evelyn Waugh. Flyblown corners like Al Qadarif, dismissed by previous travellers such as Baker as "a miserable place composed of the usual straw huts of the Arabs", are made memorable through Tucker's irrepressible wit, appreciation of humble hospitality and fascinated observation. It is a unique tribute to the people and peoples of an Africa whose legacy is still discernible through the palimpsest of devastation wrought by successive warring ideologies. The classification of this book may be debated but as a significant piece in the extraordinary mosaic of African experience, it will earn its place.
Shelby Tucker's "The Last Banana" is original, interesting and very well researched! It must surely be the book anyone interested in the topics he looks at should go to. For example, it was so interesting to read about the rise of Nyerere seen through the diligently researched eyes of the Greek settlers (I didn't even know that Greeks went to Tanzania to farm and settle). The tragedy of Nyerere's well meant nationalization programme and its dire consequences for the settlers are described sotto voce, all the stronger for that.
Shelby himself is a traveller. In some ways he writes in the tradition of Burton and Speke and Livingstone, the characters who provide the background of this tale. Like them, Shelby encounters and overcomes difficulties and disasters, he enjoys the unpredictability of Africa and its exotic side. He remains cool when things go awry. He sees the people he encounters, caught up in their own vortical lives, spiralling down to hopeless ends. He himself, the traveller, avoids that parochial fate by moving onwards, ever onwards to new encounters, new towns, new countries. In the end one detects a weariness creeping in at the futility of it all. Big, life-embracing human endeavours are described and it's shown how and why they fail.
Shelby has a humorous style. I was very slightly reminded of writers such as Redmond O'Hanlon or Griff Rhys Jones who dive into foreign parts waiting for disasters to happen, which, predictably, they do, much to the (retrospective) amusement of the writer. I guess Dylan Thomas also saw the humour and the tragedy of ordinary life though in his case it was in rural Wales. Here we see it against the panorama of African politics and history, African culture and fortitude. Nil desperandum. Shelby's idea is not simply to stay in the game (which is enough for most of us) but to seek out ever more exotic trials, moving on all the time to see what will happen next. He doesn't seem to get homesick for Osney Mead. Abu Simbel and the Moran are more to his taste. There is however a counterpoint running through the book: Oxford vs. Africa. And Oxford wins. It's Oxford that makes Africa and its terrible extraordinariness tolerable. One feels that if Shelby were to find himself in a near-death situation, he'd press the Oxford button and an Oxford genie would appear and spirit him away to safety.
Although The Last Banana is presented as a travel book, it is no mere story of journey. Rather, its vastness encompasses the genres of history and fantasy, humor and scholarship. Banana is no less than the unfolding of an entire history of the Greek people on the continent of Africa. Also, it is the story of a lifelong friendship between two men, an American from the South and a Greek from Tanganyika, formed while both were reading law at Oxford in the fifties. We accompany Tucker on his adventures traveling across Africa before the common hordes invaded and changed its landscape forever. And Banana splays open the slave trade and applauds the great explorers who penetrated its darkness, the missionaries who brought the light, the Greek plantation owners who civilized the interiors and cleared their fields at the base of Kilimanjaro and on the plains beyond -- and through inventive and difficult pioneering, brought prosperity from the soil, only to have modern dictators like Julius Nyerere confiscate their lands. We partake of the Greeks' travails, their celebrations, their Sunday gatherings. We enter their homes and churches and share their customs. No, Banana is no mere travel book. Transported back to this lost world by Tucker's verve and literary skill, Banana unfolds like a novel. Into this riveting world, the author rides his camel, integrating the past and the present. You laugh, you cry, you applaud. History becomes a living thing. I placed the book reverently on my shelf, to be passed around and re-read as memorable passages are eagerly recalled.
What do you do when a friend invites you to Tanzania to help him spend the 'last banana' of his fortune which is now worthless outside that nation? The author did not hesitate.
The book is a wonderful potpourri.
It mixes tales of the author's own travels over the last forty years with gems from history. The tale flits from country to country and decade to decade giving its own particular insight into them all. It is a rare mix of in-depth research and the often comical tale of the author's own eccentric brand of adventuring.
The sad results of `Mwalimu' Nyerere's misguided policies and the other problems of post colonial Africa are all too evident, but the warmth of Africa and those wonderful, inexplicable, expansive qualities, of the peoples and places shines through it all.
I'm still not sure whether it is a travel book, a scholarly work, or a historical account of the Greeks in Africa, but whatever it is, it will captivate you.
This captures very realistically the difficulties and unexpected humour of travelling across difficult borders, such as the best ways to deal with Congolese immigration officials (a challenge to which I can testify), or how to get out of Sudan when its frontiers were closed. This book follows the example of Shelby Tucker's Among Insurgents (also an excellent book) in demonstrating his remarkable sense of adventure and apparent fearlessness, and incidentally his willingness to suffer all sorts of adversity and also inflict them on his wife on their honeymoon.
Interspersed with this real life adventure story is a fascinating, and original, study of the personal histories of many leading members of the Greek community in East Africa.
Studying the lives of irredentist Greeks through his charismatic University friend Marios Ghikas has allowed Tucker to bring East Africa charmingly alive. A traveler, daring, at times humorous, almost always living at the grassroots, Tucker captures the struggles of modern, farming Africa. He brings into focus the great figures of Empire such as his hero and Christian, David Livingstone. The Last Banana marries local colour with the output of painstaking research. It is also highly readable.
I am not a scholar, but i am fascinated by the African Continent and I love beautiful prose. Shelby Tucker's book, The Last Banana, satisfies both desires. And it is an impressive piece of scholarship, very well researched and extensively footnoted. In addition the book is often very entertaining. Shelby's sense of humor is wonderful. It is a travel book, a history book, an adventure story and a philosophy of life, and extremely beautifully written. I recommend it.
Those who shook their heads at the author's antics among the Kachin of northern Burma, indelibly described in his Among Insurgents, will be pleased to find that his zeal for eccentricity is undiminished. He relives in The Last Banana a romance with Africa, in particular the area around Kilimanjaro, that has spanned 40 years. The life of the Greek settlers of that region springs vividly from the pages, as they attempt to surf successively: German and British colonialism, the socialism imposed by Julius Nyerere and the more pragmatic policies of his successors. Africa after all, is also their home, a home to which they are bound by ties stronger and deeper than purely economic. This is a vibrantly written, compellingly interesting, hilariously entertaining, informative book.