Chronicle in Stone (Albania)

Man Booker Prize Winner Ismail Kadare writes as sweetly as whipped cream inscribing its name on a caramel macchiato – only you can bet that at the village café in Gjirokaster, Albania, the tough old crones are sucking bitter Turkish coffee through their remaining teeth, grounds and all. (I saw this as late as 1991 in Hungary – by that time lumps of sugar were available again and the nagymambook coveras would put one inside their bottom lip as they strained the grounds.)

Such is life in World War II-era Albania.

The narrator, a dreamy little boy, feels the menace in the air. But he makes up his own explanations for why and how things are happening – since the adults won’t tell him. Rumors of witchcraft float around the village. The place itself is strange to modern Anglicized sensibilities. I found it strange.

  • * The stone village clings to the cliff at such a steep angle that, while walking on the street you can reach out and grasp a minaret from the street below. (It sounds like a Cornish village I toured with Julia – Pen-something. National Trust.)

* There are strict rules about proper behavior for women and girls that sound Medieval and Arabic in nature – females can’t be alone with strange men. They can’t kiss in public. When a hermaphrodite, who has been allowed to mingle freely with all the women, decides to marry, it throws the village into chaos. Yet despite the strong concern about honor, the place is at times like Westernized Italy. Women run off to the hills and take up arms. The peasants are all Greek Christians.

* The level of education of the villagers varies widely. The little boy never goes to school, but his Babazoti, or maternal grandfather (the line of milk) promises he will one day teach him to read his Turkish books.

photo of gjirokaster
Steep and narrow? You bet.

While the boy goes his dreamy way toward growing up, the adults worry about boring things (his description). They’re worried about land deeds, which burn up when an arsonist sets fire to the town hall. They’re worried about “speaking against”, which gets you deported or hanged. They’re worried about debts. Indeed, the official currency changes from the Italian lire to the Greek drachma to the Albanian lek faster than you can put up posters ordering people to trade it in.

Like the protagonist of Empire of the Sun (set in occupied China) this Albanian boy is in love with the shiny new aeroplanes of the occupiers. He is hurt and confused when his Grandmother shakes her ancient fist at them. He feels the same way when the planes he loves return one day in the winter and instead of protecting the town like before, now attack them.

Crossroads of the Crusades

When things get boring for him, as they surely must for a little boy who owns no books, the boy watches the north-south road. Since roads most of all need coming and going, in his imagination he populates the road with the historic figures that have tramped down it to the south: the first Crusaders, in the year 1,000. A wandering Jew. A one-armed RAF pilot.

Albanian Independence Day  1914
The Republic they talk about in the book, which came before the Monarchy, happened in 1914

Grandmother (the line of blood, ie the boy’s paternal grandma) has seen so many occupations she doesn’t even bother to go with the family to the citadel during the bombing raids. “I was born in this house and I wish to die in this house,” she says firmly. The city’s walls date from the 3rd century AD. The little boy says certain conversations seem continuations of ones started centuries before…

I was surprised to see this mature Albanian woman wearing a head covering...but then many peasant women wear scarves, not just Muslim women
I was surprised to see this mature Albanian woman wearing a head covering…but then many peasant women wear scarves; it may not be a religious requirement. In the book, herbs, healing and mid-wifery are the province of women.

Certainly, this novel is a linguist’s dream. People in the village seem to speak Turkish, Greek, Italian, Albanian, and other mysterious tongues. One of my favorite bits of the book is when the villager Gjorgi Pula changes his name to Yiorgi Pulos to curry favor with the Greek occupiers. When the Italians retake the village, he goes to the town hall and comes back as Gjorgio Pulio.

The narrator has a best friend. The best friend has an older brother named Isa. When Isa and his best friend Javer want to shut out the little boys, they speak a foreign language together that may be French or English. They remark on the “petty-bore…something,” which the little boy doesn’t understand, but we do. We understand that Isa and Javer are playing a dangerous game.

