Chilson, Peter*: Riding the Demon: On the Road in West Africa (1999)
* RPCV Niger (1985-1987)
Our discussion took place: July 2010. Participating in our discussion was CRPCA’s Peter Chilson, the book’s author.
Review: © Publishers Weekly: In this vivid exploration of road culture in the West African nation of Niger, Chilson describes a crucial aspect of African culture as a whole: the bush taxi, or “taxi brousse.” A year spent taking journeys in this most common form of transportation in Africa leads Chilson further inside modern Africa than an earnest anthropologist would get, not least because of the danger involved. The people of West Africa abhor an empty Peugeot 504. The rickety old station wagons with balding tires, no windows and engines held together by a wing and a prayer gather at chaotic motor parks where they wait until at least 10 passengers are crammed aboard before taking off. These bush taxis are the great social leveler, since people from all walks of life use them. Auto accidents, horrendous and frequent, are a leading cause of death in Africa. Stationed along all routes are “checkpoints” manned by aggressive soldiers who expect bribes, the cost of which is factored in to the passengers’ fare. Little wonder that a fatalistic belief in the “demons” of the road dominates the drivers’ set of beliefs that also draws in the author, whose own fear is assuaged by amulets and, on occasion, numb withdrawal. There is an unrelenting quality to the excellent descriptive writing, appropriate perhaps because of the unrelenting life, but readers will hunger for more humor and better characterizations of the people the author met. Riding the Demon received the Associated Writing Programs award for creative nonfiction.