John Ryle

John Ryle a journalist and anthropologist, is the author of Warriors of the White Nile.

Zero Grazing

John Ryle, 5 November 1992

Seventy-four years ago a viral pandemic began in America, most likely on a pig farm in Iowa. Fifteen months later it had killed over eighteen million people, 1 per cent of the world’s population, as many as died in two world wars, almost ten times as many as have died in a decade of Aids. The virus, transmitted by airborne mucus and saliva, spread via coughs and sneezes. In San Francisco and other American cities public health officials warned against all body contact, including shaking hands; ordinances were issued forbidding citizens from appearing in public places without face masks. Possibly because of such measures there were only a few thousand deaths in San Francisco during the first year of the pandemic, but elsewhere, including Europe, the toll was much higher. In Alaska and Central Africa and Oceania entire communities were wiped out. In India, it is estimated, the virus claimed twelve million victims – 4 per cent of the population.

Kiss and tell

John Ryle, 28 June 1990

The fascination of other people’s letters and diaries lies in the fact that what seems most private in us is what we have most in common. This is also one of the discoveries of love: love letters, therefore, are over-determined in their revelatory banality. The intimacies of others may be embarrassing, but they can never be entirely uninteresting. They put us in mind of our own secret memories; we measure our experience against theirs. And if the sentiments ring true, we steal the words.

World’s End

John Ryle, 13 October 1988

European and American imperial expansion carries with it an apocalyptic strain in which the march of empire is identified with the coming of the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of the Last Days. According to this millenial view, the prospect of the Christian message finally being heard in every part of the world brings mankind near to the end of time, a moment predicted in the Book of Revelation. It comes when the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19 to the Apostles is fulfilled, when disciples have been made among all peoples. At this point there appears ‘a great multitude … from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues … crying out with a loud voice “Salvation belongs to our God” ’. These events usher in the new heaven and earth foreseen by St John where righteousness reigns and death is no more.

Chronicle of an Epidemic

John Ryle, 19 May 1988

There is no good news about Aids. With a total of 85,000 cases reported at the beginning of this year the World Health Organisation estimate of the true figure is nearer 150,000. Their global estimate for HIV infection is between five and ten million. Most HIV-positive individuals have no symptons and don’t know they are infected: but the majority of them – possibly all of them – will eventually develop Aids and die; in the meantime, of course, they may infect anyone they have sex with and any children they bear.’

Least said, soonest Mende

John Ryle, 4 December 1986

The Mende are a forest-dwelling West African people, numbering about a million, one of the two principal ethnic groups in Sierra Leone. They owe their existence to the 16th-century diaspora of the Mande-speaking inhabitants of the Mali Empire and the incorporation by these conquering bands of a number of small coastal tribes. Mende history until the colonial era is one of raiding and slave-holding, their economy is agricultural and their traditional religion the veneration of ancestors and nature divinities under the aegis of a creator god. They do not figure largely in ethnographic literature, nor in accounts of African art, though their highly polished black wooden masks are found in many collections. Radiance of the Waters, in fact, is only the second book to be written about them (the other is by Kenneth Little, an anthropologist whose The Mende of Sierra Leone first appeared in 1951).

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences