Have you heard about the story of the aid worker who traveled in Africa? Why yes, that is pretty much every book about aid.
So you can excuse me for being a bit jaded when approaching Mark Weston’s book that recounts his travels with his wife to the West African countries of Sierra Leone, Guinea-Bissau and Burkina Faso. Weston’s The Ringtone and the Drum opens in a way that makes the reader feel as if they are about to read a self-indulged account of his travels through some of the worst countries in the world. That initial impression was dead wrong.
The exposition section acted less as a set up and more like a series of information that Weston wanted to shed as quickly possible. Make no mistake about it, the book is about him. However his role is that of the storyteller who happens to be in the story, rather than the main character. Weston is the connective tissue of the stories of the people that he interacts with across the three countries.
The arc of his story allows him to bring in historical background information to fill in the context of the current state of the countries. Weston resists the temptation to fit the people he meets into a neat story about progress or development. Rather, he shares their stories as a way to show the complex ways that the lives of the poor cannot be packaged into a neat box.
One such story is that of a woman named Maria in Guinea-Bissau. Her otherwise good marriage suddenly changed when her husband lost interest and took a second wife. She left him shortly after and took care of her children with the support of her family, but not her husband. When her son died from malaria, Maria left her animist religion for Christianity. She told Weston that she felt that she honored her ancestors, but they did not keep up their half of the deal.
“I was tired of performing sacrifices. I bought and sacrificed any cows and pigs to change my life, to make my family healthier and protect them against bad things, but nothing changed. I saw my family falling sick and dying,” said Maria.
Weston speaks to Maria’s son who converted to Christianity before she. Lalas tells of how the religion has made his life better because he has reached his dreams of building a house for his mother and starting his own family. Weston points out the cynical view that one can take, but couches it in the reality that what Lalas has achieved, though small, is reason for him to be thankful.
The greatest talent of Weston is to tell the stories without judgement, raise a few questions and steer away from larger conclusions. Another author may have pointed to this story as evidence of God’s grace while another would have scoffed at Lalas and Maria. Weston makes it clear that he is not convinced by the missionaries who he and his wife share lodging with and constantly attempt to convert. However, he does not wander into discussions about whether something absolutely right or wrong.
For a reader who is looking for distinct answers, Weston is not the answer. Rather his book is a window into the hardships faced by the people living in the three West African countries. The causes of problems are multi-faceted. By providing historical context, Weston helps the reader to understand the ways in which colonialism shaped the countries in different ways.
The most vivid of the accounts is Weston’s trip to a group of islands off the coast of Guinea-Bissau. Due to the governance problems within the country the islands have become an important stopping point for the drug trade between Latin America and Europe. Crude landing strips are carved onto the islands that are largely not monitored by the government. Even the former president supposedly got in the act of traveling drugs from the country into Europe. The leery welcome that Weston recieves when on the island illustrates the fact that they are opperating as pseudo-autonomous states.
The book moves along from country to country and introduces more and more characters. Ultimately, the trip wears him down. That may be what keeps him from sharing grand realizations, but it is also what allows Weston to step away from himself and share the lives of the people who he meets along their travels. Readers will likely feel helpless if looking to the book for solutions, but will be better off for having come to understand how life is far messier than we imagine it to be.