Paul Theroux, The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013, $27.00, 353 pp.
The last time AR readers met Paul Theroux he was traveling south across the eastern part of African continent from Cairo to Cape Town. His journey was by land, sometimes by boat, never by plane. He told the story in Dark Star Safari. Since then, he has traveled across Asia and Russia, a journey he recounted in Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (2008). For his latest, and probably his last long journey, he decided to see the other half of Africa. He would start in Cape Town and travel north along the Atlantic side of Africa all the way to the Sahara Desert. As in all his previous journeys, he would travel alone.
In South Africa, Mr. Theroux spent his evenings in the green and comfortable Cape, with its northern Mediterranean climate, and his days touring the nearby black townships in the hot interior. While he found some black middle-class enclaves—well-kept houses and new schools—he found them surrounded by squatter camps stretching seemingly forever and constantly growing:
There was no end to this township: the hostels led to the shacks, the shacks to the hovels, the hovels to the roadside and the bungalows, and beyond the bungalows and shebeens were the newcomers in the twig and plastic lean-tos, straggling across the flatland.”
By “bungalow” he does not mean a cozy cottage, but a concrete rectangle. A “shebeen” is a primitive outdoor drinking place with a piece of plywood for a roof, cinder blocks for a wall, and empty barrels for a bar.
One day he had his driver take him to the grave of the American anti-Apartheid activist and social worker Amy Biehl, who was murdered there in 1993. Miss Biehl, who was only 26 years old, had driven a couple of black friends back to their home in the township, when she was spotted by young blacks, who dragged her from her car and beat her to death, despite the pleas of her friends. Mr. Theroux found that the monument has the following inscription:
26 April 1967–25 August 1993
Killed In An Act Of Political Violence
Mr. Theroux is outraged. “What is ‘an act of political violence’?” he asks his driver, whom Mr. Theroux knows only be his first name, Phaks.
“Those boys, they had a philosophy.”
“What was it?”
“Africa for Africans.”
“That’s not a philosophy. That’s racism.”
“But they were political.”
“No, they killed her because she was white.”
“They thought she was a settler.”
Phaks had previously told him that one of the slogans of the anti-apartheid movement had been “One settler, one bullet.”
Mr. Theroux, who is no apologist for apartheid or defender of white minority rule, explains that anti-white violence has continued since the black majority took power. He notes that since 1994, “more than 3,000 white farmers have been murdered by black assassins.” The killing is encouraged by a popular black demagogue named Julius Malema, whom Mr. Theroux describes as “wealthy, dangerous, and vindictive.” His signature song is “Shoot the Boer.” Mr. Theroux calls it “perfect for a black South African politician on the make—tuneful, with few words, easy to remember, anti-white, and an incitement to murder.”
Mr. Theroux writes that other black South African politicians do not approve of Mr. Malema’s racial rhetoric, and that in 2012 they expelled him from the African National Congress (ANC). They are also afraid of him, for Mr. Malema remains popular among the impoverished masses, and it is entirely possible he could rise to be leader of the country.
Most of Mr. Malema’s supporters are young men without jobs. Mr. Theroux describes them:
These disaffected people were the township toughs who stoned trains, hijacked cars, and terrorized neighborhoods with brazen robberies that sent crime statistics soaring. With an annual homicide rate of 32,000, and rapes amounting to 70,000, South Africa led the world in 2011 in reported rapes and murders.
As a result of this reign of terror, “every substantial dwelling was surrounded by walls, every house a fortress.” That is how people live today on the otherwise idyllic Cape.
Mr. Theroux visited Namibia, a country that used to be known as South West Africa, and was a German colony, Deutsch-Sudwestafrika, before The Great War. After that it was ruled by South Africa under a League of Nations mandate, but became independent in the early 1990s. Namibia is a large desert country “twice the size of California” with “only two million people.” The “people came in every shade from white to black,” with many Chinese, Afrikaners, and Germans. Forty thousand Germans live there all year around, and thousands more spend winter there. Mr. Theroux writes that the best part of Namibia, including the capital city of Windhoek and the pretty coastal village of Swakopmund, is clean, well-built, orderly, and safe: like Arizona, but with fewer people and lots of Germans.
Yet even here, there are nearby black townships and squatter camps, brimming with newcomers from destitute villages. Here Mr. Theroux finds the same shacks and shebeens as in South Africa, hears the same rap and hip-hop gangster music blasting from car radios and shacks, and sees Africans wearing the same discarded Western clothes and American baseball caps. Mr. Theroux sees rap as “the howl of the underclass, the music of menace, of hostility, of aggression.”
The Germans are under no illusions that their part of Angola will remain an oasis forever. “I keep my passport,” one German tells him. “They do the same,” he adds, referring to his countrymen. They know they may have to flee one day.
Continuing north into the blazing tropical sun, Mr. Theroux finds fewer whites, mainly isolated cattle ranchers and shopkeepers in small towns. Three thousand Germans and Afrikaners live behind high walls in the desert hamlet of Otjiwarongo, and just a few hundred live in Grootfontein. He meets a widowed and melancholy Afrikaner woman there with “pale grey eyes,” working at a grocery store. He seems to wonder—as do I—what is she doing there?