Albania will be one of the only countries in Europe liberated by its own people and not Allied forces – and those people, the early Communists and partisans, often die horribly at the hands of the Facists.

The Content of His Character

What I think is genius about this novel: the pace. It’s character-driven, and slow. The clean, beautiful prose pulls you along and lulls you into thinking, like the boy, that nothing much is happening. Then – WHAM. The reality of the war that has been going on sinks in.

The boy’s perspective is that inanimate objects are alive – the cistern in his house speaks to him, the village walls are afraid, the sky is embarrassed at having allowed the dangerous planes to attack the village. In addition, Kadare employs a device I haven’t seen before – fragments of the Chronicle that a man in the village has been working on his whole life. It’s the flat, unemotional record of what is happening, like seeing partially-charred remnants of a manuscript after a bombing. Or pages torn from a newspaper.

newspaper showing Enver Hoxhas death
The People’s Voice announces that Enver Hoxha has died, 1985

In the way of additional interest, Kadare published this book in 1971, at the height of the Communist era. Wiki has some interesting things to say about what Kadare could have tried to imply about then-dictator Enver Hoxha. I’m sure my Stalinist-Era-Literature teacher in Pecs would have had plenty to say on that topic. (Hi, Trudi!)

Albania was one of the very last countries to emerge from a brutal Communist nightmare – and today you hear almost nothing about it on TV, focused as we are on the Middle East. That’s nothing new: the West let Imre Nagy’s Budapest burn in 1956 despite his pleas, because there was a Middle Eastern crisis then too. (Nagy was murdered by the Soviets after the Hungarian Revolution failed.)

It’s time to pay attention to Albania now. What a fascinating place. What an amazing author.

Note: If you were wondering about the most famous Albanian, as I was, Wiki says that while the late Mother Teresa was an ethnic Albanian, she was born in Kosovo and lived most of her life in India.

PS- King Zog. He didn’t last long, but what a name. Superman, anyone? During his reign he survived 55 assassination attempts. Why were people so mad? Well, one of them was the father of the girl that he broke off his engagement to when he got declared King. In Albania at the time, a traditional custom of blood vengeance meant that the insulted girl’s dad had the right to kill him. Albania never did restore its monarchy.


Breath, Eyes, Memory (Haiti)

This is not a happy novel. It is, however, a crucial one. Thanks to my friend Scott at Auntie’s for pushing it on me. 😉

book coverWhat It’s All About

Breath, Eyes, Memory is the story of 3 generations of Haitian girls trying to survive their childhoods and reclaim their power as adult women.

It is the story of generational abuse perpetuated by women who were themselves abused as girls.

The heroine, Sophie, is finally the one with the courage to say,

“Enough. I will not do this to my daughter.”

A pivotal scene in the book takes place in New York, during a meeting of a sexual phobia therapy group. The other members of the group are Buki, an Ethiopian college student, who had her clitoris cut and her labia sewn up when she was a girl, by her grandmother. Davina, a middle-aged Chicana, was raped by her grandfather for 10 years. Sophie herself has a dark legacy that I won’t reveal here.

Slowly, the women write the names of their abusers on a piece of paper, raise it over a candle and watch as the flames consume it. Sophie realizes;

“It was up to me to avoid my turn in the fire. It was up to me to make sure that my daughter never slept with ghosts, never lived with nightmares and never had her name burnt in the flames.”

photo of university in HaitiThe book was unsatisfying in one regard – I felt the story of the aunt who raised Sophie was left unfinished. At the same time, the author does a great job of showing, not telling, how Sophie’s relationship with her aunt and mother and grandmother change as Sophie becomes a woman. The dialogue changes from adult-child to equal with equals. More the way you would speak to friends.

I would like to learn more about the Haitian goddess Erzulie, now equated with the Virgin Mary…Especially since the Haitian virginity cult has done so much harm to women and girls. I’ll bet in her earliest form, Erzulie was a fertility goddess who was about abundance, not tightness. This motif was nicely understated by the author.

