Friday 5 August 2016

Seeing the world

I think it's fantastic that many Kiwis want to better understand how life is lived in places far away.  Most of those people will do this by traveling; however, in the spirit of not encouraging flying, I'd like to introduce you to some resources that have helped me to do this from the comfort of my own bed.

Bon Voyage!


I love getting immersed in a good book.  If they're written well enough, it can feel just like being there.  Here are some books like that, grouped by the regions to which they will transport you.

Central Africa
  • Blood river: a journey to Africa's broken heart by Tim Butcher.  The true story of a British journalist following the Congo river from (more-or-less) source to sea.  Hauntingly written.  I followed-along with an atlas as I read which helped to anchor the stories.  Highly recommended for the insights it gives into the lives of the people in a country we can easily write-off as doomed.

West Africa
  • Purple hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  A coming-of-age novel set in Nigeria.  Beautiful and haunting, interlaced with joy.  I loved its joyful description of every man and his dog racing outside one day to gather and cook swarms of some insect during their seasonal mating flights.
  • Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  The journey of a young Nigerian woman returning to Nigeria from the US.  Includes many scenes of her life in the US and growing up in Nigeria, as well as scenes of her boyfriend's life as an undocumented immigrant in the UK.  I didn't like the ending, though :-(

South Asia
  • 1000 Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini.  Life in Afghanistan made poignantly real by featuring a protagonist born the same year as me.
  • Burnt shadows by Kamila Shamsie.  A tale of a Japanese/South Indian couple and their son.  Touches on the human stories the atomic bombing of Japan, Indian partition and modern-day 'terrorism'
  • The white tiger by Aravind Adiga.  A darkly humorous story of a poor man getting by in modern Dehli.
  • The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid.  If you want to understand some of the factors that drive people to terrorism today (or just have an absolutely gripping read) then read this book.
  • One night at the call centre by Chetan Bhagat.  A darkly humorous story of six call-centre workers in India.
  • Last man in tower by Aravind Adiga.  Ordinary people dealing with an offer that could change their lives in modern-day Mumbai.
  • Five sons and a 100 muri of rice by Sharyn Steel and Zoe Dryden.  The biography of one astonishing woman born into extreme poverty in rural Nepal.
  • Taboo!: the hidden culture of a red light area by Fouzia Saeed.  Another factual book.  I didn't like the tone of this one, but it's the results of an anthropological study of a hereditary red-light industry in Pakistan and the information is fascinating.

East Asia
  • Number9dream by David Mitchell.  A surreal novel set in modern-day Japan, narrated by a man with a tenuous grasp on reality.
  • Red dust: a path through China by Ma Jian.  The true story of one man's meander through great swathes of China in the mid-80s.

Middle East
  • The night of the Mi'raj by Zoë Ferraris.  A murder-mystery set in the highly gender-segregated world of Saudi Arabia.

  • Extra Virgin by Annie Hawes.  The ebullient true story of two British sisters discovering how to live in rural Liguria (northern Italy).
  • The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway.  Three individuals finding a way to defy those who would control their lives and live true to themselves during the siege of Sarajevo in the 1990s.
  • Birds without wings by Louis de Bernières.  A poignant account of a village ripped apart during the mass population exchange between Greece and Turkey in 1923.

  • Twelve bar blues by Patrick Neate.  Life in New Orleans for a vibrant but struggling African American family before the Civil Rights movement took hold.
  • Outside passage: a memoir of an Alaskan childhood by Julia Scully.  A biography of growing up in rural Alaska, full of vivid accounts of the landscape, lifestyle and people.

The Carribbean
  • The same earth by Kei Miller.  A delightful tale of a British Jamaican returning 'home' in the 1980s.
  • Small Island by Andrea Levy.  I wasn't sure whether to put this here or under 'Europe'.  It follows the lives of Jamaican immigrants in England in the 1940s.

Latin America
  • The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver.  An imagined history taking place mostly in the home of the artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Mexico in the 1930s.  All kinds of real-life historical figures visited their house - I've been surprised by how many people I first encountered in this book pop up in other books and even in factual radio programmes.
  • Love in the time of cholera by Gabriel García Márquez.  A vivid novel of ordinary-ish life in Colombia around the turn of the 20th century

The Pacific
  • Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones.  A story (mostly of hope) about a young woman growing up in the Solomon Islands during the war in the 1990s.

  • Terra incognita: travels in Antarctica by Sara Wheeler.  This was the book that convinced me that I wouldn't actually like to visit Antarctica, despite dreaming of it so much growing up!  It's a vivid account of a journalist spending the best part of a year there and, whilst I loved it, I came to realise that so much whiteness just wouldn't be for me!

And, for historical perspectives that shed light on today:
  • Things fall apart by Chinua Achebe.  South-eastern Nigeria in the early days of the British administration, from the perspective of a local dignitary.
  • Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks.  The life of puritan pioneers in New England, including one girl's close relationship with a high-born Native American and his struggles between two worlds.
  • Red river by Lalita Tademy.  A fictionalised history of the author's own ancestors from slavery in the USA through to the mid-20th century.
  • The Long Song by Andrea Levy.  Life on a slave-plantation at the very end of slavery in Jamaica.


For perspectives into the lives of real people over long periods of time you can't beat blogs. The ones that have best helped me to 'see' places far away are:
  • A Letter from Kabwata: reflections from a Baptist Reformed pastor in Zambia.  I've learned from him a little about daily life there, about the formality that exists between young people and their elders and (at least one perspective) on the contemporary church in Southern Africa.  His adult daughter also blogs here.  I may start to follow her, too - her reflections on life are quite foreign to me and could provide useful perspective.
  • Where the Vultures Gather: reflections of a young evangelical Christian man in Lebanon.
  • Fuori Borgo: life in rural Italy (recently defunct, but there's about 7 years of archives you can meander through).
  • China dialogue: stories about China, the environment and the world.  I read this for many years and gradually built up a detailed understanding of many aspects of Chinese life that have been confirmed by my interactions with Chinese people I've since met.
  • and, for an outsider's perspective on my own world and how it affects the Majority World, I highly recommend the blog of Vinoth Ramachandra in Sri Lanka.
Blogs from travellers can also be highly useful.  Two writers who do an excellent job of observing and reflecting on the world around them are:

Radio and podcasts

For brief glimpses into many far-away places you can't beat Outlook: a long-running BBC programme featuring "extraordinary first person stories from around the world".  Recently I've heard snapshots of everyday people in Rio de Janiero, the story of a trans woman covertly serving in the US airforce and reflections from a Syrian man who's now the mayor of a town in Greece.

You can listen to it as a podcast and download daily episodes here; or listen to it on air in Auckland on 810AM at 7am or 3pm Tue-Fri.

Other podcasts and radio programmes I recommend are:

Social media

I'm not much of a social media user, but I do follow Christian Peacemaker Teams - Colombia for glimpses of life in a place where ordinary people have pretty tenuous land tenure.

I recommend these short videos (many 30-120 seconds long) for glimpses of rural Muslim life on the Thai/Malay peninsula, and the photos on the associated Facebook page.

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