I always love reading novels set in the places that I am living. I love books about Belfast. However, when I am in Belfast I do not have the luxury of reading novels. When I am in Africa I am even more careful to have a novel as a companion, describing the roads that I am travelling.
In 2016 I asked David Torrens proprietor of No Alibis Bookshop on Botanic Avenue what I should read on my Ugandan trip. He posed zen like for a second, delved into a box and reached me Ishmael Beah’s Radiance of Tomorrow which hit the spot beautifully.
I pushed David by asking again in 2017 and he came up trumps again with Northern Irish writers David Park’s Stone Kingdoms. Amazing.
Last year, I tested myself and discovered perhaps my favourite book of all time, Jenny D Williams’ The Atlas Of Forgotten Places! It was a wow and literally followed me into north west Uganda and beyond!
This year I tried Elephant Mountain by Linda Johnston Muhlhausen. It was another beautiful companion. Set in Kisoro, as far south in Uganda as I was north in Arua, that didn’t detract from the sense of being on the same roads. Being set in the very early 70s didn’t detract either.
Elephant Mountain is the story of a young woman who leaves her groom at the altar and runs away with the US Peace Corp to Uganda as a volunteer teacher, looking for adventure. She finds more than she bargained for as she falls in love not only with Uganda but a Ugandan, sees her Peace Corp partners sent home for drug abuse, crosses the border into Rwanda to meet Ellen who is living with Gorillas and in the end has to face the violence of Idi Amin’s bloody dictatorship.
It is a lyrical read. Laurel our main character is a musician and there are lots of musical references from Brahms to Jefferson Airplane!
For around half the book the political context means little. Laurel could be at our school in Arua in 2019 but then it hits with all Amin’s might and the book in the end is about the hippy dreams of 60s America and the start of the Amin years in Uganda.
It is about freedoms and where freedoms free you but add other problems. How free can we be if we attempt to take the rhythms of our western lives and beat them out in the midst of another rhythm in another place. Can we shift rhythms and how can we pick up our old rhythms when we return to their relentless groove!
Those are the questions that I have been asking on this current trip to Uganda. The book has helped me ponder that challenge and friction.
The author was herself a Peace Corp volunteer in Uganda before Amin threw them all out in 1972. I imagine the spiritual centre of the plot is taking us into very personal experience. The details might not be as true but I would be fascinated to find out.
It was another book that ended a little too soon for me!