Out of Africa with Ruth Harris

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Yeah, I’m still here, contrary to appearances.

I said in my last post I thought the worst of the internet issues here in West Africa were over and I had high hopes of getting back to some semi-regular blogging. That was in January…

The thing is, life in any “third world” country is a constant triumph of hope over experience. In a desperately poor country like The Gambia hope is often all people have as they go about the daily grind of subsistence living, where soup kitchens and state hand-outs and homeless shelters are unknown.

Which is a constant reminder to me of how lucky I am here. I eat at least once every day, have a tap in the yard, semi-reliable electric and internet, and no heating bills. I have my dream job as a writer, have fulfilled my childhood dream of living in a mud hut in Africa, and am daily reminded, by the company of some of the poorest but happiest children on the planet, what really matters in life.

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Okay, so my workstation might not be everyone’s idea of comfort, but a rusting iron door propped up on a plastic oil drum and the remains of a table does the job. The mosquito swatter doubles as a fan and the lamp does a fine job when the frequent pwercuts plunge us into darkness each evening. Seriously, what more does one need to be a writer?

And life here appears to have just got better, with the final upgrades and repairs to the new ACE (African Coast-Europe) subterranean internet cable, which means (hopefully) some internet stability at last.

To celebrate, I’m back with the second MWi post of the year, and with a guest who doesn’t know she’s here yet, but I’m sure won’t mind my blatant act of piracy in stealing her own blog post from yesterday (which I just read an hour ago) and presenting it here in full.

Ruth Harris is an internationally-acclaimed million-selling author who lives in New York — a lifestyle about as far removed from the reality of Africa as you can get. Yet she wrote a book set here on the dark continent (and kindle gifted a copy to e when it was released – thanks, Ruth!). The novel is called Zuri.

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I meant to have reviewed it here way back, but the realities of life got in the way, as usual. Then I saw Ruth’s latest post on her blog, about how she came to write Zuri, and just knew I had to repost it here.

Normally I’d email and ask permission first, but we’re in different time zones and chances are by the time Ruth got the message and responded I’d have lost my net connection again, and then something else would crop up to distract me. So I’m going to risk a New York law suit and paste now, ask later

Romance and an accidental collision.

Romance as a category has shown its strength over the decades as it evolved from the early days of the nurse romance—pretty nurse Patricia wins handsome Dr. Phillips—through the “bodice rippers” of the Eighties to the many sub-genres that exist today including, of course, the steamy erotic romances descending from 50 Shades.

No matter the sub-genre, there always seems to be room for further expansion and an eager audience willing to follow writers wherever our imaginations take us. To pirates and pirate ships, to the Middle Ages, Regency England, and the settling of the American West. Wherever there are people, people can—and will—fall in love.  We want to write about them and readers love to read about them.

ZURI—the word means “beautiful” in Swahili—is a romance with an unusual setting: an animal orphanage named Kihali located in Africa. The initial idea for the book was the product of an accidental collision.

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Out Of Africa, set in Kenya in the early 1920’s and starring Meryl Streep as the Danish writer Isaak Dinesen, and the young, golden Robert Redford as a white hunter, is a grand romance—and one of my favorite movies. I watch it every now and then and had just seen it again when, while casually flipping thru TV channels one evening, I happened to see a clip of a baby rhino. I was blown away by the little rhino’s appeal and gracefulness.

Baby animals never fail but a rhino? Could a baby rhino actually be adorable? Yes, indeed. Very much so.

I was also aware via newspaper and internet articles that poaching had become an extremely lucrative international crime. The slaughter of rhinos and elephants was decimating the wildlife populations of Africa to the point where they are now endangered species. Between the glamor of Africa, the vulnerability and appeal of helpless animals and the sweeping Streep-Redford romance, the germ for the book was firmly planted.

