Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town, by Paul Theroux, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003, 472 pp.; $28
Most whites know modern Africa, if they know it all, either through television nature programs, or through luxury vacations at exclusive game lodges. The tourists play at going on safari and dining on marinated gazelle, washed down with a South African Cabernet. It’s all very comfortable, and the sunsets are beautiful, but it is hardly the real Africa. For a brutally honest depiction of the 95 percent that is dangerous and dirty and decrepit–though often still beautiful–we turn to Dark Star Safari, a chronicle of a journey through the heart of a continent of failure.
Three years ago, Paul Theroux, who is known for his brilliant travel writings, traveled overland from Cairo to Cape Town. For months, he rode on buses that reeked of body odor, rumbled across axle-breaking roads in the back of a truck through bandit-filled deserts, slept on filthy mattresses in insect-infested hotel rooms, warded off packs of beggars and thieves, turned down prostitutes and meals of rancid goat meat, sweated under a scorching and merciless sun, and met hard-working Africans who had long-since despaired of their continent and whose only hope was to emigrate.
Mr. Theroux had worked as a Peace Corps teacher in Malawi from 1963-64, and as an instructor at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, from 1965-68. These were the years immediately after independence, when hopes were high, and the colonial patterns of life had not yet succumbed to African leadership. He knew that “all news out of Africa is bad,” but this only made him want to see for himself. Moreover, he wanted again to taste and feel Africa. This is what he found:
“Africa is materially more decrepit than it was when I first knew it–hungrier, poorer, less educated, more pessimistic, more corrupt, and you can’t tell the politicians from the witch doctors. Africans, less esteemed than ever, seemed to me the most lied to people on earth–manipulated by their governments, burned by foreign experts, befooled by charities, and cheated at every turn. To be an African leader was to be a thief, but evangelists stole people’s innocence, and self-serving aid agencies gave them false hope, which seemed worse. In reply, Africans dragged their feet or tried to emigrate, they begged, they pleaded, and they demanded money and gifts with a rude, weird sense of entitlement.”
Mr. Theroux does not expect things to improve. Often the only things that seemed to work were left over from European colonists. The ferry he took across Lake Victoria was built by the British in 1962; its original engines, boilers, and generators were still running.
According to Mr. Theroux, the worst part of Africa is the cities. “Whenever I arrived in an African city, I wanted to leave.” “Urban life is nasty all over the world, but it is nastiest in Africa.” “None of the African cities I had so far seen, from Cairo southward, seemed fit for human habitation.” “African cities became more awful–more desperate and dangerous as they grew larger.” “Even at their best, African cities seemed to me miserable improvised anthills, attracting the poor and the desperate from the bush and turning them into thieves and devisers of cruel scams.”
“In Egypt, every wall attracts dumpers, litterers, shitters and pissers, dogs and cats, and the noisiest children.” “The heat in Khartoum, with its sky specks of rotating hawks, left me gasping.” Khartoum was so dangerous that the American counsel general did not even live there, but flew in from Cairo during the week. Addis Ababa was “dirty and falling apart, stinking horribly of unwashed people and sick animals, every wall reeking with urine, every alley blocked with garbage,” the streets “full of loud music, car horns, diesel fumes, and pestering urchins.” Hyenas stalked the streets of Harar, Ethiopia, at night, and people howled at foreigners. Djibouti’s “oppressive heat was not relieved by the scorching breezes off the Gulf of Aden, nor was there any terrain except the landfill look of reclaimed swamp.”
“Nairobi was huge and dangerous and ugly.” There was a palpable sense of “desperation” which was “not the dark side, or a patch of urban blight, but the mood of the place itself.” He did not go out at night, for even “the wariest people were robbed.” Three FBI agents investigating the 1998 embassy bombing were robbed of their wallets and pistols and then mocked and jeered by a large crowd. Even the wild birds stole from people. Kampala was an improvement by comparison but decrepit and in decline. While there, he visited Makerere University, where he had taught, and found it a ruin–the buildings falling apart, the trees cut down, the library an empty shell.
