Grains of Golden Sand: Adventures in War-Torn Africa (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 about the country and culture she describes; it is what it is. A fine example of this is her description of the attitudes towards animal euthanasia later in the book, in which she details the fate of two rabid dogs. In the United States, such treatment would be utterly unacceptable, but she explains without prejudice that in Zaire, attitudes are different. Not necessarily better or worse, just different.
Messinger comes across as a fine conservationist and a compassionate animal expert, but I would argue that through this book, she comes across as an extremely fine author too. Reluctant as I am to compare any author to the great John Steinbeck - there simply is no comparison - I cannot help but draw the comparison between Grains of Golden Sand and The Log from the Sea of Cortez, in which Steinbeck is a biologist first, an an author second. The two books are strikingly similar in that they both describe an extended expedition without allowing the science to overpower the readability of the book, and both are accessible to readers of quality literature. Someone with absolutely no interest in sea life can thoroughly enjoy Cortez, and someone with absolutely no interest in bonobos could equally enjoy Grains of Golden Sand; both books are worthy of reading simply for the pleasure of reading a well-crafted and entertaining account of real-life adventures. A further similarity lies in the integral role the various characters play in the narrative; all too often, authors of contemporary non-fiction fail to develop the characters in their books beyond using them merely as blunt tools to help explain the topic of the book. In Grains of Golden Sand, the characters are three-dimensional, essential to the subject and storyline, and they drive the book forward. Messinger affords the interpersonal conflict and cooperation the importance it deserves, highlighting that this is the way things get done in Africa. This book is as much about people and relationships as it is bonobos and conservation.
A notable addition to Messinger's book is the multitude of photographs contained within. Rarely are there more than a few pages without small incidental photographs of unfamiliar people, locations, and animals when introduced for the first time (What does an Okapi look like? Oh, I see...), and the center of the book contains numerous full-color pages of photographs. Rather than distracting the reader, these images give us a further glimpse into the colorful world described by Messinger, and help draw us in and reinforce that the amazing tale isn't the the product of the imagination of the author, but from events that actually happened.
This book, aside from being a must-read text for anyone interested in bonobos specifically or African conservation in general, is a fine, fast-paced read that will enthrall adults and students looking for a superb piece of non-fiction writing. Some enterprising reader should snap up the adaptation rights to this book as soon as possible, for Messinger and her work in Africa is worthy of translation into a fine little movie, and her writing lends itself to such an outlet. I an reluctant to recommend this book for younger readers, despite Messinger being a fine role model for many a young, adventurous girl, solely for the fact that the bonobos' antics are, well, R-rated; not in a prurient manner, however, but, as Messinger is careful to explain, simply because that is the bonobo way. They are not human, and she explains that it is foolish to interpret their behavior in human terms. Messinger does not overplay these aspects of bonobos, but the few pages in which she explains their interesting interactions cover most of the topics parents would prefer not to have to explain. Overall, however, this is an extraordinary book that I strongly recommend without hesitation.