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AFRICA

THE ZANZIBAR CHEST:

A Story of Life, Love and Death in Foreign Lands

Author: Aidan Hartley

In his final days, rising somewhere in Africa from a bed made of mountain cedar, lashed with thongs of rawhide from an oryx shot many years before, Hartley’s father says to him, "We should have never come." Those words spoke of a colonial legacy that stretched back over 150 years through four generations of one British family.

From great-great-grandfather William Temple, who was awarded the Victoria Cross for his role in defending British settlements in nineteenth century New Zealand, to his father, a colonial officer sent to Africa in the 1920s, building dams and irrigation projects in Arabia in the 1940s, then returning to Africa to raise a family—these were intrepid men who travelled to exotic lands to conquer, to build, and finally to bear witness. For finally there is Aidan, who becomes a journalist covering Africa in the 1990s. Weaving together stories, his family’s history, and his childhood in Africa, Aidan tells us what he saw.

After the end of the Cold War, there seemed to be new hope for Africa but again and again—in Ethiopia, in Somalia, Rwanda, and the Congo, the terror and genocide prevailed. In Somalia, three of Aidan’s close friends are torn to pieces by an angry mob. Then, after walking overland from Uganda with the rebel army, Aidan is witness to the terrible atrocities in Rwanda, appearing at the sites and interviewing survivors days after the massacres.

Finally, burnt out from a decade of horror, Aidan retreats to his family’s house in Kenya where he discovers the Zanzibar chest his father left him. Intricately hand-carved and smelling of camphor, the chest contained the diaries of his father’s best friend, Peter Davey, an Englishman who died under mysterious circumstances over fifty years before. Tucking the papers under his arm, Hartley embarked on a journey to southern Arabia in an effort not only to unlock the secrets of Davey’s life, but of his own. He travels to the remote mountains and deserts of southern Arabia where his father served as a British officer. He begins to piece together the disparate elements of Davey’s story, a man who fell in love with an Arabian princess and converted to Islam, but ultimately had to pay an exacting price.

The Zanzibar Chest is an enthralling narrative of men and women meddling with, embracing, and ultimately being transformed by other cultures—a fascinating examination of colonialism.

From Publishers Weekly
Toward the end of this mesmerizing chronicle, Hartley writes simply of Rwanda, "Like everything in Africa, the truth [is] somewhere in between." Hartley appreciates this complexity, mining the accounts that constitute his book not for the palliative but for the redemptive. Born in 1965 in Kenya into a long lineage of African colonialists, Hartley feels, like his father whose story he also traces, a magnetic, almost inexplicable pull to remain in Africa. Hartley's father imports modernity to the continent (promoting irrigation systems and sophisticated husbandry); later, Hartley himself "exports" Africa as a foreign correspondent for Reuters. Both men struggle to find moral imperatives as "foreigners" native to a continent still emerging from colonialism. Hartley's father concludes, "We should never have come here," and Hartley himself appears understandably beleaguered by the horrors he witnesses (and which he describes impressively) covering Ethiopia, Somalia and Rwanda. Emotionally shattered by the genocide in the latter ("Rwanda sits like a humor leaking poison into the back of my head"), the journalist returns to his family home in Kenya, where he happens upon the diary of Peter Davey, his father's best friend, in the chest of the book's title. Hartley travels to the Arabian Peninsula to trace Davey's mysterious death in 1947, a story he weaves into the rest of his narrative. The account of Davey, while the least engaging portion of the book, provides Hartley with a perspective for grappling with the legacy that haunts him. This book is a sweeping, poetic homage to Africa, a continent made vivid by Hartley's capable, stunning prose.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
$24.00 (hardcover)
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