The need for research was obvious. I had to find out about the people involved in the dangerous work of animal rescue and protection, the newest scientific discoveries in animal communication as more and more is learned about their high intelligence, the gory reality of poaching and the ruthless criminal gangs who profit from its bloody endeavors.

Then there were the details of rhino husbandry and veterinary, the amazing work being done by African animal orphanages, the risks involved in wildlife care, the details of rhino and elephant behavior—Zuri, the orphaned baby rhino who is the story’s heroine, meets elephant and other animal friends at Kihali. I also needed to find out about the local language, Swahili, Kenyan cuisine & wedding rituals—and I needed to use my research in a way that fit in naturally with the narrative flow of the book.

The research was fascinating. Did you know that the illicit trade in wild animals is third only to the illegal trades in drugs & weapons? Or that rhino horn—it’s actually keratin, the same material found in feathers and nails—is thought to cure cancer, maintain sexual vigor and is considered a miracle medicine in Asia, although it is, in fact, of zero medical value? The price of rhino horn, driven by demand in booming Asian economies, is now more expensive than gold as is the ivory from elephant tusks, used not for “medicinal” purposes but to make carved trinkets.

Of course, in a romance, a love story is crucial. Therefore: Renny Kudrow, the sexy scientist and expert in animal communication, who is the moody Alpha hero. Renny is the Director of Kihali and Starlite Higgins is his newly-hired vet, a talented doctor who hides a horrifying secret. Their relationship gets off to a rocky start when Starlite panics and almost causes Zuri’s rescue to fail. The two who must work together to save Zuri and the other animals in their care must also work their way through their initial very rough beginning to a much-deserved Happily Ever After ending.

By the time I finished writing ZURI, I thought of the book as romance in its broadest sense, meaning love of beauty, love of nature, love of animals, and, of course, the romantic and transformative power of human love.

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Thanks in advance for letting me post that here, Ruth. It’s a great book and one I’d recommend to all. I especially love that cover!

Ruth’s blog is here. Ruth also posts regularly over at Anne R. Allen’s blog here.

In my part of Africa rhinos and elephants and the like are in short supply (we have some great hippos and crocs, though). There are wildlife parks here, and a “proper” safari park in neighbouring Senegal, but regular readers will know it’s the children of Africa that are why I’m here.

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More on my young friends in future posts.

But here to end with something Ruth mentioned above: the illicit trade in wild animals is third only to the illegal trades in drugs & weapons. And just like with drugs and weapons, the trade in ivory and other animal parts (sharks’ fins, tigers’ testicle, seal fur, etc) impacts on human lives as well as the animals that are brutally and needlessly slaughtered.

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Before.

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After.

Whether it’s the suffering of innocent doe-eyed animals, or innocent bright-eyed children, that upsets you, remember there’s aways something you can do to help.

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  1. Great post, and it’s nice to see you back, Mark! Although I disagree about usually asking permission first … a particular post about Sherlock would beg to differ 😉

  2. Mark, you live! SO glad to see you!

    Not so happy to see the news here – it never fails to frustrate me how such a needless practice is continued. Have they not yet worked out that the horns are useless? Ugh. Makes me angry.

  3. Missed your good sense, exotic tidbits and wisdom. Hooray! Mark is back!

    • annerallen
    • April 5th, 2013

    So glad to see you’ve been allowed back online and into your blog! I’m sure Ruth will welcome more publicity for her wonderful novel.

    I had a desk very like yours when I lived in a warehouse on the banks of the River Trent in darkest Lincolnshire 🙂

    What a heartbreaking photo of that rhino. So tragic that it’s all done for a pointless superstition.

  4. What a lovely blog! Takes me back to the land I love – and that romantic film, Out of Africa.

  5. Hi Mark! I’m excited to be reading your blog again. That photo of the rhino is just heartbreaking. I’ve read Ruth’s post already on her blog, and I am dying to visit Africa! It’s the one place I haven’t been that I’ve always wanted to go.

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