Thursday, February 26, 2009

S.W. LOW reviews ... Peeing in the Bush

Whale of a laugh

Review by S.W. LOW

Adeline Loh
MPH Group Publishing, 232pp

WEARY of weaving wonders out of words, journo Adeline Loh did what members of the cubicle community usually only dream of doing: resigning and rejuvenating oneself far, far away. The country of choice? Amazing Africa! Zoological Zambia, to be precise.

Trips like this wouldn’t be complete without a companion. And who else but “auntie-looking” Chan (her full name is never given), her sparring partner from kung fu lessons, though only after some persuasion.

I was impressed by the way Loh details each and every item she packed into her back-breaking backpack. No wonder the petite traveller looked as if her bag had engulfed her!

So Loh and her sidekick hop on a plane to the rugged wilds of Zambia, where they meet all sorts of creatures, wild and domesticated. The writer is a master of character-building, wonderfully fleshing out the people they meet, and the book has idiosyncratic tour guides, hostel owners and fellow travellers aplenty.

Loh does an especially good job conveying the personality of her usually anxious (sometimes sensibly so!) travel partner as the adventure unfolds. Vegetarian Chan thinks that they will be served monkey brain stew with fried invertebrates as in-flight lunch.

Not that Loh is much less irrational with some of her own preconceptions. About to touch down in Lusaka, Zambia’s capital, uneasy thoughts begin to run through her head: what if she and Chan are infected with HIV/AIDS from syringes? Considering that 16.5 per cent of the country’s adult population was infected in 2003, according to UNAIDS, it’s a fair enough concern, perhaps.

Hearing the “I-told-you-so” chants by family and friends in her head makes Loh nauseous; but she’s reassured when the first thing she sees, right on the edge of the runway, is a cheerful billboard with the image of a jovial Zambian woman welcoming visitors to her country.

Most importantly, she survives to tell this story, and comes across in it as the more adventurous one of the travelling pair. She must be, since her life’s ambition is to become the deadliest female kung fu fighter on the planet (mentioned in the blurb inside the book)!

One thing that stands out is that Loh has a vocabulary as vast as the savannah. She generously puts in a variety of adjectives to enhance her nouns—to the point that I felt a little overwhelmed sometimes, but this didn’t affect my reading. Yes, the book is a little slow to get off the ground, being a little boring in the beginning, but once the women hit the road, it was hard to put down. And that, I attribute to Loh’s descriptive language. She uses highly original (if exaggerated!) analogies that tickled my funny bone every now and then.

Much of the humour in this travelogue lies in the fact that two peas in a pod Loh and Chan are definitely not. When the intrepid Loh wants to traverse the desert at night, the slightly paranoid Chan prefers to catch forty winks. Then there’s the time when our writer decides to travel alone with a guide and nearly gets mashed—by what, I’d rather not say, as you just have to read the book to get the full effect of the experience! Showering in the toilet, slumbering, and the titular peeing in the bush are not very good experiences, either.

Loh’s prose is always lively and peppered with funny anecdotes. So much so that, sometimes, I felt like jumping into the scenes she describes so vividly. And jumping back out when the lions, elephants, rhinos, and crocodiles make their appearances!

Much research has obviously gone into the writing of this book. I was given “lectures” on geography, culture, and the economy, but always in an entertaining way. Safely pinned to my sofa, I learnt a thing or two about Zambia (which has a literacy rate of 81 per cent), the people (unlike the Bushmen depicted in documentaries, many speak English), their food (yummy “nshima”), the animal kingdom (do you know what a “flatdog” is?), and many other interesting facts that often blew away many media stereotypes.

After reading this book, my preconceptions about Africa were shattered. Plus, I had a whale of a time laughing.

Reproduced from The Sunday Star of February 22, 2009


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Paul Theroux's 'Dark Star Safari' offered a less sanguine portrait of life there. In fact that excellent book should have been retrospectively subtitled "The Continuing Education of an Erstwhile Peace Corps Liberal"

Is it true that the Kalahari Bushmen are the only Africans disappointed with the US Presidential Election pick?

Friday, March 20, 2009 10:37:00 PM  

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