Africa can be a lonely place for whites:
There had been trekkers from South Africa in this area for a century or more, and in the most remote pans and valleys of Namibia the graves of Boer trekkers bake in the sun. I was to see one cluster of seven tombstones in Etosha, northern Namibia, near an elephant wallow in the middle of nowhere, and another in Humpata, in south-central Angola.
These Boers were part of the Dorsland Trek (“Thirstland Trek”) of the 1870s. It is a deeply melancholic thought: Northern Europeans dying so far from their ancestral homeland, on an alien continent, in the midst of an unforgiving desert.
Crossing into his third country, the former Portuguese colony of Angola, Theroux is berated by border officials and followed my menacing young men. Once across the border, he finds a desolate landscape: stumps of trees, burnt-out tanks, and no wildlife other than birds, because a 30-year civil war killed all the game. Still, “even on the worst day in the African bush, the sky and the space offer relief.” Not so in the nightmarish cities: “Another city, another horror, more chaos—glary light, people crowding the roads, the stinking dust and diesel fumes, the children fighting, the women heavily laden, and no relief in sight.”
In a small Angolan town, he was accosted by young loiterers. “You!” one of them yells. Mr. Theroux asks them what they want. “Where do you come from?” He tells them the USA. “I want to go to America,” the boy says. “What will you do there?” Mr. Theroux asks. “I can do anything.” Another boy joins in: “And me, I want to go. For work and for enjoying.” Mr. Theroux says that they can work in their own country, in the town or the capital city. “There is no work here. There is nothing here.” Then another boy says “Give us money.” Mr. Theroux notices that the group is beginning to surround him and says “maybe tomorrow.” The first boy says to his friends: “He is a clever man. He is telling us lies. He is lying because he is fearing us.” Mr. Theroux now realizes “it had been a mistake to engage them in any sort of talk.” He ends with, “See you tomorrow,” and walks away very quickly.
Not all African young people are like that. He meets many who call him “sir” and are respectful, but they are in school and usually wearing uniforms.
Angola’s problem, Mr. Theroux decides, is not a lack of money or development aid, but too much of both. The government is a “thieving tyranny” that keeps virtually all the money it earns from foreign oil and mining companies. The difference between it and other African kleptocracies is only one of degree. In Africa, “only foreigners seem to care about the welfare of Africans.” He means whites, since the only other non-whites are the Chinese, and they are there only to make money. They care nothing about and do nothing for the black population—no Western sentimentality for them. It’s the same with the Western corporations looting the place of its natural wealth. The foreign aid workers and development specialists think they care, but Mr. Theroux considers them self-absorbed fools, whose officious meddling only makes things worse, and further entrenches tyranny.
Angola has great potential. The country is rich in natural resources, especially oil, diamonds, and gold. It also has the “hilly, cool, and fertile” Planalto, or high plains, much of it over a mile above sea level. Yet, there is little or no farming. Village people are moving to the cities. Those with any education, Mr. Theroux finds, want to leave for the United States. There seems to be little hope for a continent whose best-educated people all want to flee.
Mr. Theroux does find one Angolan who is optimistic about the country and wants to stay: a white man of Portuguese descent named Rui da Camara e Sousa. His grandfather was governor of the colony early in the last century. Mr. Sousa is a developer who is profiting from the building boom in Luanda, the capital. Mr. Theroux finds his optimism hard to fathom. Even with the new construction, “everything looked crooked or improvisational, with a vibration of doomsday looming.” The slums were a horror, and “the government was corrupt, predatory, tyrannical, unjust, and utterly uninterested in its people.”
Mr. Sousa lived on the salubrious Restinga peninsula, near the coastal city of Lobito. I use the past tense because a few months after Theroux visited him, Mr. Sousa was murdered by intruders who stole “a computer, a television, and a mobile phone.”
Mr. Theroux is an intrepid and resourceful traveler, who has completed, or nearly completed, all of his previous trips. Not this time. As he approached the northern border of Angola, formed by the Congo River, Mr. Theroux finally decided to abort his journey. First, his credit card had stopped working, and he was running out of cash. He learned later that someone had printed his name and credit card number on a duplicate card, and had run up $48,000 in charges.
Second, he realized that he would see only a variation on what he had already seen: a nightmare world of poisoned and ruined landscapes; impoverished, starving villages; and “cities that were indistinguishable from one another in their squalor and decrepitude.” Traveling any further, “meant traveling into madness.”
Third, he decided that he had pushed his luck far enough. As a 70-year-old white man alone in Africa, he was a natural target for thieves and hustlers. There was simply no reason to tempt fate by going on.
He also kept remembering the words of another white Angolan. As they contemplated the reeking, swarming slums of Luanda, this man said, “This is what the world will look like when it ends.” With that doomsday vision seeming all too real, Mr. Theroux decided to head home.
I, too, conclude that the age of white wandering is over. I believe it is high time we return to our homelands and prepare to defend them.