Bill Bryson’s African Diary

ISBN: 0767915062
ISBN 13: 9780767915069
By: Bill Bryson

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About this book

Bill Bryson goes to Kenya at the invitation of CARE International, the charity dedicated to working with local communities to eradicate poverty around the world. Kenya, generally regarded as the cradle of mankind, is a land of contrasts, with famous game reserves, stunning landscapes, and a vibrant cultural tradition. It also provides plenty to worry a traveller like Bill Bryson, fixated as he is on the dangers posed by snakes, insects and large predators. But on a more sober note, it is a country that shares many serious human and environmental problems with the rest of Africa: refugees, AIDS, drought and grinding poverty. Travelling around the country, Bryson casts his inimitable eye on a continent new to him, and the resultant diary, though short in length, contains the trademark Bryson stamp of wry observation and curious insight. All the author's royalties from Bill Bryson's African Diary, as well as all profits, will go to CARE International.

Reader's Thoughts

Adam Tuttle

While unbelievably short -- easily finished in a single sitting -- this book reminds me of the reason I got into Bryson in the first place: His travelogues are immeasurably interesting and charming. After reading both One Summer: America, 1927, and At Home: A Short History of Private Life, it's good to get back to what I consider the Real Bryson.It also doesn't hurt that all profits, including what would be Bryson's royalties, are donated to CARE (which rates reasonably well on CharityNavigator, too). Because of this, I'm not even mad that I accidentally bought a second copy after forgetting I bought one a while back. (Anyone want one?)In as much as you can tell a complete story in 55 pages, this book is a success. The only drawback is that I'm left wishing it was a full length classic Bryson travelogue.

Monthly Book Group

Bill Bryson’s “African Diary” was published by in 2002.It really is, just a diary. Bill describes what happened to him over an eight-day visit to Kenya, sponsored by the charity CARE international. It isn’t an analysis, it isn’t especially thoughtful, it’s merely a diary written up with entertaining and generally cheerful comments. It’s only about 11 thousand words on 56 pages. Please don’t think we are shirkers this month; the proposer of the book has added this book to the month’s reading because he thought the main book was a bit short. It was light relief after Loung Ung’s First They Killed my Father.Why do African cities have so much abject poverty, and why does Africa not develop economically like India and many of the SE Asian countries, especially when they are so blessed with natural resources? Bryson describes the slum of Kibera, the biggest slum in Nairobi. The rural poor come to the city to earn small money, but perhaps enough to afford education for their children. He tells of their poverty in a way that makes us smile rather than cry; for example the ‘flying toilet’….As with all of Bryson’s books, it’s well-written, engaging, and hard to put down. There are good photos of life in the slums and in a refugee camp, taken by Jenny Matthews. The revenue goes to CARE international, so we didn’t begrudge our £9.99 for this little book….This is an extract from a review at Our reviews are also to be found at


I read some disappointing reviews of this book less than five minutes ago -- when I was entering this title into my "Read" shelf -- but I'll stick to the five stars I had in mind when I finished it.Firstly, I agree with comments that the title "African Diary" is misleading -- Bryson went to Kenya for a week, that's all. One country is NOT a whole continent. That said, it was an entertaining AND educational read nevertheless, however short it is. No this book does not suffer from a lack of Bryson's trademark wit and humor. It's still there, except the writing is darker due to the serious nature of the trip. Yes his description of some of the places he visited may be dispiriting and dreary, but what would you expect from a social work visit to a slum? This trip with CARE workers was obviously no holiday-in-the-sun jaunt. Still, Bryson described the Kenyan landscape in such a way that made me wished I were there.Also, I liked how Bryson summarized some socioeconomic issues faced by Kenyans (and likely many other African countries) and seamlessly inserted the explanations into his daily experiences without talking down to the reader. I read the Kindle edition of this book but would totally buy a paperback copy if I come across it in the bookstores. 1) Because the profit goes to CARE, 2) I felt the pages of information about the work CARE is doing in Africa are useful, 3) the chapters about paleoanthropology and Great Rift Valley are right up my alley! (I work with archaeology publications)


Bryson is in fine form here, but the book is only around 60 pages long. That is a pity, because the material is the stuff he really excels at: telling the stories of the people he meets on his travels with wit and warmth.


Read this book just after booking a safari to Kenya. A very quick Journal type entry, not at all similar to the author's other books. A few funny moments, but at the same time Bill provided some key information about Kenya for those of us who only go to see the animals.

