Review: Robert Martineau’s “Waypoints: A Journey on Foot”

by Hannah Denno
Robert Martineau Waypoints

Robert Martineau – Waypoints: A Journey on Foot (Jonathan Cape 2021). Hardcover, pp 272.

Book review by Hannah Denno.

In 2013, Robert Martineau left a stifling office job and a promising career to travel to West Africa and undertake a walk of 1000 miles through Ghana, Togo, and Benin. This book recounts his journey.

His walk begins on forest tracks through southern Ghana, where he encounters the physical hardships of rainstorms, flooded paths, blisters, aching ankles, and mosquito attacks. And local people inquisitive about what he is doing there, such as two sisters, Beatrice and Blessing, who run a guesthouse and quiz him while sitting in front of a fire shelling beans and chopping vegetables for an evening meal.

Their questions remind him of his mother and others back home who struggled to understand his reasons for making this journey. Martineau returns to these questions throughout the book, trying to put his finger on how “the virus of restlessness begins to take possession,” as John Steinbeck would have it.

In part, Martineau sought to escape the banality and emptiness of his daily routine. He wanted adventure and struggle, and had a romantic notion of West Africa as a place where he could experience this. He found inspiration in Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, with its consciousness-expanding intermingling of the physical and spirit worlds. Maybe this was a land where he could learn to view life differently. 

As he travels, Martineau meets people whose understanding of daily life incorporates the otherworldly. He arrives in Kumasi, Ghana’s second largest city and the cultural capital of the Ashanti, in time for the Adae, a festival of ancestor appreciation. An officiating priest, Nana Abass, tells Martineau how, as a young child, forest spirits took him from his mother. Later, possessed by the spirits, he discovered aquifers in Kumasi, a source of fresh water for thousands of people who previously had none. In the Adae ceremony, Nana Abass dances himself into a trance.

Martineau tells us that many belief systems have a version of spirit possession or trancing, and lists several them. This is his style, to jump out of the main narrative with a flashback or a comparison, creating a tapestry of interweaving threads. At times, as in this instance, I found it frustrating to be drawn away again from the story of Martineau’s journey. I wanted to read more about Nana Abass and the ceremony in Kumasi rather than briefly touching on similar events in places that Martineau may or may not have been.

Yet, at other times, the interstitial threads work well, as in the case of his musings on the political prisoner Edith Bone and the polar scientist Richard Byrd, on how they coped with spending long periods of time alone in an unchanging landscape. Martineau can relate their experiences to his own as the pattern of his days of walking falls into a monotonous rhythm and he spends much of his time inside his own head.

There is certainly a monotony to his journey as he moves into the north of Ghana and plods along the verge of the one tarmac road through this dry and sparsely populated region, occasionally crossing paths with nomadic cattle herders. Though this is sometimes a strain, compounded by walking in extreme heat, Martineau writes persuasively on the feeling of liberation that comes from being totally consumed by a simple physical task.

“There’s a distance to go, a way to follow, however many steps and hours to cover it. There’s no room for anything more. This is a form of freedom.”

Martineau pushes himself physically, walking long distances in the heat and with little shade. On the approach to Dapaong in the north of Togo, he collapses and spends several days recovering in a hotel where he and two American missionaries are the only guests. On his way out of Dapaong, he climbs a road so steep that many trucks are failing to reach the top. Stripped lorry carcasses lie at the side of the road. At the summit, boys are climbing atop the vehicles that have made it and dousing them with water to cool them down.

In his unshowy way, Martineau’s observation of detail is evocative. Elsewhere he notes that “women peel oranges with razor blades.” And later that “children play boules with crushed cans filled with sand.” The author’s prose is spare and precise. At the Ghana/Togo border, he writes, “Plastic bags drift through the dust. Men with scooters wait. A guard chews cane.”

From Togo, Martineau crosses into Benin and heads southward back to the coast. He notes that walking creates a link with the people who trod the same paths before. For him, walking is liberating, but many of the previous amblers here were slaves, being taken to Ouidah where they would be packed tightly into cells and then ships, and transported to a life they had not chosen.

Martineau’s book is full of interesting anecdotes and musings: stories of episodes on his journey, of events from his childhood, of the history of places he is passing through, of the lives of others he has read about. All these different threads can leave the reader feeling that there are loose ends that are never tied up. In his prologue, Martineau writes how his perspective on the walk has changed in the years since he returned home. When preparing for the hike and during it, he saw it as “a solo battle against the road.” In retrospect, he realizes it was more “a long chain of people, passing me from place to place over those miles.” Yet, at the end of the book, I still found myself wanting to know more about that chain of people.

Shortly before he arrives at his final destination, Martineau walks to the pilgrimage site of Dassa-Zoumé. For the first time in his peregrination, he is walking alongside fellow pilgrims. His mind wanders to other pilgrim journeys he has heard of. He tells us that Zen and Buddhist pilgrimages are often circles rather than linear routes to a destination. The meaning is to be found in the journey, not in the goal. “There’s no end or summit,” Martineau writes, “just steps on a circuit that could go on forever.”

Though Martineau’s journey was a straight line, this seems a fitting metaphor for his telling of it. The destination, and even the location, of his trek often seem unimportant in his account. The weaving of myriad threads means you can lose the continuity of the main narrative. But it all adds up to an engaging meditation on life and walking and a fascinating glimpse into Martineau’s interior journey, before and after the walk as well as during it.

Robert Martineau – Waypoints: A Journey on Foot (Jonathan Cape 2021). Hardcover, pp 272.

Book review by Hannah Denno.

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