Grains of Golden Sand (Paperback)
Adventures in War-Torn Africa
Fine Print Press, 9781888960334, 391pp.
Publication Date: August 1, 2006
Grains of Golden Sand: Adventures in War-Torn Africa, by Delfi Messinger, is an astounding account of the author's many years in the chaos of Kinshasa (the capital of Zaire) during the 1970s, working with the Peace Corps as a bonobo conservationist and what I can only describe (perhaps inaccurately) as a "street veterinarian." The title of the book sums up her work perfectly; taken from 'A Dream Within a Dream' by Edgar Allen Poe, the author chronicles her herculean efforts to save a small number of bonobos (a type of primate with some interesting characteristics) that were living under the care of the biological research institute where she worked as a volunteer. Messinger is clearly an expert when it comes to these particular creatures, as well as many others, and she successfully educates the reader about these fine animals in a manner that doesn't require the reader have a master's degree in primatology or veterinary science. For the bonobo fan - and if you're not one already, you will be by the time you finish the book - Grains of Golden Sand is a perfect way to spend a few hours in the company of an expert guide.
But although bonobo-centric, the subtitle to this book conveys the breadth of the subject matter covered by Messinger. Grains of Golden Sand is indeed an adventure in war-torn Africa from the very beginning, dumping the reader straight onto the violent, dangerous, gunfire-laced streets of Kinshasa alongside Messinger, showing the reader right off the bat that this is going to be no ordinary tale of human-helps-beast. From there, she quickly takes us back through her childhood, illustrating how she became interested in animals, right through her early zoo keeping days, ultimately volunteering with the Peace Corps and finding herself in Africa, an inspiring tale in itself. And just as quickly, she has us squarely back in Africa with her staff - both frustrating and indispensable at the same time - and the animals, and off on her remarkable true story of saving the bonobos. The book obviously relies on the comprehensive journal that Messinger kept during her time in Zaire, a foundation that allows Messinger to vividly describe the events of thirty years ago with detail and accuracy that is crisp and fresh, not vague and muddied with the passing of time. The reader truly feels as if he or she is contemporary with the happenings, not a distant observer in time or space.
The heart of the book lies in Messinger's tireless efforts to save six bonobos and relocate them safely abroad. Messinger masterfully conveys her real-life experiences into something that reads like a good action/adventure tale. The reader is brought to the edge of his or her seat at times, particularly towards the end of the book where years and years of effort hangs by a thread. I don't want to spoil the storyline by divulging too much about what happens, except to say that Messinger crafts her experiences into a book with a narrative that is as gripping as the finest fiction published today. This is both a product of some fine writing skills and a worthwhile story, and in today's marketplace of manufactured non-fiction, this book stands apart. Allow me to explain: many non-fiction books today are noticeably artificial (particularly those written by professional freelance writers, journalists or others who rely on generating prose for a paycheck), in that the author plans the book, sells it to a publisher, and then writes the book - the opposite sequence to what you might expect. The authors of such works often struggle to find (or arrange or manufacture) interesting anecdotes, information, situations and characters with which to populate the manuscript. The result is that the reader can tell that the author is writing merely for a paycheck, and that the subject is barely worthy of our attention. In other words, the author hunts down the story and tries to make it interesting, rather than an interesting story finding and inspiring the author. Messinger's book is the absolute opposite: she lived through events that were extraordinarily interesting, dangerous, and unique in and of themselves, and subsequently found that they were worthy of sharing with others in book form; this great story found her, and not vice versa. Messinger did not disappear off to Africa for the purpose of delivering a manuscript to justify an advance. Grains of Golden Sand shows no signs of the author trying to make something appear more exciting, interesting, or worthy of our time than it actually was, and the book stands out in a sea of commercial non-fiction for this reason. It's a book written around a good story, not a book written to pay the bills.
But back to the subject of this review. Grains of Golden Sand gives the reader insight into many aspects of African life and culture, especially the confusing, unpredictable and often-maddening bureaucracy and politics, the interaction between the developed world and Zaire, and the day-to-day adventures to be had merely by going outside one's borders, complete with eye maggots, Ebola, blister beetles, and trucks with names. Such a book could easily have turned out to be a dry, academic series of essays covering each individual topic - bonobo behavior, African politics, animal care, international wildlife regulations etc. - but Messinger masterfully blurs the lines between these distinct subjects and presents the reader with a snapshot of life in Kinshasa in the 1970s, a delicious soup of carefully-blended ingredients that gives the reader an understanding (if it can ever be understood by an outsider) of what living and working in such a place was like. Furthermore, Messinger informs the reader without ever slipping into the typical American style of judging outsiders, inevitably unfavorably, against the standards of the United States. She presents an accurate, honest picture of Zaire, and never encourages the reader to draw any conclusions.