A Gruesome History

map of Caribbean SeaEdwidge Danticat is excellent at tip-of-the-iceberg writing. The prose is sparse, lyrical, and engages the five senses. It merely hints at the glacier of Haitian politics and history – so you see it like a ghost, from the corner of your eye. But you always know it’s there.

“People have been killed for saying the wrong things,” Sophie’s grandmother announces matter-of-factly. A young boy has hysterics on the plane to New York because his father has just been set on fire in front of him. (The stewardess announces dispassionately that the father was a corrupt government official.) In the market, a coal-vendor is stomped to death by the Touton Macoute for no apparent reason – other than the fact that they can.

You won’t find this in the book, but since 1804, after a successful slave revolt, Haiti established itself as the first independent nation of Latin American & the Caribbean. A far cry from the corrupt Duvalier Docs – Papa and Baby – and how did we get from a success story to today? The Western colonial powers played a big and disgusting role…

And Wikipedia makes no moral judgments, but I submit to you Jamaica Kincaid’s idea that the former slaves internalized the violence and abuse they received from their former French masters. (Paraphrasing here…children learn what they live?) I submit to you the idea that violence begets violence and abuse begets abuse. That those of us who are survivors must say, like Sophie: Enough.

We cannot continue abusing ourselves in the absence of our perpetrators. And we definitely must not pass it on.


Fatima’s Good Fortune (Tunesia)

book coverWhat drew me to this novel: the Paris setting. How has France dealt with its influx of African migrants? The ones who do the dish-washing and dog-walking – the ones whose chores grow less appealing as their skin grows darker?

When I lived in Germany 25 years ago, the increasing population of Turkish and Italian “guestworkers” was becoming an issue. In Japan 20 years ago, Nigerians washed dishes in all the restaurants; Iranians sold stolen phone cards on the streets; Israeliis hawked homemade jewelry.

Now I wondered, how would a fictional maid from a Tunesian island fare in France, and could two Americans really get inside her mind and her spirit? (Yes, we can.)

The idea that a writer of one race has no business creating characters of another – to me, that’s nonsense. Why, that would mean I could never have male characters in my book! Or people older than me; I haven’t been that age, how would I know how an older person thinks? Feels? Sees the world? My position is that it’s ok as long as the author is aware…and the reader takes it into consideration.

Disclaimer: Authors are not Tunesian. They are New Yorkers – he is the European editor at Conde Nast Traveler.

Rachida & Fatima

Having just read Infidel, by an actual Arab-African woman living in Holland, I think the character of Fatima is a little too Western. Inside. Upon her arrival in Paris, for example, she doesn’t turn a hair at 1) being embraced by a strange American man or 2) seeing prostitutes in a park. Ayaan Hirsi Ali would have been (and was) deeply shocked and repulsed. On the other hand, Ms. Ali is a Somali who lived in Kenya and Saudi Arabia, and she takes pains to point out the vast differences in the treatment of women in the Muslim world.

camels on beach at djerba
One look at Djerba and I said to myself, FORGET PARIS…

Fatima and her sister Rachida are from the island of Djerba, off the coast of Tunesia. Perhaps that culture is more relaxed about women’s bodies? (Sadly, while I usually sweep the Geography category in Trivial Pursuit, I have never before heard of Djerba, the largest North African island. They need to make a cartoon with talking animals.)

So Fatima is portrayed as a typical Muslim woman who is looked down on at home because she has no children and far worse, no husband. But the authors paint her as knowing deep inside that her ex, cousin Muhamed, would have been the pits to live with so she’s better off. I’m not sure she would carry that conviction yet – not without a long time in the West first – if indeed she ever did. Look, I long ago left the fire-and-brimstone fundamentalist religion of my childhood – but at 39 I sometimes STILL get worried about hell. It is damned near impossible to to overcome emotional childhood programming with logic, though you can try. That said…this is a delightful, appealing, wonderful, heartwarming book.

