Friday, July 13, 2007

East Africa - Paul Theroux's Dark Star Safari

Following is a review of Paul Theroux's latest travel book, which is now several years old. The review also appears on the web site of the Friends of Kenya.

Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux,Houghton Mifflin, NY 2003

Dark Star Safari – Overland from Cairo to Cape Town marked Theroux’s return to Africa in the year 2000 after thirty years absence. He strove to travel the length of the continent as a solo voyager using local transportation such as buses, trucks and trains. Using his other travel books as models, he closely observed those whom he met and commented trenchantly, candidly and cynically about them. The value of the book is that Theroux writes so well that his observations ring of truthfulness – whether or not they are accurate. The compilation of anecdotes forms a body of work that paints a realistic picture of contemporary Africa. Furthermore, because he revisits territory and situations known to RPCVs, we have the advantage of seeing again places and people we once encountered.

Since this column focuses on Kenya, I will confine myself to comments about the East Africa section of Theroux’s journey, i.e. Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Theroux came down the great north road from Moyale on a cattle truck, an overlander truck and with a missionary. Because he was refused a ride, Theroux gave vent to his negative opinion of AID workers and their undertakings. “They were in general oafish self-dramatizing prigs, and often complete bastards.” Theroux, however, was an equal opportunity basher, noting the provinciality of Kenya’s northern residents who were apprehensive about troubles in Ethiopia, Theroux observed, “These ignorant inhabitants, traveling on a hideous road in an over-heated desert, in a neglected province of one of the most corrupt and distressed and crime-ridden countries in Africa, regarded sunny, threadbare, but dignified Ethiopia as a war zone.” As did the locals Theroux feared shifta bandits. He was told by a driver, however, “They do not want your life, bwana, they want your shoes.” Theroux reflected that indeed human life was cheap in Africa; shoes had more utility.

Seeing the slums outside Nairobi, Theroux said, “it was clear that the Kenya I had known was gone. I didn’t mind; perhaps the newness would make this trip all the more memorable.” Theroux did find a new Kenya, where inhabitants were savaged by Moi’s thugs, harassed on crowded crime ridden streets, governed by a self-serving ruling class, afflicted by HIV/AIDS and gripped by a sense of desperation that he encountered in all African cities. He noted that whenever a city grew bigger, “it got uglier, messier, more dangerous, an effect of bad planning, underfunding and graft.”

The author did not stay long in Nairobi but hurried on through Nakuru, Kericho and Kisumu. He was not impressed. He noted the lack of any modern development. He blamed ineffectual international assistance programs for being a complete waste of money, but also recognized that Africans themselves had botched most opportunities. He saw one “booming industry” upon leaving Kisumu – coffin makers – “a perfect image for a country that seemed terminally ill.”

Theroux returned to his personal past in Kampala where he had taught for several years at Makerere University. He found Uganda marginally better than Kenya; at least it was imbued with a sense of forward motion. In contacting old friends he discovered that the surroundings of the political debates had changed, but the underlying terms were the same. How to develop? Who should rule? How? What systems would work for Africa? Obviously there were no answers to these questions. While awaiting permission to board a lake ferry, Theroux wandered around the city he once knew and reflected on the changes wrought by thirty years in Uganda, in Ugandans, and in himself.

Finally aboard a rail-car carrier to Mwanza, Theroux entered into a Zen like state that would successfully carry him across the lake, on by rail to Dar and via the TanZam towards Malawi. Although he enjoyed the people, Theroux observed, “The dogmatic, motto-chanting Tanzanians had been humbled. No one talked of imperialism and neocolonialism now, nor of the evils of capitalism – though they could have, for even capitalism had failed in Tanzania.”

Errors: I always stumble upon geographical mix-ups. I am surprised that “fact checkers” don’t do a better job. Talking about volcanoes, Theroux said that “Mt. Lengai in Rwanda” was erupting. However, Mt. Lengai is dormant and in Tanzania. All the Rwandan volcanoes are dormant, but Mts. Nyiragongo and Nyamulagira in neighboring Congo remain active. Theroux noted that he had hoped to visit “Kabila” in western Uganda to see chimpanzees. There is no Kabila. I assume he meant Kabale Forest where chimps are easily seen. Similarly, he listed Lake Tanzania as one of the East African great lakes. Its name is Tanganyika.

Theroux ‘s journey began before East Africa and continued on afterwards. His take on other countries and people encountered are equally realistic, albeit amusing or infuriating. Theroux wanted to be in-the-mix, but not of it. He sought to retain a dispassionate perspective, but never hesitated to share scathing judgments. He was proud of his undertaking, but arrogant in judging that the sojourns, travels, observations and works of others were somehow less noble. Even so, a reader cannot help but like the guy. He went and did it and told it like he saw it.


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