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Biking Through Africa's Social Landscape

October 08, 1995|JOHN MUNCIE

THE UKIMWI ROAD by Dervla Murphy (The Overlook Press, $22.95).

In 1992, at age 60, Dervla Murphy decided to bike through central Africa. Beginning in Nairobi, Kenya, she peddled north to Uganda, biked by lakes Albert, Edward and Victoria, rode south through the center of Tanzania, down the Malawi/Zambia border to Karoi, Zimbabwe, where, about 3,000 miles later, she finally succumbed to fatigue, frustration and a bout of malaria.

In other words, the usual Dervla Murphy adventure. If she's not biking Romania, she's walking Madagascar or hiking the Andes. Murphy is a woman of rare courage and fortitude. You expect to see her picture next to the entry "intrepid" in Webster's.

She also comes prepared. Political and social landscapes are as important to her as physical ones. Her observations about peoples and societies are keen, unsentimental and well-researched.

Metaphorically, most travel books are scenic color photographs shot in late afternoon light, Murphy's are black and white portraits shot at noon.

"Ukimwi" in the title refers to the Swahili word for AIDS, the scourge of central Africa and the book's inescapable focus. Sometimes, this is a journey into the heart of hell. On one afternoon, for example, Murphy was traveling in Bugala, an island in Lake Victoria. A boy ran up to her and, seizing her arm, had her follow him to his AIDS-stricken family:

"In an oblong hut his two older brothers, in their early 20s, were lying side by side on straw mats, both close to death. One was in a coma, the other conscious but speechless. Their bodies were skeletal, their feet hideously swollen. The anguished mother, seeing an elderly mzungu [Swahili for "foreigner"], had assumed me to be an 'expert' from some powerful Western organization and in her despair was convinced that I could help. She spoke no English and the boy's was minimal. 'Medicine!' he pleaded. 'You give medicine!' "

Murphy's well-honed scorn of bureaucracy has been sharpened to a razor's edge here. With it she slashes into what she sees as the West's incompetent meddling in African affairs and at the ignorance of African governments in the face of cultural destruction. And yet, "Ukimwi" is a far more engaging travelogue than you might expect.

Balancing the tragedy is Murphy's superb ear for dialogue, her powers of description and her unflagging sense of humor. She's a crotchety Irish woman and she doesn't spare anyone her acerbic wit, including, most of all, herself.

*

ROADSIDE HISTORY OF CALIFORNIA by Ruth Pittman (Mountain Press Publishing Co., $18, paper, maps, black and white photos).

If this guide is any judge, you can't drive more than a couple of miles in any direction without passing something historic. Many of these points of history are trivial, but trivia can be captivating.

Case in point: Fandango Pass, a few miles south of the Oregon border. It seems the pass got its name because "a group of Forty-Niners who camped there got so cold they had to dance to keep from freezing."

Here's another: Among the founders of Anaheim were a group of Germans from San Francisco. To create a name for their new settlement they combined Santa Ana (from the nearby river) and the word heim, German for "home."

"Roadside" is filled with such stuff. It might be fun to take on a family road trip. No matter where you drive, when the kids say, "Are we there yet?" you can look something up in the book and answer, "Yes."

Quick trips:

SONOMA: The Ultimate Winery Guide by Heidi Haughy Cusick, photos by Richard Gillette (Chronicle Books, $18.95, paper, photos). Stylish and slick. A highly formatted valentine to 30 of Sonoma's top wineries. Each place gets two pages of pretty pictures and a short text that outlines the history and winemaking style. Directions, tasting policies and other offerings are included. Lovely photos (the light falls warmly on fields of poppies and aging casks) but, overall, rather sterile visually. There's only one human face in more than 100 pages. Companion book to "Napa Valley: The Ultimate Winery Guide."

SAN FRANCISCO: The Ultimate Guide by Randolph Delehanty (Chronicle Books, $15.95, maps). Not for the casual tourist. Hotels, restaurants and night spots are mentioned, but this is primarily a sidewalk guide to the city's past. The book divides San Francisco's neighborhoods into 14 walkable tours (plus sections on special interiors and day trips) and outlines the history of various buildings you'll see along the way.

Thumbing through this new edition of Delehanty's exhaustive work, you find innumerable odd facts: Operators at Chinatown's telephone exchange had to know English and five Chinese dialects--Som Yup, Say Yup, Geung Son, Gow Cong and Aw Duck; the Transamerica Pyramid has a slope angle of five degrees; and, among other modern heroes, Albert Einstein is depicted in the stained glass windows of Grace Cathedral on California Street.

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