See You in Sahel
Wind: Through Muslim Black Africa by Truck, Bus, Boat and
Jeffrey Tayler Houghton Mifflin, 272 pages, $25
Perhaps the best thing about the ill-defined genre of travel
writing is that smart writers sometimes visit bad places.
Not “bad” as in a lack of ATMs or dismal standards of customer
service, but bad. Think military governments, clockwork coups
waged by Uzi-toting 10-year-olds and forced female circumcision.
It’s enough to make the actual Age o’ Empire seem halcyon
of aid workers and the odd diplomat, Americans have little
business being in the part of the world that Jeffrey Tayler
visits in Angry Wind, especially during the prelude
to the invasion of Iraq. This was when the Atlantic Monthly
correspondent and linguistic wonderboy (fluent in French,
Arabic, Russian, English and presumably Elvish) decides to
hit the Sahel, a 2600-mile swath of sub-Saharan Africa stretching
from Ethiopia to the Atlantic. A land of desert, badlands
and brutal winds, the Sahel houses some of the most impoverished,
corrupt and, Sudan notwithstanding, ignored countries on the
planet. States like Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Mali exist in
a constant state of political instability complete with deep-seated
sectarianism, entrenched tribal hostility and a fatalism that
surrenders self-determination to the maxim of “As God wills
it.” (Secular translation: Don’t worry, be happy.)
Wind is a travelogue with history and political riffs
thrown in for good measure. Much of the book is devoted to
the bureaucratic hoop-jumping necessary to travel not just
between these countries, but also even within their borders.
Like a schoolyard victim getting shaken down for his cookie
cash, Tayler has his passport and visa held hostage by indignant
bureaucrats and roving bands of soldiers hungry for bribes.
Once the proper palms have been greased, traveling is a maze
of hired guides and a chaotic network of perilously crowded
bush taxis. Here even an American passport is no protection
from roving bandits and the accidents common in a netherworld
of unregulated, off-road transport.
The Sahel is not merely a region of inconvenience to foreigners;
it’s also another staging ground for the struggle between
Islam and the West. Evoking uncomfortable similarities to
Saudi Arabia, Nigeria epitomizes America’s potential Africa
problem. Slated to become our third-largest oil supplier by
2007, the country is home to 12 states that have instituted
fundamentalist Shari’a law.
The ferocity of faith is a stumbling block for Tayler, who
as an American is assumed to be a Christian. While he proffers
that though he was raised Christian, he no longer considers
himself one, this is roughly tantamount to inking “Heathen!”
on his forehead. On two separate occasions, by men of two
different faiths, he endures intense, thuggish demands for
on-the-spot conversion. (On the other hand, countless strangers
extended him hospitality, often at risk to their own safety.)
As much as any foreign writer might hope to avoid passing
judgment on a destitute people, it’s difficult for Tayler
to duck the roll of moral arbiter. For how does one remain
tolerant, or even open-minded to such indigenous practices
as forced female circumcision or, for that matter, slavery?
Both pervade much of the Sahel where even educated people
see the forced cutting of girls’ clitorises (without anesthetics,
and not in medical facilities) as absolutely essential to
And it’s not just the locals who apologize for it. In one
brief but memorable encounter, Tayler lunches with a couple
of American Peace Corps volunteers who dismiss concerns about
circumcision as so much Western cultural imperialism. One
woman actually compares it to American women wearing high
heels to attract men. Her bonehead boyfriend notes, “I was
against it too because I thought it was oppressive to women,
but now I know that women themselves perform it.”
Ahh, multiculturalism. Such a good idea and such a slick slope
Wind suffers more than its share of overwrought prose.
Too many pretentious adjectives are spilled on sunsets and
landscapes. Horrific scenes of destitution are rendered in
a tone that screams: I’ve Seen the Face of Poverty!
crowd of gimping beggars, noseless lepers, clubfooted hags,
and drooling, spindle-legged elders pressed around me on the
sun-scorched lot, huffing fetid breath in my face, grabbing
at my sleeves with gooey hands.”
The humanity . . . Oh, please.
Fortunately these passages are few and far between and don’t
get in the way of Tayler’s otherwise thoughtful insights.
Ultimately it’s hard to dispute his underlying contention,
which is that America ignores the Sahel at its own peril.
As Tayler notes, the more education Sahelians receive, the
more likely they’ll be to adopt the anti-Western politics
of the imams and jihadists.
After spending an afternoon in an underground church run by
Western missionaries, Tayler wonders, “Where are the missionaries
of the secular culture of democracy and human rights . . .
It’s a question that can’t be asked enough.