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Drink the Bitter Root: A Writer’s Search for Justice and Redemption in Africa

by Gary Geddes

Prolific B.C. author Gary Geddes, whose literary peregrinations have for decades landed him in countless war zones and sites of human misery, brings to his latest work of non-fiction the veteran traveller’s wise insights and sense of history.

The genesis of this well-written travel memoir lies in the 1993 torture and murder of Somali youth Shidane Abukar Arone by members of the Canadian Forces. Geddes’ desire to get at the root of that vicious incident led him on an exploration of the bloody recent history of nations whose names – Rwanda, Uganda, Ethiopia, Somalia, Congo – are so freighted with images of mass slaughter and famine it’s difficult to imagine daily life there.

But Geddes has committed himself to putting a human face on the unspeakable by recording survivors’ stories as they deal with post-conflict reconciliation. Over the course of the book, we meet a pastiche of former child soldiers, local journalists and artists, medical staff in bare-bones clinics, and women who have survived devastating assaults. Geddes intersperses a well-chosen selection of history, poetry, and other
primary-source material that pays homage to indigenous writers whose unique voices are usually ignored by blinkered or hidebound Western commentators.

While Geddes himself becomes an inevitable part of the story – the book records his travels, after all, and details his physical and emotional reactions to his experiences – he is also honest enough to admit his own prejudices, doubts, and faults. Geddes recognizes Africa’s role as a centrepiece of continued Western exploitation and takes pains not to portray himself as a white saviour clamouring for applause. He is also clearly invested in the lives of those he encounters: the final chapters update the stories of the figures profiled, and include suggestions on how to provide practical aid to this impoverished part of the world.

A writer who truly believes that literature has the ability to change the world for the better, Geddes has produced a work well worth reading for both its content and its call to action.