“Mozambique,” he writes, “was not a country in decline–this part of it, anyway, could not fall any further.” Of its capital city, “It was hard to imagine how much worse a place had to be for a broken-down city like Maputo to seem like an improvement.” Even once prosperous and orderly Johannesburg was crime-ridden and increasingly ringed with teeming and angry slums. “That’s what happened in Africa: things fell apart.”
Mr. Theroux tells story after story that demonstrate the hopeless passivity of so many Africans. In the “sun-baked emptiness” of the Wagago Plains in Tanzania, he spotted a single mango tree “of modest size but leafy with dense boughs. There was a circle of shade beneath it. Within that shade were thirty people, pressed against one another to keep in the shade, watched by a miserable goat tethered in the sunshine.” He wondered why “no one in this hot, exposed place had thought to plant more mango trees for the shade they offered. It was simple enough to plant a tree.”
Mr. Theroux rode with a cattle truck on the desert road linking Ethiopia and Kenya. He described the road as “spectacularly bad,” full of “wheel-swallowing potholes,” deep ruts, and enormous razor-sharp boulders. One of the tires ripped open. “That was to be expected here–by me, anyway,” he writes. “Apparently not by Mustafa and the others, for they had no spare. They shook out junk from a burlap sack . . . and began amateurishly to whack the wheel, as though they had never been in this fix before.” Mr. Theroux sums up the situation: “This is not good–a breakdown in the desert where no one cares whether I live or die. I am stranded among the most incompetent and unresourceful mechanics I have ever seen.” Luckily, another cattle truck rumbled by and Mr. Theroux was able to catch a ride.
In Zimbabwe, he visited a farm run by a charming hard-working white family $22 million in debt and assailed by squatters. He spoke to one of the latter, who was from neighboring Zambia. He was furious because the government had not helped him. He needed seed, fertilizer, and a tractor. He now expected the owner of the farm to give him supplies and plow his fields. “Having invaded the land and staked his claim and put up four big huts, he now wanted free seed, free fertilizer, and the fields plowed at his bidding, his victim working the tractor. It was like a thief who, having stolen a coat, insisted that his victim have the coat dry-cleaned and tailored to fit.” When Mr. Theroux asked him what he would do if people came and squatted on his land, he exploded in rage. He would drive them off.
While in Malawi, Mr. Theroux visited his old school, hoping it had been modernized and improved. “The school was almost unrecognizable,” he writes. “What had been a group of school buildings in a large grove of trees was a compound of battered buildings in a muddy open field. The trees had been cut down and the grass was chest high. At first glance the place was so poorly maintained as to seem abandoned: broken windows, doors ajar, mildewed walls, gashes in the roofs, and only a few people standing around, empty-handed, doing nothing but gaping at me.” It seemed as if the failure of post-colonial Africa was all here, as if deliberately staged.
Also in Malawi, he visited the old Zomba Gymkhana Club, which had once been the social center for resident Europeans, mainly British. In the early ’60s, Mr. Theroux had heard members complain that if Africans were let in, they would ruin the club: They would get drunk, tear up the billiard table, women would nurse babies in the game room. At the time, Mr. Theroux considered such thoughts “rude and racist,” yet seeing the club today he realized they were “fairly prescient, for the rowdy teenagers at the billiard table were stabbing their cues at the torn felt, the bar was full of drunks, and a woman was breast feeding her baby under the dart board.” Many writers would have left out this story, as it vindicates “racist” predictions, but Mr. Theroux is too truthful and thorough a writer for that.
He asked a Malawian official to explain why the government had chased the Indian shopkeepers out of the country in the 1970s. The official explained that the Africans deserved a chance to run the shops, so they took them over; but soon the stores all failed. Twenty-seven years later, the town still had no shops. When Mr. Theroux pointed out that expropriation had backfired, another African interrupted and began mocking the way the Indians did business: “They sit there, you see, and they have these little pieces of paper, and have these columns of numbers. And one Indian is running the calculator, and another is counting the sacks of flour and the tins of condensed milk. One two three. One two three.”
