BILL BRYSON’S AFRICAN DIARY
Genre: Travel Memoir
How Acquired: BookCrossing
Date Read: April 4, 2005
Overall Rating: Five out of ten
Comments: This slim book is basically just a lengthy advertisement for aid relief and organizations such as CARE International (who commissioned the tome), but Bryson brings to the task his characteristic wit and anecdotal voice, making the book a quick and delightful read. The stories are not so fully developed that it will break your heart for the conditions of people living in east Africa, but there are just enough touches to give you pause and food for thought. I yearned for more than just this short article.
We spent a long day doing all the things you would expect to do at a refugee camp—toured the food distribution centre, visited schools, talked to administrators, learned how water was extracted from the ground and sanitized—but there was a curious lack of urgency about it all. [Dadaab] camp occupants weren’t dying or malnourished or in desperate need of medical attention. They were just normal people like you and me who wanted to be somewhere where they could have a life.
Nearly everyone I spoke to complained of shortages of one kind or another—of work, of food, of teachers, of things to do. There are 28,000 pupils in the camp’s schools, but only 807 desks. There is only one textbook for every 20 students, one classroom for every 75. I talked to a bright young man, one of 357 students preparing to take the Kenyan Schools Certificate exam, a prerequisite for going on to higher education. He told me the school didn’t have the facilities, in particular the scientific equipment, that would allow them to pass the test.
“You have no hope at all?” I said.
“Not much,” he said, and gave me a heartbreakingly shy smile.
I couldn’t understand this at all. I asked Nick—demanded really—why conditions weren’t better than this. He looked at me with patient sympathy.
“There are 20 million like this all over Africa, Bill,” he said. “Money only goes so far.” Besides, he went on, dispensing aid is much more complicated than most people realize. It is, for one thing, a fundamental part of aid protocol that you cannot make conditions notably better for refugees than they are for their hosts outside the camps. It wouldn’t be fair and it would breed resentment. “Everybody would want to be a refugee,” Nick said. “In practical terms, you can only do so much.”
“But the kids,” I said. “They have no future.”
“I know,” he said sadly. “I know.”
Wednesday, October 2nd (pp. 32-34)