[This article appeared in the Winter 2004 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 455-467.]


Book Review Article 

Eastern Africa as Seen Through the Eyes of a Realist

Dwight D. Murphey

Wichita State University, retired


Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town

Paul Theroux

Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003


            This book gives an unflinchingly realistic description of life along the eastern side of Africa, starting with Egypt and proceeding to South Africa.  Although what it describes is appalling, Theroux’s account has such honesty that it is compelling reading.  Everyone interested in Africa should read this book, but it should especially be read by those who, in a number of contexts, prefer having a sugar-coated image of Third World peoples and their prospects.  These include those who are persuaded that all humanity is ready to adopt American values and institutions; those who believe that it is virtuous and meaningfully beneficial to extend aid to Africa decade after decade regardless of the outcome; academicians who specialize in “African development”; those blacks in America who as a matter of racial ideology romanticize Africa as their spiritual home; and tourists who visit Africa briefly and who while there necessarily see only areas designed for their own enjoyment.  To all these, Theroux’s book is an antidote that they can take seriously or ignore, as they choose.

            Theroux is an interesting person.  Forty years ago, he was a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi (then Nyasaland).  He was a teacher there, for which purpose he learned Chichewa, a Bantu language; but in 1965 Malawi deported him for “aiding rebels” and he was ousted from the Peace Corps.  He had driven a car “through the bush, two thousand miles to Uganda” to deliver it to a man who had fled Malawi after becoming entangled in a political power struggle with the man who emerged as the ruler of Malawi for the following thirty years.  Theroux bounced right back, and for four years from 1965 to 1968 taught at Makerere University in Uganda.  Since then, he has traveled throughout the world and has written a large number of travel books and novels (one of which is still outlawed in Malawi).  The book’s back cover doesn’t exaggerate when it calls Theroux an “internationally acclaimed author.” This is supported by Dark Star Safari’s having been named “a best book of the year” by the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Seattle Times, and the San Jose Mercury News.

            Politically and ideologically, Theroux defies definition.  His unremitting honesty puts him outside the precincts of the “politically correct” – and that is an awfully large precinct.  Ideologically, he gives contradictory indications: while he points one direction, for example, by saying that Maoists in Tanzania had a worthy intention in building a railroad there, he points an opposite direction when he declares that illegal immigrants into the U.S. are “no respecter of laws.”  When his travels take him to South Africa at the conclusion of his journey, he is able to say, in an uncharacteristically politically correct manner, that “the long political struggle had made a family of all South Africans – a forgiving if a sometimes unruly family.”  This is somewhat questionable after he has recounted that “there are twenty thousand murders a year in South Africa and fifty-two thousand reported rapes, almost a quarter of the rapes against small children and even infants” [many committed, as he says, out of the belief that sex with a virgin is a cure for AIDS]; and after he has told of “farm invasions ending in the disembowelment of the [white] farmers.”   In any event, he is reticent about offering social or political analysis.  He offers no “morals to the story.”  Readers are left to draw their own conclusions from the facts he describes.

            Thus, his great merit is that he is willing “to tell it as he sees it.”  His observations are based on a rough-and-tumble trip down Africa’s eastern side in 2001 (and a return visit in 2003).  Eschewing luxury transportation (if there was any to be had), he got down into the grime and dust, riding “by rattletrap bus, dugout canoe, cattle truck, armed convoy, ferry, and train.”  His experiences could result in quite a personal adventure story if he cared to tell it that way. 

Theroux’s General Observations

            He reports on each country as he comes to it. