A few comments on Phantom Africa article

Phantom Africa by Davis and Hayes (translated from the original L’Afrique fantome by Michel Leiris.

I have been reading a review of the book (http://www.publicbooks.org/the-horticulturalist-of-the-self/). The book was written back in 1934 and recently translated into the English version Phantom Africa by Lydia Davis and Brent Hayes.

Michel Leiris was part of a French ethnographic expedition that travelled across central Africa (Dakar-Djibouti) from 1931-1933. Along their way, they acquired various artefacts and other cultural objects through nefarious means. Such as threatening police action if locals did not surrender them or paying “paltry sums” –it was basically looting. These items are still in many French and European museums. If that was not bad enough, what really caught my attention was the supposed anthropologist Leiris’ comments about being and travelling in Africa.

You can read the article on the link I sent above, but what irked me was his casual, if not negative, attitude to being in Africa.

At one point, the French expedition ends up in southern Sudan looking out at the River Nile. I have been all through southern Sudan from (Lokichockio) Kapoeta on the Kenyan border to Juba (on the Nile) and travelled by a slow barge down the Nile to Kosti. A few friends (William Curry to name one) have taken this same route, but from north to south on the Nile.

A number of fellow travellers have told me you don’t really feel like you are in Africa until you travel through the Sudd. North Africa is mainly Muslim, Arabic spoken and deserty with some form of Islamic culture. The Sudd is green, moist and the Nuer, Shilluk, Dinka are Christian or animists, and are extremely tribal. After southern Sudan, you are in Equatorial Africa then the Bantu (Kikuyu, Buganda, Hutu, Zulu, Shona…etc.) and Nilotic (Luo, Maasai, Kalenjin, Tutsi homelands…etc.)—totally different from North Africa.

The majority of the now Southern Sudan is a vast area (same size as Wales) of mossy, humid, verdant moving area called the Sudd through which the mighty Nile meanders through. The barge you can take from Juba often gets clogged with lumps of the elephant grass bank that breaks away or by clumps of water hyacinth which clog many African waterways.

On seeing this very Nile for the first time, Leiris comments thus: “As we approach, the river comes into view, as unimposing as a common canal in France. I don’t dare admit my disappointment.”

I have been to France—I never saw a canal that can be a half-a-mile wide like the Nile is in places. Neither are the French canals lined with dense 12-foot-high elephant or pampas grass, with elephants on its banks, or Nuer and Dinka tribes clad only in loincloths tending their cattle and living in mud and wattle huts along the banks, or with killer Nile crocodiles lurking in the reedy banks with the occasional hippo charging out and belly flopping into the Nile.
Is that what a French canal looks like—I think not.

One thing Leiris is quoted as saying that is true is that “Writing a travel book is an absurd undertaking.”

Still, I wouldn’t mind reading this book.


In the middle of the Sudd, 1982.


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