The French bits

Photo of Tower EiffleThey still have nobility! They drink red wine at cafes early in the morning! They have concierges and they adore little dogs! They think their national character is “rational” based on the Age of Reason! I thought this was funny because I have always perceived the French as irrational, impulsive, over-emotional, escargot-eating comic characters who are snobbish about their precious language. Apparently this isn’t at all how they see themselves. (Or how New York authors see them as seeing themselves.)

book cover
They’ve reprinted this with a different cover, or my memory is shot to hell

Like Water for Chocolate, if you loved Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, yousnail will love Fatima’s Good Fortune. (I love Google for doing what humans could not – If you had told me while I worked at Auntie’s Bookstore, “I’m looking for a great book I read years ago. The cover was canary yellow. It was about some Arab shopkeepers in England…Pakistani I think…” I would not have been able to help you.)

Truly, we are sent nothing but angels; we are given nothing but miracles. One such is the possibility of escaping our individual prisons, as Fatima does: Whether we built them ourselves from addiction or low self-esteem; whether imposed by family, culture, or something deep inside…

I love that Fatima in a foreign land is still who she is…a “traditionally-built” woman in a bright orange djellaba; that something deep inside her prompts her to help others even when she cannot help herself. Maybe especially then.

I love that every sentence in this book was as delightful to read as lying on a beach on an island off the coast of Tunesia, watching camels try to drink the saltwater. I love that every sentence in this book made me think that perhaps drinking red wine at 9 a.m. in a Parisian café called the Jean Valjean might not, after all, be completely unreasonable.

Five snails!!!!!


The Healing Wisdom of Africa (Burkina Faso)

One of my earliest memories is of reading a Little Golden Book; maybe the Pokey Little Puppy. I must have been in kindergarten. I learned to read early, because my mother insisted. She says she read to me while I was still in the womb!

book coverThat’s why it was such a shock to learn that many Dagara people of Malidoma Patrice Some’s clan in Africa do not want to become literate. They say they have noticed that people who read (especially Westerners) can’t remember. Gain literacy…lose memory? Could this be true?

It is certainly true that people in the US are always in a hurry. Not paying attention to the present moment. Not practicing mindfulness. I would venture to agree that we don’t remember well without our devices – even if they’re just a pen and paper. But this is partly because we weren’t really looking / listening in the first place.

Language, Breath, Memory

NPR ran a story about childhood amnesia this morning, and why it is that most adults have lost their memories of the time before they could speak – those years when we were newborns, and one and two and three. They say when you learn to record your experiences in words, it overwrites your preverbal memories. You then forget how to access them.

Japanese character for book
Japanese kanji meaning “book”

The story did not say whether Chinese people have been studied. Their process may be different. I base this on a conversation I had at Eastern Washington University one day in the MFA program with my  fellow grad studentHanjo in Chinese.

He told me that as a native speaker of Mandarin, English seemed flat to him. One-dimensional. Extremely non-descript. He tried to explain to me what it was like to see an ideogram for the color red and to “see” red as he read the character. Of course this was a bit like trying to explain Buddhism to a bee.

Above is one of the few Japanese words I remember from my time in Tokyo – of course it is the symbol for “book”. Ah language…language.

Malidoma Patrice Some

Malidoma, it turns out, means “friend to the stranger,” and this author has certainly proved that. Of Water and the Spirit, his autobiography, explains the origins of his French name, Patrice, given to him by French Catholic missionaries during his childhood, when the kids were beaten for speaking their own language. When Westerners tried to eradicate native African cultures.

map of africaI was excited by the concepts in this book, particularly the village concept of community. When I first moved to Japan, I remember being baffled by their concept of group living – the “wa” of the organization, the harmony of the whole. I was told that when Japanese people moved into a new neighborhood, it was traditional to present each of the neighbors with a packet of rice noodles. If you got divorced, you wrote a letter of apology not only to the other family involved, but to the whole community. Heads of large corporations which failed were still committing seppuku – actual suicide sometimes, or sometimes just that of their careers.

