Review: ‘The Zanzibar Chest: A Memoir of Love and War’ by Aidan Hartley




By Mark Huband

Financial Times, 31 July 2003


The Zanzibar Chest: A Memoir of Love and War by Aidan Hartley HarperCollins £18.99, 320 pages


Journalists spend so much time telling other people’s stories that the tales of their own lives are often lost, obscured or limited to nostalgic chat.

When Aidan Hartley returned to his birthplace of Nairobi after almost 15 years of education in Britain, he was hoping to start the rest of what had been a life filled with a mix of joy, misery and hedonism.

He hit the ground at the right time, sending dispatches for Reuters news agency from Khartoum as the Islamist government seized power, from Addis Ababa after spending two months with invading rebel forces, and later from Somalia and Rwanda. But reportage was not his only objective; there was also his own story, interwoven with these journalistic dramas.

In The Zanzibar Chest, fine writing, some hilarious anecdotes and family histories recounted with an impressive grasp of detail and colour trace the story of Hartley’s colonial ancestors as they travelled around the British empire. His father, an agriculturalist, moved from Trinidad to Aden and Tanganyika before settling with his parents in Kenya.

The death of Hartley’s father and the author’s growing sense of rootlessness lie at the heart of this emotional story. “You used to have such an interesting life. But I think you’ve become really quite boring,” Hartley’s then recently widowed mother tells the author. Her brutal comment is made after the discovery in his late father’s carved Zanzibar chest of the diaries of one of the semi-mythical figures from the Hartley family’s colonial past in Yemen – a political officer named Peter Davey.

“Davey’s is the story you must follow. Davey’s is the golden thread leading you through all this. Why not go to Aden? Follow the story?” she tells him.

The Davey that Hartley discovers “will always be young in my eyes, in pursuit of adventure and with a clear sense of duty”.

“He is a man I envy. He skips lightly among the rocks as the bandits’ bullets splash all about him. He rejoices in the strength of his body, his knowledge of language and his ability to survive in the desert.”

Hartley weaves this tale of life on the Arabian peninsula in the 1940s into his account of the East Africa he experienced as a young reporter in the 1990s.

At first he is dependent on the rogueish charm of Dar es Salaam’s other foreign correspondent, Buchizya Mseteka, to help him to survive on a pitiful income from the Financial Times – before he is “let go” and joins Reuters in Nairobi. The two reporters take turns to sit inside their deep freeze to cool off on hot days, before going off on binges and getting laid.

Such moments are described beautifully. Equally impressive is the way in which Hartley casts aside doubts about why he plunged into the maelstrom of East Africa at a time when the only “acceptable” motives for foreign engagement in the famine-hit region were charitable. “I had decided that what I was looking for was a war that I could call my own, a story that was mine, a complete experience that would define me as the son of my father,” he writes.

But while his candour is admirable, the “golden thread” sometimes becomes tangled. To succeed fully, this thought-provoking book perhaps needed to remain truer to the idea that there was a thread not only to the text, but to the life it recounts.

It is rare that reporters who survive the kinds of conflicts reported by Hartley (several of his friends died), are able to later take the time – many years, in this case – to write about them so honestly.

Hartley’s comparisons with Peter Davey occasionally jar rather than complement. The “thread” would have been tied more neatly if we were told more clearly whether the author now feels that the extraordinary experiences that were his rites of passage had brought him to the point he imagined he would reach when he set out.


Mark Huband was a correspondent in sub-Saharan Africa from 1989-95, and reported on the Somali and Rwandan crises



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