Travelling with a purpose

By Amy Reiswig, September 2011

Writer Gary Geddes’ most recent (of 40) books takes us to the heart of both justice and Africa.

A sunlit, partially glassed-in porch buzzed by rival hummingbirds looks out over the rising tide of Canoe Pass, what many call The Cut, between Thetis and Penelakut Islands. Here, political and humanist writer Gary Geddes shares stories of brutal atrocity as he discusses his most recent work Drink the Bitter Root: A Writer’s Search for Justice and Redemption in Africa (Douglas & McIntyre, September 2011). Geddes looks relaxed and peaceful against the greenery of the yard—this Thetis Island resting place he has come to after travel, in body and words, through five countries of conflict in sub-Saharan Africa. But his book reveals searing stories he will ever carry with him, even in this small slice of paradise he now calls home.

Drink the Bitter Root is Geddes’ latest work of non-fiction, in which he explores concepts of justice as played out not just in European courts but in the communities of Rwanda, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, and the Somaliland region of Somalia. This new book extends Geddes’ long career of promoting human rights and social justice through his writing. For example, No Easy Exit (poetry, 1989) deals with resisting dictatorship in Chile; Letters from Managua (non-fiction, 1990) addresses the civil war in Nicaragua; Flying Blind (poetry, 1998) reflects on Geddes’ trip to Israel after the signing of the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Accord in 1993; and Kingdom of Ten Thousand Things: An Impossible Journey from Kabul to Chiapas (non-fiction, 2005) retraces the legendary journey of a fifth-century Buddhist monk through Afghanistan, China, and ultimately Mexico—all regions where social realities have been shaped by political conflict. 

Over 40 years, he has written and edited over 40 books spanning poetry, fiction, non-fiction, drama, translation, criticism and anthologies. In addition to numerous literary awards (including the British Columbia Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence in 2008) and several honorary degrees, he has earned recognition for his humanitarian efforts. In 1996, for instance, he was awarded the Gabriela Mistral Prize for service to the Chilean people.

Geddes has dedicated himself to service to others in many ways. With a doctorate from the University of Toronto, Geddes has brought his ideas into the classroom as a professor at various institutions in the US and Canada, including UVic, and has helped bring other writers’ voices to light and life as the founding editor of two literary presses: Quadrant Editions and Cormorant Books. 

Concerned once again with countries recovering from trauma, Drink the Bitter Root is obviously not a book of breezy travel writing. Recounting his journeys and talks with both African and Western people working at NGOs, embassies, internally displaced person camps, and hospitals, Geddes also shares stories from more difficult interviews: former child soldiers, rape victims, refugees, street kids—people victimized in so many ways by conflicts with which, Geddes says, Westerners are deeply complicit. 

As a result, Geddes’ style mixes political reportage, history, travel, cultural analysis and personal memoir. Yet it’s not an overly graphic, ravaging read. Instead, it’s told with lyrical description, humility and even humour—“After four hours of non-stop camel poems we were still not over the hump.”

Geddes explains: “I didn’t want to be Cassandra and send people out looking for a razor blade.” Rather, he says, “I wanted to involve people.” And he does. He takes us to places we will likely never go to learn things we would likely never otherwise know. 

While starting at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Geddes’ real interest is in local rites of traditional justice, such as the Rwandan Gacaca courts, the Somali shir and the Mato Oput ritual of Uganda’s Acholi people. In fact the book’s title derives from the latter, which, he writes, “involved both parties drinking the bitter root of the opot tree, mixed with blood and kwet, a maize-based fermented beverage, from a common cup, or calabash, as part of the reconciliation ceremony after someone was intentionally or accidentally killed.” 

This idea of reconciliation as the basis for justice challenges Western notions of retributive justice with a more restorative approach (often through the healing arts of language)—an approach that deals with rebalancing a damaged community. Physically mutilated victims (all are emotionally disfigured) advocating for forgiveness and restoration of perpetrators to the community had Geddes surprised and humbled. The trip itself, he says, “altered what I thought my journey was about. I spent more time challenging my preconception about things than I expected,” he says reflectively. “I went thinking I knew more than I knew.” 

Therefore, he describes the book as “a personal testimony of ignorance confronted.” Part of what makes Drink the Bitter Root accessible and relatable is the fact that the ignorance Geddes confronts is not only external—of places, people and politics—but internal: about himself.  

On listening to trauma victims face-to-face he tells me, “I thought that was tough. But getting back and writing about it was even tougher—trying to figure out why I was doing it. Was I exploiting violence? The word ‘redemption’ in the title refers to me as much as to Africans.”

For even after a lifetime of engagement travelling in and writing about human rights hot spots, Geddes says: “I still don’t feel as useful as I could be.” The book certainly challenges readers to consider where to put their time and attention and how to become involved in the lives of others. And that’s something, Geddes also points out, we don’t have to go to Africa to do. 

When I ask if Geddes thinks we can change ideas about and approaches to justice here in Canada, he says: “We need to listen much more carefully to aboriginal people doing restorative justice and healing circles.” There’s a lot of similarity, he explains, between aboriginal healing circles and some African traditional justice rites. “Revenge is an old notion,” he admits, but says the victimized people he spoke with were “light years ahead of me: they understood that revenge never ends but restoration can break the cycle.” It’s an interesting thought to contemplate, particularly on Geddes’ patio in plain view of Penelakut, formerly Kuper Island, where the legacy of a residential school speaks of our own human rights abuse record with First Nations.

“Writing about any part of Africa,” Paul Bowles once said, “is a little like trying to draw a picture of a roller-coaster in motion.” Its dynamism is partly terrifying and partly exciting—two words applicable to Geddes’ important and ultimately inspiring work here. And this is a read where, also like a roller-coaster, once you get through the sometimes challenging ride, you find you want to go back for more. 


Drink the Bitter Root will be launched in Victoria at The Well, 821 Fort Street on September 12.

Amy Reiswig, writer, editor and slightly bruised optimist, is grateful for authors who continue to prove the positive power of language, its ability to build bonds across difference and effect real change.