Glenn Cheney

I'm sorry to say Bryson didn't put much effort into this book. It had so much potential and so much of importance that could be said. His brief descriptions of Kenyan poverty, a refugee camp and a Nairobi slum don't do justice to the situations and all they mean. He slips in some of his trademark funnies based on fears of this and that, but there's something oddly insulting, or even offensive, about devoting more words to a ride in a small plane than to a refugee camp of 136,000 people in the middle of a desert. The book is worth the $12 (for the slender hardcover I bought) only because the money goes to CARE. I do acknowledge and respect his donation of time and talent and the risks he took to research the book, but I really don't see how he could write so little about so much. What's wrong with this book isn't what on its pages but what isn't. I bought this book because I wanted to see how a good writer could turn an 8-day trip in Africa into a book. He did it by writing a very, very short book. People of CARE: If you send me to Africa or anywhere else for a reasonable length of time, I'll be glad to write you a solid book that does justice to the horrors you deal with.

Madhulika Liddle

There are a handful of writers whose books I will buy without hesitation, secure in the knowledge that my money will be well-spent. Bill Bryson is one of these: each of his books is a joy to read, chock full of painstakingly researched material, presented in the author's inimitably chatty, humorous and irresistible style. I've read all his travel books (and some of his non-travel related books), so when I finally came across African Diary - which I'd heard about, never seen in a bookshop - I pounced on it.Bill Bryson's African Diary is aptly titled: it's a short (very short - even less than a hundred pages) diary of an eight-day trip to Kenya. International aid organisation CARE invited Bryson on this trip, escorted by their own staff members, to see the work they were doing in Kenya. The diary is an account of how Bryson spent a whirlwind week in Nairobi and other parts of the country - both urban and rural, seeing for himself the problems as well as the triumphs of CARE, and the people themselves. This is a quick read, not merely because it's a slim book, but also because Bryson tells his story so well, making this a mix of so many things. There are heartrending and horrifying descriptions of living conditions in the largest slum in Kenya - possibly in Africa - where there are 10 latrines for 40,000 people. There are stories, both far-fetched 'traveller's tales' and all too real ones of everything from dire poverty to crime to shocking corruption (at the time African Diary was written, Kenya was the 6th most corrupt country in the world, with $10 billion disappearing annually from public funds). Bryson writes about all of these - and also of hope, of innovations and developments that help local people stand on their own feet, and better their lot without being dependent on others. He talks about the lives of real people: of a farmer who's been pulled back from the brink, a woman entrepreneur, villagers whose lives were turned around because a well was dug.And, Bryson being the travel writer he is, there are always the brief interludes describing trips - by road, by air (a harrowing flight in a small aircraft, for example), all peppered with Bryson's superb sense of humour.I wouldn't call this Bryson's best book; it's far too short for that. By the time I really got my teeth into it and had settled in, it was over. It is, however, very readable and informative. And it's for a good cause - all proceeds from the sales of Bill Bryson's African Diary go to CARE, and towards helping those in need of that aid.

Rob Charpentier

Unfortunately, I must confess that I’m not that fond of this particular book. Not that there is necessarily anything wrong with it, other than in my opinion being way too short that it becomes criminal to my sensibilities as to what this book could have been. For, I definitely think that the subject of a visit to Africa is worthy of far greater exploration and depth by this author and this is in essence really nothing more than magazine length article. Consequently, I can’t rate this book too highly as this falls somewhere more in the classification of marginalia rather than actually being considered as a full book. However, the reason for this brevity is understandable as well as made abundantly clear by the description of the book on the inside dust jacket as well as the statement printed on the back that states, “All royalties and profits from this book will be donated to CARE International.” So, complaining too loudly about the author’s philanthropy is somewhat bad form and is not my intent at all.Regardless, just like anything published by this author it does not fail to entertain or inform the reader and I would not discourage anyone from seeking this out. If anything, this book goes to show just how much stock is placed in Bryson as an esteemed brand name and that the man is not adverse to lend a helping hand by using this reputation to good use. There are worse ways to capitalize on ones name and I cannot find fault with him on this point.

Lisa Cole

Bryson maintains his wit in this very short volume he wrote in support of CARE International--an organization dedicated to educating the world about world poverty. Bryson not only tells us about a few ways in which CARE has benefited Nairobi Kenya and other African regions, he also displays an interest in archeology--supposedly, there are many fascinating archeological sites in Kenya--its treasures not found anywhere else. One of the elements I appreciated about this book was that Bryson did not come across as overly preachy. However, I felt a newfound appreciation for my American prosperity. Bryson makes it evident, however, that the poverty of Kenya is dire. But CARE International has done some wonderful things to counterbalance Kenya's poverty--person by person, and project by project. For example, CARE helped set up water management systems and wells to make it easier for the Kenyan people to obtain water; CARE set up a bank called Wedco, which makes small loans to groups of merchant women, and CARE helped to educate the region on more efficient farming techniques for the Kenyan region which is plagued with drought.

