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African Writing Archives


Around Africa on my Bicycle

Ja, No, Man

Author: Richard Poplak

Publisher: Penguin S.A.


Around Africa on my Bicycle

Author Riaan Manser

Publisher: Jonathan Ball


 Quick Reads

Ja, No, Man

I found Ja, No, Man by Richard Poplak strangely troubling. Described as ‘a memoir of pop culture, girls, suburbia… and Apartheid’ it is all of that, but from a strangely disconnected viewpoint.

You see, Richard Poplak only lived in South Africa for sixteen years. And he’s lived out of South Africa for sixteen more. This is part of his reason for writing the book – his experience is unique because he lived in the country only during the Apartheid years. But there is something a little off about his memoirs, something plotted and unnatural. Perhaps it is his tendency to step in and out of narrative, telling a story and then commenting on it in a kind of researched lecturing capacity that takes all the spontaneity out of the reminiscence, and cuts the reader off from connecting with the characters. Perhaps it is his pervading sense of white guilt as he tries to justify the way he treated those around him as a child, without really offering any real reason.

But I think mainly it is the fact that the reader can see the writer’s hand. There are whole paragraphs that feel crafted to the point of lifelessness. Poplak is trying too hard to be authentically South African, striving for ‘natural’ wit and colourful metaphors to the extent that it feels artificial.

Which is not to say that the whole book is a write-off, not at all. There are some beautifully described passages, unique experiences and fresh observations on his life at that time, and it is true that the years just before the Apartheid regime crumbled were fraught with meaning for any South African. In the moments where he is honest, and not trying to be clever, Poplak’s writing shines. Unfortunately, these moments are not abundant.

Then again, one has to bear in mind that this is not necessarily a book intended for South Africans, but rather for those unfamiliar with what the country was like pre-1994. A guidebook to a Joburg childhood during Apartheid, if you will. If this was his intention, Poplak has succeeded. I just wanted more.



Around Africa on my Bicycle

Rarely do place and literature combine so seamlessly as in travel writing. The place is, in effect, the engine that drives the story. In Around Africa on my Bicycle this engine is the whole continent of Africa which, as the title suggests, is covered by bicycle. Riaan Manser, the author, is the first man to circumnavigate the entire African continent by bicycle, a feat which took him through 34 countries and 36 500km in 2 years 2 months and 15 days. Quite an adventure; quite an undertaking to even attempt, never mind complete.

And yet.

There is something lacking from his account of the adventure. I love travelling and I love Africa – surely I was the perfect reader for this book? But I found myself getting tired, round about page 300 (of 700), not from the stories (which were mainly exciting and intriguing) but from the ceaseless detail. Now it could be argued that travel writing has to be about all the details – the personal ones so that you form bonds with the writer, and care about him enough to keep going; the physical ones so that you feel as if you’ve visited (albeit briefly) the place that he writes about. But at the same time it has to be pacy, and gripping. At times I found Around Africa on my Bicycle laboured, and a bit exhausting. A day-to-day account of twenty-six and a half months takes a long time.

That said, there are many who will love this book for the inspiration it undoubtedly offers, and I admire Manser for being brave enough to set off on an adventure that seemed not only dangerous (politically and physically), but downright crazy. In that, this book is a success. It will inspire wanderlust in many a traveller, and no doubt provide a background for those wishing to visit certain African countries.

And perhaps this is the key. How much of a book’s enjoyment is derived from the writer, and how much from the reader? Perhaps Around Africa on my Bicycle is not meant to be read in one sitting, to be ploughed through day after day. Perhaps it should be read in chunks, so that each country is a book unto its own, a slice of adventure from what must have been an extremely large pie.

Perhaps this armchair traveller isn’t quite up to travelling around a whole continent just yet.

Bridget McNulty

Bridget McNulty
is a South African freelance journalist and novelist. Her first book, Strange Nervous Laughter, was published by Oshun Books in September, 2007. She is a regular contributor to Real Simple Magazine, The Oprah Magazine, Woman & Home, Mango Juice, Fresh Living and ELLE. She is also a book reviewer for the Sunday Times. She also reviews South African books and interviews authors for KZN Literary Tourism -

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