This month’s reviews help you find your way around the Third World — whether you travel there for real or only in your imagination.
Editor: Anuradha Vittachi
Guide to guides
UK: IC Magazines
US distributor: Franklin Watts Inc. (Pbk) £4.95
UK: World of Information (Pbk) £15.00
Australian distributor: Book Wise. Sydney
You should choose a guidebook in much the same way as you choose your morning newspaper. Either because it fits your political sympathies, has good sports coverage or offers soft-porn on page three. It’s a question of getting what you need in a form you can trust and grow fond of. Although it still annoys me that the Guardian weather column regularly gives me the temperature in Casablanca but never in New York, I’ll forgive anything for its regular dose of agonising social conscience on the feature pages, plus the Doonesbury cartoon and the TV listings where I can always find them.
With guidebooks you can only — if rashly — assume that the actual information they provide is correct. Hotel ‘phone numbers, exchange rates and opening times of safari parks are only much use if they are right. And it’s the one service that all guidebooks have to offer their readers — like TV listings in a newspaper. Where they compete with each other is on presentation and on the style of that in-depth information.
For my money a good guidebook is one in which facts and figures are up-to-date and accurate beyond reasonable doubt and where the blurb is written with an eye to the kind of detail that interests me. But the way in which these books are usually compiled is not well suited to this goal. Low editorial budgets usually mean little original research, a heavy reliance on official handouts and a desperate struggle to find anyone at all who can write well, on the basis of recent first-hand experience, about obscure countries. The result is a product of uneven quality.
In the four volumes of Traveller’s Guides to Africa (formerly all in one; now divided, they say, to offer pocket-sized regional guides, but carved up so that if you are travelling any great distance you must buy two or three instead of one) you get exchange rates that were already a year out of date when published, six introductory chapters on things like wildlife and medical kits which beef it up in the bookshop but become useless window-dressing as soon as you get on the ‘plane’, and country- by-country guides that range from competent, sympathetic and easy to read, to elitist and boring. The problem is consistency — an art established by newspaper editors, but as yet barely appreciated by the compilers of trans-continental guidebooks. It is annoying to get one section urging that the best way to get to know Africa is to meet ordinary Africans in their homes while the writer on Kenya suggests seeing the ‘other side’ of Nairobi (i.e. people living ‘in a constant struggle for survival’) by a ‘short trip down River Road in daylight’.
What the dedicated traveller needs is less descriptive candyfloss and more practical information on how to escape the package tour straitjacket. As it is, the Traveller’s Guides offer an uneasy balance between sweeping, rather plagiaristic accounts of history and economy and patchy travel information. They would do better to concentrate on up-to-the minute facts wherever possible, plus an honest, consistent guide to getting the kind of non-tourist-trap experiences they advocate.
World of Information’s Africa Guide is a different animal altogether. Weighing in at 1kg, and costing £15, it is designed for the briefcase, not the backpack. ‘Banking and Finance’ heads the cover’s lists of contents. The first 80 pages are devoted to a rag-bag of ‘in-depth’ articles, some by genuine experts with something to say and some unreadable, obscure padding. It has the heavy lacing of corporate advertising you’d expect with an established business publication (which this is). Its bigger budget also means named writers, sometimes authoritative, in the country-by-country section with more emphasis on ‘hard’ political and economic analysis. The facts are also better presented than in the Traveller’s Guides and more convincingly up-to-date. Gone, however, is any pretence of introducing you to the people of Africa. Business, after all, is business.
Third World in the classroom
Looking After Ourselves
Core Pack £4.95
Environment/Health pack £2.95 each
Encyclopaedia of Developing Nations
edited by Carol L. Thompson, Mary M. Anderberg and Joan B. Antell
McGraw-Hill (hbk) £29.95/$54.95
Food: choices for the future
by the Jordanhill Project in International Understanding
£2.75 (incl. postage) from Jordonhill College, Glasgow, U.K.
Looking After Ourselves is a particularly attractive set of teachers’ aids dealing with family life in a small village in Bangladesk. Aimed at 9-11 year olds but useful for a wider age range, the core pack includes wallcharts, information sheets, photographs, transparencies and a record. Interestingly, all the information is given as though seen through the eyes of nine-year-old Mazeda, the youngest girl of the family.
The text is refreshingly direct: one sheet is bluntly entitled ‘Shah Jehan has Diarrhoea’ (that’s Shah Jehan the infant; no connection with the Taj Mahal). One worry, though: Mazeda and her sister always seem to be merrily washing, cleaning and cooking — while the men demonstrate how to sit on the verandah and smoke. Is this a gentle criticism of Bangladeshi sexism or has the compiler unwittingly repeated his or her own?
Imaginative suggestions for further study range from finding out why Ghujar Ali is always in debt to buying a chapati from an Indian restaurant and trying to describe it. The project’s real advantage lies in its coherence: the children can look through Mazeda’s photo album, listen to her favourite songs and try out her recipe for lunch.
Supplementary packs (‘environment and ‘health’) provide more wallcharts and information sheets on farming, food and village life.
On quite another scale is the Encyclopaedia of Developing Nations, a hefty volume at a hefty price. At virtually £30 (US $55) for 400 pages, with the simplest of maps and no colour, the price has to be justified by the text.
The value of the text lies in its focus. This encyclopaedia, unlike most, concentrates on the pressures of development and change being experienced now by the peoples of 93 developing countries. Succinct and reasonably jargon-free articles discuss the economic, social, political and geographic forces currently shaping each nation. (Readers will have to adjust for bias — impossible to avoid in any political analysis — according to personal preference.) Each country gets about four pages to itself, including three or four apposite if unexciting photographs culled mainly from UN photo libraries. A brief historical background and a box of demographic statistics (e.g. population figures, literacy and infant mortality rates) for each country add to the encyclopaedia’s usefulness as a reference book for school/college libraries,
With interest in Third World nations rapidly increasing in the West, it’s a book whose time has come.
Food: choices for the future is a four-part study compiled especially for secondary schools. It covers the problem of food availability, the reasons for its maldistribution, a detailed case study and pointers towards solutions. The project book is enlivened by occasional passages of vivid story-telling and a sprinkling of caustic cartoons. The Food book is one of a worthwhile series on development subjects by the Jordanhill team.