What were they thinking, I wondered. I was fully invested in the Western (and I mean Western US states’) concept of the Marlborough Man, that lone individual who was Client Eastwood tough, bunked alone, and needed no one. The myth that conveniently ignores the reality of the early pioneers who depended on one another to raise barns and houses and to survive harsh weather conditions and Native American raids. I mean yes, my great-grandfather saddled a horse at age 18 and rode alone from New York to Cambridge, Idaho, to found a sawmill; but he couldn’t have run it all by himself. He acquired two wives and a dozen children first.

Sicknesses of the West – Healing From Africa

traditional Burkina Faso houseIronic, in the age of AIDS, that we in the West need and even could be healed by African ideas – a reversal of the role we are perhaps accustomed to. But Malidoma Patrice Some makes perfect sense on the topics of loneliness – a sickness that drives many to suicide – and the marginalization of the old, whose wisdom we no longer profit from as we worship youth and beauty.

Community, he says, is not only a resource, it may be the answer. I remember a recent NPR story on Rwanda, in which Western psychologists were sent to help genocide survivors. After a while, the Rwandans asked most of them to leave. As it turns out, in Rwandan culture, if a person has had a bad time, you get them outside into the sunshine, among people, and play drum music to get their blood pumping. You keep them busy and engaged with others. But what did the Western psychologists do? They took the survivors one by one into tiny dark huts, all alone, and asked them to tell the story, over and over, of the worst moments of their lives…

Of Microchips & the Spirit

map of africa with europe and america insideWhen Mr. Some was growing up, religion and science were believed by many to be at odds. Much like in today’s world, spirituality vs. technology. But the author says, “Many ecologists and environmentalists in the West say that technology sets itself up as an enemy of nature. They fight to close a nuclear power plant here or there because they understand that the purity of Nature is being contaminated by these plants, and the consequences to countless species, including humankind, are serious. Westerners talk about rivers of pure water becoming like sewers.

“One gets an image of industry abandoning its droppings anywhere it wishes, knowing full well that what it cannot digest, nothing can. Some suggest that this is the price to pay to get the results needed. Hasn’t modern technology overall contributed to bettering human life? The problem is that wherever there is a yet-undamaged piece of the world, modernity tends to regard that place as primitive, archaic, and at best, preindustrial.

“By contrast, indigenous technologies look rather nonaggressive. In producing anything, indigenous people make it a point to inquire with the Spirit World as to whether this product is appropriate. Usually it is, otherwise the idea would never have come to their consciousness to begin with. For indigenous Africans, dream and vision are evidence of the Spirit pointing the way to us.

“What is shown to you in that manner is actually an invitation from a higher realm to consecrate yourself to the production of something that is going to benefit the greater community.”

Sounds a bit like British novelist George Eliot, lecturing her hero Daniel Deronda, on “living a life of benefit to others”.

The True Worth of Africa

map showing Africas real size vs GreenlandAnd by the way, that map of Africa above? It won’t be what you remember from school. Not because your memory is faulty, but because for hundreds of years, the West has used a map that incorrectly shows Africa as much smaller than its true size. Africa is actually 14 times the size of Greenland. It’s HUGE. It’s the largest continent ever…does that make it the most important?

Early explorers sure thought so – that’s why the people who drew the maps minimized it and exaggerated the size of Europe and America.

Well, it’s time we stopped minimizing what Africa has to say. For once we stop exaggerating our own importance to the detriment of others, in the words of Neale Donald Walsch, we can begin to know that We Are All One. George Eliot, I have a feeling, would agree.


King’s General (Cornwall)

Cover of Kings GeneralWriters have obsessions. Themes, objects, or characters that appear in their work repeatedly, without conscious crafting. While working at Auntie’s Bookstore I once asked the writer Craig Leslie to name his obsessions. He thought for a moment, then said…

“Pie and flashlights.”

