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    A journey to answer life's questions

    By KIBRET MARKOS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 15, 2000


    When Jeffrey Tayler's book about a journey through Russia wouldn't sell, he took up a non-writing job in a security company in Moscow. Trapped between the rejection of his work and a job that made him miserable, he began a tormenting process of self-evaluation.

    "At thirty-three, one's direction in life should be clear, and mine was not," he writes in his memoir, FACING THE CONGO. "If anything it was getting murkier."

    In 1994, when his mind was entirely occupied by the realization that time runs out, Tayler came across a book about an Indian who traveled to the Congo to start a new life. The desperate Tayler suddenly became enthralled by the Congo.

    After some research on the central African state, he was ready to descend the 3,000-mile long Congo river on a pirogue, hoping that his perilous journey would somehow alter the manner he looked at himself and his capabilities.

    Zaire was then threatened by civil unrest, with the military dictator Mobutu Sese Seko fast losing his grip on power over one of the biggest nations in Africa. The unpaid army had to live off looting and bribery, while massive poverty reigned over a population living in an incredibly resource-rich country. As Mobutu's private wealth was rising and falling within the billions, nearly half of all Zaireans were suffering from chronic malnutrition.

    The journey down the river was an insanely ambitious idea, since "a bolt of lightening, a hungry croc, even the microscopic malaria . . . could kill us," Tayler realized. Not to mention robbery. And of course, the locals didn't view Tayler as a determined man in search of direction in life; rather he was seen either as a greedy, diamond-hunting Mondele (white man) or a spy.

    But by now obsessed with the Congo, Tayler nevertheless took off. He left his job and said good-bye to his wife and family. He left for Brazzaville, made his way upriver on a crowded barge, and then got on a handmade pirogue for his trip down the Congo river.

    The journey, as he narrates it, was an encounter with untold poverty, a series of corrupt checkpoints, bad weather, robbers and disease. But most of all, it was a battle with self-doubt, as Tayler continually asked himself why he would not admit that he had made a mistake and go back home, why he was putting himself through this and why he should go on.

    Tayler had regarded people's goals and plans, hopes and hobbies, religions and customs, as "comforting fictions" to hide the Truth, which is that "we see a finite number of dawns and dusks, then it's all over." He thought he himself had abandoned those fictions, but in the course of his journey he came to realize that the Congo was his own peculiar fiction.

    After traveling the 470 miles between the Zairean towns of Kisangani and Kinshasa along the river, Taylor's eyes were opened. The obsession that drove him out of a settled life in Moscow and sent him rowing on a pirogue down one of the world's most formidable rivers turned out to be, he discovered, trifling. His drama of self-actualization, he writes "proved obscenely trivial beside the suffering of the Zaireans." He had learned that obvious truth, he admits however, "only by buying a pirogue and attempting the descent."

    Tayler thought a trip to the Congo would redefine his capabilities and his self-esteem. To that extent, he is not unlike many other Western travelers who have come to Africa, inspired by vague impressions about the continent, and who expect to be rewarded with awe for their perseverance in a world known to the reader only as remote and sinister. But FACING THE CONGO is not the usual stereotypical African travelogue by a non-African. Allowing his trip to teach him the value of the bridges he had burned behind him, Tayler was able to write a book that is more a discovery of himself than of a faraway continent.

    After facing the Congo, he returned to his family. "I am home and happy about it," he said. He does not regret his experience in Zaire, though: His river journey taught him finally to value what he had and to strive to preserve it.

    -- Kibret Markos is an Ethiopian journalist who is spending six months in the United States on an Alfred Friendly Fellowship.

    FACING THE CONGO

    By Jeffrey Tayler

    Ruminator Books, $27

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