Review: Africa gave life, but now brings death
Soon after graduating from university in 1963, Paul Theroux joined the Peace Corps and went to teach in Malawi. In the intervening 50 years, his life and frequent travels to Africa have fuelled many books, both non-fiction and fiction.
In a life of travel, Theroux has been in some awful places and taken foolish risks and survived. “But at some point even the luckiest person, full of hope, opens a door and finds a skeletal reflection on the other side,” he writes in The Last Train to Zona Verde. “And so the traveller each morning in the mirror, like Webster in Eliot’s poem, becomes much possessed by death.”
Theroux has written a book only a man in his 70s could write, for he has, like Webster in T.S. Eliot’s Whispers of Immortality, seen the skull beneath the skin, the hollow eye sockets and the lipless grin. It was not always so. Africa was Theroux’s second birthplace, where he’d set off, free and liberated, with the notion that his life had at last begun. “I got married in Uganda, and my first child was born there. Africa gave me everything. I never thought of death: Africa had given me life.”
Not this time.
Theroux set out from Cape Town last year with the intention of going northward along an overland route up the west coast of the continent, a continuation of sorts of the Egypt-to-South Africa trip he recounted in Dark Star Safari (2002). Part of that pilgrimage (he’d returned to Malawi for the first time since being expelled in the 1960s for helping a political opponent of the prime minister), was to document the deleterious effects of foreign aid in Africa.
Although this is not his stated intention in Zona Verde, Theroux again sees a “continent plagued with foreign advisers.” Bono, George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie and other do-gooder celebrities don’t come off so well here. Does their “improvisational charity,” or even such global projects as the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corp., do any good? Quoting Dambisa Moyo’s analysis Dead Aid, Theroux says the $1 trillion African countries have received since the Second World War has “discouraged investment, instilled a culture of dependency, and created corruption, all of which have impeded growth and retarded the nations’ economies.” He comes close to saying that such aid has been the death of innovation and improvement and of good governance.
But Theroux doesn’t actually say this, at least not until the emotionally and intellectually honest end of the book. Instead, he shows a world most tourists don’t see, and don’t want to see. Tourists travelling to Africa, he believes, want to see Real Africa: the loincloths, the breasts, the spears, the animals. They want to see the Ju/’hoansi people pulling tubers out of the ground and making fires by rubbing sticks. That Africa has been dead for many, many years. In those areas where it can be seen, it’s often a real-life dumb show for westerners, like Plimoth Plantation or Upper Canada Village.
What a tourist is more likely to encounter, as Theroux did in Angola, are people living “among garbage heaps — plastic bottles, soda cans, torn bags, broken chairs, dead dogs, rotting food, indefinable slop, their own scattered twists of excrement — and in one town a stack of dead cows, bloated from putrefaction, looking like a forgotten freightload of discarded Victorian furniture.”
Never mind, he writes, there’s more squalor down the road.
Theroux abandoned his northward venture at Luanda. There was no point in going farther. Congo was, for all practical purposes, impossible to travel through. Nigeria was in the midst of another Boko Haram spasm of violence. Timbuktu was his destination in northern Mali, itself the target of terrorism.
So do we abandon hope, all we who would enter Africa? Theroux’s not saying that. Not at all. There is life here. Africa is teeming with it. There’s the Tertiary School in Business Administration, a privately funded, non-profit, tuition-free school for poor blacks in Cape Town; Mondesa Youth Opportunities, an ambitious education project in a Windhoek township; Abu Camp in eastern Namibia, a refuge for former zoo elephants or those orphaned by poachers; borders and bus stations, vineyards and villages.
And there are the people. This is where Theroux reveals himself as a superior journalist and engaged observer. His mini-profiles of the people he meets this time around and his recounting of conversations, both deep and surface, are windows open to African life. He volunteers at schools where students are fond of books, but can’t tell the difference between fiction and non-fiction; he encounters three giggly teenage girls the morning after their coming-of-age ceremony; he befriends a doomed elephant trainer and interviews a descendant of Portuguese colonizers of Angola who considers himself a member of the “white tribe” that remains.
The Last Train to Zona Verde is subtitled My Ultimate African Safari. Ultimate here means last or conclusive, not best or unsurpassed. Would it weren’t so. But “what is happening in Africa now is also happening with greater subtlety in the rest of the world: the diminution of resources, the vanishing of work, the growth of urban areas.” The end feels like an end to more than just a book.
The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari
By Paul Theroux
McClelland & Stewart, 354 pages, $34.99