Daphne du Maurier was obsessed with a stately Cornish home called Menabilly. In Cornish: Men Ebeli, meaning “stone of colts”. You may know it as the “Manderley” of Rebecca. This wonderful old house near Fowey has been in the Rashleigh family since Elizabethan times…

And serves as the setting for The King’s General. The novel begins in September 1653, a few years into the rule of Oliver Cromwell – King Charles I having lost his head.

(Note for Americans: We had one Civil War and got over it, but the Brits had several just to confuse us. This Civil War was, if I have untangled the knotted ball of history correctly, the last. Another Civil War took place in the 1100s between an Empress Maud and a King Stephen. Ken Follett’s cathedral book The Pillars of the Earth dealt with that brilliantly.)

Anyway, for this war the teams were as follows:

map of each sides territory* Playing for King Charles: Cavaliers/ Royalists/ Tories
* Starting for Oliver Cromwell: Parliament/ Roundheads/ Whigs

See on the map how all the very country bits of Britain (Cornwall and Wales) are red for the King, and the very city bits like London are not? I have a theory that people in the country are more conservative than those in the large cities…Yorkshire started out Royalist but as time went on it fell to Cromwell’s New Model Army. (That green spot at the bottom of Cornwall is Plymouth, one of England’s largest ports.)

Who Will Stop Cromwell From Crossing the Tamar?

In fact, the only Royalist who can go toe-to-toe with the New Model Army is local son Richard Grenvile. Richard is the King’s General in the West and the romantic hero of our story. He insists on follies like paying his soldiers, and stopping them from licentious behavior in the villages. And going about with their uniforms all sloppy. Unfortunately his character has a number of flaws like pride, arrogance, chauvinism, a thirst for revenge and a Prom Queen sister with the soul of a toad. (Sorry, toads.)

Richard doesn’t suffer fools, period. But even as they admire his military brilliance, the other Cornish don’t care for his abrasive personality; and the non-Cornish like it even less. And Richard Grenvile is only one man. Can he single-handedly turn back the tide sweeping King Charles out to sea? Due to Richard’s rash actions against captive soldiers and captured property, he and his son and his nephew are all in grave danger should they be caught.

Menabilly photoHonor Harris, the heroine in the tale, is clever, brave and strong. She’s also paralyzed from the waist down due to an accident while horse riding. An accident she blames Richard’s sister Gartred for, not unjustly. As Honor and Richard resume their life-long affair, she endeavors to make him see how dangerous the increasing hostility towards him is; whether from his military superiors or even his own son.

Just like the nameless heroine of Rebecca, Honor’s curiosity gets her in trouble. But as bad as it will be for Honor to discover the Rashleigh family secrets, it may be necessary if they’re all to survive…

Sieges, Spies and Priest Holes

This novel is part romance, part history lesson, and all thriller. I don’t know why Daphne du Maurier’s fancy was captured by Menabilly, why she rented it from the Rashleighs for a good number of years. I only know I’m glad it happened.

And if you haven’t read the PNBA-award winning novelist Craig Leslie’s autobiography Burning Fence, look inside to find some answers as to the whys and wherefores of pie. And flashlights. For that is not my story to tell. 🙂


The Overloaded Ark (Cameroon)

Cover photo for bookFor Cameroon, I chose a 70-year-old nature story written by a Brit.

I did this because Cameroon is known as the Noah’s Ark of Africa, with over 1/2 of all African animals living here. It’s the wettest country, you see. Plus, it has an enormous number of animals found ONLY within its borders. Who better to take me on a nature walk than zoologist and humorist Gerald Durrell?

So pour an ice-cold gin and tonic and settle back in your hammock. You’re off on a 6-month’s collecting trip to the rain forests of West Africa.

And not, as Gerry says, “the white man’s Africa, with its macadam roads, its cocktail bars, its express trains roaring through a landscape denuded of its flora and fauna by the beneficial influences of civilization. We wanted to see one of those few remaining parts of the continent that had escaped this fate and remained more or less as it was when Africa was first discovered.”

