Book Report: Paul Theroux does Africa

This is a book report on Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari, an account of his 2001 journey, overland by public transit, from Cairo, Egypt to Cape Town, South Africa.  This was an interesting book for me because I’m currently planning a few trips to southern African.  Theroux writes with a certain amount of authority because he worked as a teacher in Africa during the mid-1960s.  The words below are summaries of Theroux’s 485-page book, not opinions of the author of this blog (who has only once visited Africa and then only to Egypt). 

Black Africans are very comfortable leading a life of subsistence farming and frequent casual sex with lots of different partners starting at about age 10.  They are basically quite happy and unmotivated to change this lifestyle, which makes sense because, at least in the villages, it is a great lifestyle (especially for the men, who get to spend all day every day drinking beer with their buddies while women work in the fields).  Black African governments, however, are not happy watching their subjects dig potatoes in between bouts of lovemaking.  This is not because they have anything against subsistence farming or sex but rather because it is difficult to tax subsistence farmers or 14-year-old working girls.

Black Africans sometimes express confusion as to how others achieve economic prosperity, particularly the Indians who operate most of the continent’s small shops.  One boatman on the Zambezi relates that his people believe that “Indians [kill young African girls] and cut out their hearts.  Using the fresh hearts of these African virgins as bait on large hooks, they were able to catch certain Zambezi fish that were stuffed full of diamonds.”  A girl in South Africa notes “They say Indians never sleep.  They just stay awake, doing business night and day.  That’s why they are rich.”

Africans are basically incompetent at anything other than having a good time.  They can’t drive.  They can’t prepare a vehicle for a journey properly or change a tire.  They can’t grow food on a large scale.  The smarter Africans sometimes are able to dupe a white person into making something work and then they steal it.  This has been refined to an art in Zimbabwe where the blacks got the whites to set up farms that they could subsequently take over under land reform.  Sometimes a farmer would go through two cycles of buying land, improving it, and watching it get stolen by “war veterans” before giving up.  The whites eventually got wise, however, and moved their operations across the river to Zambia.  The blacks who took over the white farms are unable to do anything other than have sex and farm enough for subsistence.  To avert famine the government buys much of its food now from their former white citizens now living across the border in Zambia.  This generalized incompetence doesn’t keep villagers from having a good time but city life is a challenge because the colonialists who built the roads, sewers, etc. packed up and went home.  Consequently Theroux finds the urban and infrastructure portions of Africa in every way and in every country worse than it was 40 years ago when he lived there.

Foreign aid requires the direct involvement of whites and/or Asians on the ground at every level.  You can’t give aid to African officials because they will steal the money.  You can’t give food to African employees in local villages because they will sell it.  You can’t give food to African parents to feed their hungry children because children have almost zero value in Africa and the parents will eat it themselves.  So you need (mostly) Europeans at every level of the distribution chain right down to the troughs at which the hungry kids will eat.

Foreign aid workers are the most loathsome people on the continent.  They roar around in fancy new air-conditioned SUVs and won’t give rides to travelers such as Theroux.  They aren’t good for conversations in bars, either.  Basically the only thing that foreign aid workers are good for is sucking the initiative out of the Africans themselves.  But they are necessary because no Africans are willing to do the job.  Any African who gets enough training to, say, become a medical doctor, either emigrates to a rich country or refuses to leave the largest cities.  The only people who are willing to work in clinics in villages are white.  Theroux’s favorite stories are when earnest white Christians work for years sheltering and feeding street kids and then get set up and robbed by those very same kids.

Africa is blessed with an awe-inspiring landscape and interesting animals, which are challenging to access due to the deterioration of the road network in the years since decolonialization.  Africa is a bad place for seeing African art; all of the good stuff has been looted and sold to museums and individuals in rich countries.  Touring Africa on a luxury organized tour is a sham.  Those people never get to see the real Africans that Theroux interacts with.  Touring Africa Theroux-style involves dangerous cramped smelly transportation, waiting days for visas or buses or boats, sharing beds with vermin, getting sick, bringing home a stomach parasite that required many months of medical treatment in the U.S., etc.

Johannesburg really is the most crime-ridden place in Africa.  At the very end of his trip Theroux lost all of his baggage that he’d left in care of a top-end hotel for a few days.

Well… that’s how Theroux saw it.  I might post another blog entry with my reactions to Theroux’s text.  Meantime it is off to sleep in my little salaryman’s hotel room in Mutsu, Japan.  This town is at the very northern tip of Honshu and tomorrow I’ll be taking my rental car on the ferry to Hokkaido.  Japan is, of course, a fantastic country for tourism but terribly hot and humid in the summer.  I thought that I would be okay up here in the north but this has been a summer of record-breaking heat and humidity.

Full post, including comments

First 24 hours in Japan

My first 24 hours in Japan included the following:

  • a soak in a traditional Japanese public bath

  • a swim in a 25-yard pool

  • a visit to an enormous Buddhist temple complex that has been an important pilgrimage site for hundreds of years

  • a semi-traditional tea ceremony

  • walking around three koi ponds

  • a meal in a restaurant that has been in the same family and at the same location for more than 300 years

All this without leaving Narita, the town in which Tokyo’s international airport is located!

Full post, including comments