I try not to make a habit of trashing the work of my hypothetical colleagues, but when a writer so obviously mails it in – especially in a story that conforms to all the guidelines of Lazy Travel Writing 101 – I feel inclined to vent.
Today’s Guardian features a dispatch from Africa correspondent David Smith, whose most recent Letter from Africa (or, specifically, the Congo), reads like a postscript to Binyavanga Wainaina’s biting How to Write About Africa, without the parody.
“Is there anywhere in Africa to rival the mystery and mystique of Congo?” Smith asks. (Short answer: yes.) Drawing on the fabled exploits of Henry Stanley, Mr. Kurtz and Muhammad Ali – and giving at least a cursory reading of the back cover of Tim Butcher’s Blood River – Smith unpacks 1,000 words on “Congo’s intriguing mixture of fascination and frustration” in a way that makes Congo sound as intriguing, fascinating and frustrating as a weekend trip to Bed, Bath & Beyond. No taxis at the airport in Kigali! No toilet seat at the hotel! Terrible coffee! Harrowing indeed was the perilous, three-hour drive from Kigali to the border in the back of his chauffeured car.
“I dozed on the back seat as the driver put on a CD,” writes Smith.
“The horror!” wrote Joseph Conrad.
What follows is a plodding account of what Smith sees on his day-trip to Goma – a blow-by-blow of “people sitting in grime on the streets,” “the dilapidated state of most of the buildings,” and “the rutted, pot-holed, jolting terrain.” Apart from a brief nod to the fact that this was once “a popular tourist stop for those adventurous enough to drive from one end of the continent to the other,” we learn about as much from this piece as Smith himself presumably did by watching the Congo scroll by outside his window. For an amateur’s travel blog, this is acceptable; for a freakin’ “Africa correspondent” for The Guardian, slightly less so.
Nothing of Goma’s fabled history as a resort town for wealthy colonists in the Belgian Congo. Nothing of the fun-loving, free-spiritedness of the Congolese. Even the fact-checking is lazy: the Nyiragongo volcano – “a perpetual menace to this city” – which looms on the city’s outskirts did not, in fact, erupt earlier this month. That was Nyamulagira, 15 miles to the north of Goma. This would have taken three seconds to check on Google (seven, if you’re on a Burundian connection). It is also the only fact that needed to be checked in the story.
It’s hard to swallow a piece about a writer who claims to have gone “in search of the place where Henry Stanley explored” by casually strolling across the border, taking a look around, and talking to not a single Congolese soul. What little local color we have is supplied by Alan Doss, “the Welsh-born head of the UN mission,” whom our fearless scribe asks to describe “the magnetism of the Congo.”
“The great rush for Africa,” he explained.
“This is truly a magnificent country with incredible diversity among its peoples.”
Despite Doss’ earnest protestations, the Congolese we see basically sit on “unclean floors,” sell chickens and eggs, and watch kung fu flicks in a wooden shack. This, it seems, is travel writing. Shame on you, Guardian!