Wednesday, December 10, 2003

Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux

Having enjoyed Theroux's travel writings in the past (The Great Railway Bazaar, the Patagonia Express) I bought his latest travel epic, Dark Star Safari, to read during this trip to South America. This evening I finished following the brave journey from Cairo to Capetown. I have not been to many of the countries described in the book, but Theroux has reminders of Africa in general on every page. So a description of East Africa seems to fit quite well with my West African experiences.

Perhaps the saddest part of this book is Theroux's own conclusion that little has changed in the 35 years since he lived and worked in Malawi and Uganda as a Peace Corps teacher. If anything, things have gotten worse. Not just AIDS, bad enough that that scourge is, but the overall reliance on others to bail out Africa, be it money, food, infrastructure, anything, everything.

He notes that he felt happiest in the rural areas where there was a measure of self-sufficiency, albeit at the total expense of national progress. He blames the leadership of Africa and their total reliance on foreign aid (which more often than not buys the leaders their perqs and provides little to the people in need). His greater scorn, though, is aimed at all the foreigners in their white Land Rovers and Land Cruisers who drive around doling out what little gets through to a people now totally dependent on the next aid shipment.

Whatever happened to the concept of "Don't just feed a starving man, give him the tools to feed himself"?

The book itself is strongly recommended. Theroux seems to have gotten even better at painting pictures with words. This is a book that needs no illustrations. I also envy his ability to simply catch a bus or make a split decision to take the long road round an obstacle, to eat the local food and survive, and to sleep in places where sleep is impossible unless you realize there is simply no alternative.