As a young reporter for the old New York Newsday, Dan Morrison was one of those who smoldered under a double yoke. Stories were crammed into tight tabloid inches. And even at that liberal daily, he had to hold much of his fire about what he saw and thought during the often comic-book reign of Rudy Giuliani and his retinue. After the Newsday city edition went under for the last time, Morrison went wandering, filing free-lance stories from some of the rougher patches of the globe. But he kept looking for something different, somewhere he could stretch out and play that nice long solo he had tucked away inside. Lucky for us, he found it, half-way around the world, aboard a series of rickety boats, barges, and battered pick-up trucks that took him along those portions of the world’s most storied waterway that don’t get their stories told too often. He calls it The Black Nile, a silt-choked river that flows from Lake Victoria in Uganda up through war-ravaged southern Sudan before heading north to the pyramids in tourist-land.
The prevailing currents tend to tug this book toward a shelf holding tales of grand adventure told by brave men grappling with strange worlds. That’s here too. You couldn’t pay most of us enough to put up with treks through crocodile-filled marshes where every step sinks you knee-deep in shoe-swallowing muck and mire, where paradise is a rind of pita bread and a warm bottle of orange Fanta. Or to sit beside a driver merrily piloting a hugely overloaded bus without benefit of gear shift. Or to insist on crossing a parched desert where you’ve been bluntly told to stay away by big men carrying bigger guns just to get a look at a dam that’s going to put a remote tribe of Nubians out of business.
Guns were a steady presence as Morrison made his way through the Sudan, where rival bands were still poking holes in a shaky peace treaty. One night, the crackle of explosions outside his window awoke him. Firecrackers, he told himself. He spent his next hours pressed up against a concrete floor as gunmen shot it out around his encampment. But adventure is only half the story in this marvelous book, and maybe the lesser half. Morrison’s most memorable encounter that night wasn’t with the bullets. It was with a Bible-reading Sudanese who explains at length over an unfinished soda the bitter course of his life, his torture by rivals, the murder of family members, and why he’s returned from the safety of the American midwest to try and lead his now-liberated former township.
Scenes of grinding poverty, children sifting through smoking fields of garbage, are as much a part of the steady background as the dense reeds lining the riverbanks. But every time you think this stretch of Africa is beyond redemption, Morrison strikes up a conversation with another thoughtful pilgrim with funny, interesting, and often hopeful things to say.
Americans like to think of ourselves as savvy about the rest of the globe, who we’re sharing it with, how things work. Actually, we don’t know a fucking thing. Spend one miserable minute reading the emailed rantings of the anti-downtown mosque jihadists these days and it’s case closed. The Black Nile is a wonderful antidote to those know-nothing ravings. It is a beautifully-written tale of an American on a journey to find out who else is out there, what they’re thinking, why they do what they do, and hey, check out that sunset with the cranes flying low across the horizon. It’s a little like that greatest American river trip saga, the one where Huck Finn manages to tell an exciting story, while reminding us that his pal Jim may look different, but is just as smart, if not smarter, than the hucksters working their trade on the natives along the riverbank.