From the comfortable security of my modern cocoon in Seattle, Wash., I am vicariously reliving some long-ago travels I made in Africa during the summer of 1997, which already was 15 years ago. I have the often cynical but always observant and honest Paul Theroux to thank for being lifted out of my quotidian boredom and back to my brief five-week journey in central and East Africa.
In June 1997, I travelled to Rwanda, just three years after the genocide. I arrived there, hoping to try my hand at freelance journalism and perhaps cover some of the genocide trials that were underway in the aftermath of the horrific crimes against humanity. I lacked two of the most critical elements to pull this off: connections and cash. Maybe I lacked cajones too. I also was floored by malaria once I arrived in Kigali, Rwanda, and I pulled out in two weeks, having lost a lot of weight and having determined I would not have the resources to succeed in my original plan. As to whether I would have succeeded as a freelancer if I stayed longer is hard to say, as Rwanda then was in the throes of an incredibly violent civil war that had claimed thousands of lives. That conflict, which involved the stopping of microbuses—like ones I was riding—and the slaughtering of all passengers, was pitting the Tutsi-led forces of the new post-genocide government of Rwanda against the extremist Hutu militias who had taken hold in then eastern Zaire. This was just before Zaire’s own meltdown into violent civil war, tribal violence, and foreign interventions that remains unresolved to this day.
Theroux’s book, called Dark Star Safari, is typical and classic Theroux. It recounts a year-long trip he made from Cairo to Capetown in the early 2000s, mostly by land transportation, using local means such as the back of trucks, buses, microbuses, and sometimes rides in Land Rovers and overland safari trucks with the many white Westerners he sees. Theroux is unforgiving in his criticism of both Africans and of outsiders, who are mostly Westerners but occasionally Indians, Japanese, and Chinese. Theroux often savagely skewers this mostly Western crowd as if they were the marabou scavengers, the quite ugly and ubiquitous large storks seen throughout eastern Africa, which lurk about and wait for carrion to devour.
I like Theroux because he attempts to put what he sees into context, with the perspective of a man who spent two years of young adulthood as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi in the 1960s and later several years as a lecturer in Kampala, Uganda, before the despot Idi Amin took over and destroyed that nation. To his credit, Theroux’s comments on the failures of aid projects, for instance, are based on his first-hand encounters. He credits foreign aid organizations and Western governments for creating a culture of aid dependency in many African nations. But his biggest target is corruption by African leaders and its military and civilian rulers. Writes Theroux of the large cities he visited and detested on his trip: “Scamming is the survival mode in a city where tribal niceties do not apply and there are no sanctions except those of the police, a class of people who in Africa generally are little more than licensed thieves.“
I have exchanged a few emails about this book with a friend of mine who also did a Peace Corps stint in Africa and who thought Theroux was honest about what he observed. I told my friend that Theroux’s description of traveling through a inhospitable, mostly lawless area from Mega, Ethiopia, to Isiolo, Kenya, where two white Westerners refused to give him a ride in their Land Rover, brought back my own memories. Like Theroux, I saw plenty of those same Land Rovers in Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda and also never got a lift. (Did I deserve one—no, but they could have been offered; I did refuse a ride once too because I wanted to walk, but the driver was African and a decent guy.) I too wondered who are these privileged outsiders anyway? I remember distinctly two haughty U.N. officials—an African and European—sniping like French lords at low-paid Rwandan hotel staff while wearing stylish dark shades and expensive suits, angry dust got on their suitcases, as they disembarked at Milles Colines Hotel, made famous during the genocide where Tutsis hid while surrounded by killers. The cost for a room in 1997 was about $150 a night as I recall, or about half of what a Rwandan then earned in a year. I could not afford the place and luckily found accommodation with a great aid worker I met who I thought was doing good work.
I also remember Italian missionaries in Northern Uganda, near Karamojo, in the deep bush who ran a furniture shop and spoke the local language and seemed completely at ease and in their element — like some of the Italian missionaries Theroux met in Ethiopia and Kenya. And, like Theroux, I remember these “overlanders,” the white tourists on coverted safari trucks crossing Africa, when I stopped at Lake Naivasha, Kenya. In my case, the passengers expressed excitement about seeing mountain gorillas in Rwanda without having a clue about the raging conflict there or another violent uprising that was occurring in southwest Uganda. And one has to wonder about two female aid workers he disparaged for their peddling of a Plumpy’nut type nutritional food product to poor children in person cause they reportedly didn’t trust the mothers to deliver the aid themselves? Is that true? I believe it is. Just this spring I heard an announcement by U.S. AID that the United States is pushing corporate food aid with corporate food giant Pepsico, in Ethiopia. What’s good for Pepsico is also good for U.S. AID and Ethiopians, if I am to believe the facts in this press release.
Anyway, not everyone agrees with Theroux, and here’s one attack, by John Ryle from 2002 in the Guardian, of the book and of the writer himself. Personally, I think Theroux is smart and clearly sees the public health, economic, political, and outsider-driven problems that challenge the countries he visited. I also do not think one sells books being nice or being 100 percent true. Theroux is a strong brand, and you know what you get when you read his brand. And it remains exceptionally enjoyable.