Debbie Evancic

Bill Bryson, a great travel writer, went to Africa and wrote about things he saw there so he could donate the proceeds of this book to CARE. That in itself would make the purchase of the book worthwhile. However, because it was Bill writing the book, it was both enlightening and entertaining to read. Bill wrote about Kibera, the biggest slum in Nairobi where at least 50,000 children have AIDS, where the average shanty is 10 feet by 10 feet and houses 5-6 people with no running water, no rubbish collection, no electricity, or flush toilets. Bill always entertains us by telling us about things such as "flying toilets", which is a plastic beg thrown out at night, to get rid of the human waste.Bill also tells us of his experience in a small charter plane during a thunderstorm, where the pilot could barely see the runway.Although there are shortages everywhere in these communities, Bill shows the people struggling to survive and shows how CARE and other organizations can help. He encourages us to visit the website at

David Bales

Bill Bryson went to Kenya to write about Somali refugees in the remote south of the country. Along the way he strolls through Kibera, the largest slum in Africa, (in Nairobi) visits some old white colonials and goes on safari. His usual good writing, but I read this book, literally, in a half hour. I wish he could REALLY go to Africa and write a REAL book. He did this one to benefit CARE, the relief agency. It has about 60 pages.


I love Bill Bryson. I would like to meet him for breakfast at a dinner or working man's cafe and just sit and listen to his ramblings on life. I am sure I would choke on my tea with laughter. There is no one whose writing can make me laugh so hard as Mr. Bryson, and yet without being a sap, or making me feel like I am being manipulated, he can turn on the pathos and touch your heart, which he does so beautifully in this book. It's short - about 50 pages - and narrates the trip he took, over 8 days, to visit Africa as an ambassador for CARE. As you might expect if you have read Bryson's travelogues, he lays out his experiences that will make you laugh out loud - his concern for his personal safety being a key theme (which recalled his trip to Australia when he counts all the ways you could die whilst visiting the vast continent!) But his humanity in the face of crippling poverty and hopelessness is touching and genuine, particularly as he notes his concern for children who are being raised with no future in one of the largest refugee camps in Kenya. By buying the book, small as it is, you are donating 90% of the receipt to CARE, which is a good thing. By reading the book, you will be entertained and touched and you might even be motivated to do something personally to help solve the problem of Africa. In any case, it will all be worth while! It's delightful.


I'm torn on this one, which I almost rated a 4. The book is only 49 pages, written to support CARE International. The author and publishers donated their time and proceeds to support the organization. Bryson toured Kenya with CARE employees and wrote about his experiences. Bryson's typical humor is still present but subdued in comparison to his best work. For one thing, he admires and cares for his companions. Additionally, he is more respectful of the struggles of the natives. Only Bryson himself and the corrupted government are free game for scorn. There are fewer adventures to describe than in a 400 page book, but the excitement of not dying lives on.Bill Bryson's African Diary does exactly what it's supposed to do. It shows the rich wonders of Kenya and sheds light on what CARE International does to fill in the gaps left by corrupt governance. I want to get off the couch and help beyond the donation I made by purchasing the book. I just wish there was more here, whether more about Kenya or the inclusion of other African countries.


Being intimately familiar with both Bill Bryson's flavorful, if quirky, travel writing and Africa, I was really looking forward to this read. Although Bryson includes his usual wit and knack for laugh-out-loud observation, I do have to admit at being slightly disappointed at the brevity of this 49 page documentation and the lackluster tone which accompanies it. Written as a fund-raising effort for CARE INTERNATIONAL (at whose invitation his visit to Kenya was based) I still expected more from the robust little man who never says no to 'adventure' and never lets 3rd degree sunburn, giant foot blisters, howling gales or rainy downpours to get in the way of a jolly good day of 'sight-seeing'. What a pity as Kenya is a beautiful and diverse country with fabulous adventure to offer any eager traveler or perceptive travel writer.


Unlike most people, I guess, I had no idea that this book was little more than a 49-page pamphlet for CARE, a group doing international aid work, including work with refugees and the poor in Kenya (the focus of this book/pamphlet). I placed the thing on hold sight unseen with my library, and only when I stopped by to check it out did I find a volume rather slimmer than I had expected.Well, I'm a big Bill Bryson fan, so I hoped that it would at least be just under 50 pages of typical Bryson fun. Alas, even in that I was disappointed. He certainly has his moments here, but more than anything this is about CARE and it lacks the humor and insight and depth of narration that I would expect.It's not like this couldn't have been longer. Bryson was in Kenya for 8 days, and he hints at a busy schedule over this time that certainly could have filled up a bit more written space. But all we get as readers is a fleeting glimpse of things. The most in-depth description of an experience has little to do with Kenya: instead it describes the harrowing landing of a small charter plane they took for one piece of the trip.The brief glimpses of Bryson's signature style bumped this into a two-star affair. But I am rating this as a book, and not as a promotional pamphlet, and for that reason I can't give it any more stars than that. There's just not enough there.

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