Eschobi, 1953
British Cameroon

With two hunters from Eschobi village, Gerry begins collecting animals for British museums.  gin and tonic

In a truly “Mad dogs and Englishmen” moment, we learn that neither black nor white men enjoy snakes and other reptiles. None except Gerry, that is.

Language Bites: Among themselves, Elias and Andraia  speak Bayangi. (Obviously not their real names.) To white men the Eshobians speak “Pigeon.” A curious way of talking that the white men must have begun. (I don’t get it. Why not say “It’s hot today” instead of “Sun too much”…? Perhaps it was similar to talking down to children using “baby talk”.) Anyway, as the team captures a Calabar Ground Python Gerry speaks normally to Elias, who understands perfectly:

“Elias, who was a little ahead of me, turned over a large rock and, as it rolled down the slope, he jumped back with a cry of fear.
“Masa, na snake…na bad beef…
I dropped everything and leapt up the slope to him…
“Masa, ‘e go bite you. Careful, masa, na bad beef dat…
“The snake made no move beyond flicking its tongue in and out rather rapidly. Having cut off its retreat I felt better.
“Masa, dat kind of beef get poison too much…
“Elias, shut up and go and bring me a big bag and another stick.
“Yessir, said Elias dismally, and wandered off.”

Ring tailed animal
Ring-tailed mammal found ONLY in Cameroon

The 2nd Hunter: Of course, as with any Durrell book, the characters are well…characters!

“Andraia, I had learned, was a hypochondriac of the first order: the slightest pain or fever would drive him into the dark interior of his hut, to lie there moaning and writhing, driving his three wives into a panic lest their lord should die…”

As recorded by Gerry, the Africans believe in ju-ju, a kind of magic that sounds similar to voodoo, for it can curse you. Given his culture, Gerry of course pooh-poohs this belief. When he is told by a native to leave a sacred mountain, he refuses. But then, for one spooky day and a night everything goes wrong – from accidents to flash flooding to stalking leopards. The expedition leaves the mountain, a little more humble but none the wiser.

Bakebe, British Cameroon

In Bakebe, Gerry reconnects with his partner John, who is there to get bird specimens, also for British museums. While together in camp, Daniel, a Cameroonian staff member, falls into the crocodile pond and some 40 baby surians get out.

shrews found only in cameroon
Shrews found ONLY in Cameroon

“In times of crisis like this, everyone, no matter what his station or job, was called upon to lend a hand. Well in the rear, upholding the Englishman’s traditional reputation for calmness, came John, in his normal slow and unhurried manner.

“By the time he arrived on the scene most of the reptiles had taken cover in the surrounding undergrowth. Peering round he could only see one or two crocodiles in sight, and so naturally wanted to know what all the shouting and fuss was for.

“I thought ALL the crocs had escaped, he said aggrievedly. That’s why I came down.

“As if in answer, five crocodiles appeared out of the grass and converged about his feet. John looked at them broodingly for a minute, unaffected by the cries of alarm from the bird staff, and then he bent down and picking one carefully up by the tail, he waved it at me.

“Here’s one, old boy,” he called.

“Don’t hold it like that, John, I called. It will turn…

“Acting as if under instructions the tiny reptile curved itself up and fastened its jaws on John’s finger. To his credit let it be said that not a sound escaped him; he shook the reptile free, not without some effort, and backed away from the battle area.

“I don’t think I will join in after all, if you don’t mind,” he said, sucking his fingers. I am supposed to be a bird man.”


5 pangolins! Not only do you get to experience a moment in history preserved in amber, the pen and ink drawings are sweet. I wish there were more of them.

Some of the animals Gerald Durrell ran into on his collecting trips are endangered, like the Giant African Water Shrew; some are threatened. Click the link above to learn how you can help. What’s sad is that we, the people of the earth, have so many living treasures in this one African country – critters found ONLY in Cameroon…don’t let them go extinct.