Mr. Theroux explains: “What this educated African with his plummy voice intended as mockery–the apparent absurdity of all this counting–was the description of people doing a simple inventory of goods in a shop.” When he pointed this out, the African replied that his people had neither the aptitude nor the desire to run businesses. “What do we care about shops and counting? We have a much freer existence. We have no interest in this–shops are not our strong point.” Mr. Theroux, growing exasperated, asked why then had they taken over the shops. The answer was that the Africans might find a use for them some day (most were still empty, but a few had become beer bars). Mr. Theroux’s conclusion: “I had never heard such bullshit.”
Mr. Theroux does not say this, but the real answer to his question was envy. The Africans could not stand to see successful small businesses run by foreigners, so they kicked them out and took them over. Envy of non-Africans continues to motivate Africa. The land seizures in Zimbabwe, the murders of white farmers in South Africa, and the urban crime wave in Johannesburg and Cape Town, are obvious examples (see next article for a complementary view of African thinking).
Mr. Theroux fits most Westerners in Africa into one of three categories. First, there are the tourists, usually on safari. Mr. Theroux dismisses them as “fantasists.” Then there are the “agents of virtue”–the international aid workers, whom Mr. Theroux describes as haughty, aloof, ineffective jerks who rarely stay in Africa long enough to realize the extent of their failure; and the altruists, missionaries and others, who are there to save Africa and Africans.
He met a young, attractive Finnish woman working on an AIDS project in Zambia. She had been in Africa only a short time, but was already disillusioned. “It is horrible. There is no sex education. No one will talk about sex, but everyone does it. No one will talk about AIDS, and everyone is infected. We were sent an anti-AIDS film and we showed it. But people in the village said it was shameful–too indecent–and so it was withdrawn.” Mr. Theroux asked if she had talked to them. She had. The result? “They wanted to have sex with me.”
In Mozambique, he met a naive female missionary who was running a shelter designed to get prostitutes and boys off the streets. One night she was robbed by a group of boys. She recognized them as boys she had bathed, fed, and clothed; what’s worse, they recognized her. Mr. Theroux recalled that Christian missionaries had been at work here since 1508: “Five centuries of this!”
Mr. Theroux was victim of only one crime in Africa, and it came at the very end. Before taking a four-day side trip to the coast, he left his valuables (watch, wallet, cash, air tickets, African artifacts) for safekeeping in a Johannesburg hotel strong room. He returned to find everything stolen. “That’s very Janiceburg, very Jozi,” one resident later told him.
Mr. Theroux does not absolve Africans of responsibility for their own plight, but the only Africans he singles out for blame are the corrupt and thieving leaders. His book makes it clear that sloth, lack of planning, and envy are to blame for much of Africa’s plight, but he never says this directly nor does he consider the possibility Africans may be of lower intelligence than whites.
What is to be done with the place? Mr. Theroux condemns Western governments, international organizations, and private aid agencies for making the continent’s problems worse. He believes the only solution is to pull out the whole apparatus of Western relief and development, and let Africans define their problems, work out solutions, and live according to their habits and customs. He does not doubt that by Western standards the continent will remain undeveloped and primitive, will perhaps become much more so, but it may be able to sustain itself and create a life that is livable for Africans. He seems to think that if left alone, Africans will drift slowly back to their ancestral villages and turn once again to labor-intensive agriculture. Africa would not revert entirely back to a pre-contact state, but it might go halfway.
This may be an overly romantic view. The slaughter in Rwanda/Burundi, the double amputees in Sierra Leone, the witch-burnings and black magic common throughout black Africa, and the cannibalism that has come to light in the Congo are chilling examples of what Africans can do when left to themselves. Perhaps a return to old-fashioned European colonialism is the best solution. Short of that, a policy of leaving Africa alone, with all its potential perils, may be the best realistic choice we have.