Book Review: The Black Nile

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(Viking, $27, August)

In The Black Nile, Dan Morrison and his hometown buddy,Schon, set out to trace the Nile from the Great Lakes region of Uganda to its mouth nearCairo. The concept seems to be one that guarantees non-stop adventure. (Wild rapids!Crocodile encounters!) But after only fifty miles, their boat reaches its limits and Schonsoon returns to the U.S.

Most of the subsequent action takes place on land, and most of that in Sudan.Morrison teeters dangerously close to gunfights, disease, and run-ins with the authoritieswhile relying on former rebels, proto-entrepreneurs, and crooked bureaucrats to gethim through the war-torn country safely. Evidence of danger is everywhere. Boats areequipped with .50-cal guns. In Malakal, a cholera outbreak seems the biggest threat untila battle between a local militia and rebels-turned-soldiers throws the town into chaos.

Morrison’s foreign correspondent background keeps the book from becomingan all-out, rough-and-tumble adventure tale. And he avoids the evangelical zeal andnaïve prescriptions other Africa books fall victim to, while giving a detailed descriptionof the problems facing Sudan. “You never talk about reconstruction in south Sudan,”one Sudanese bureaucrat tells Morrison. “It’s construction. There are no war-damagedschools or hospitals—there were never any to begin with.”

Thankfully, the more adventuresome portions of The Black Nile keep it fromreading like a textbook. In one firefight, Morrison hears the “pop-pops of handgunsand… the whooom of rifle rounds passing close, very close by, parting the air and sounditself like they were flesh.”

–Jonah Ogles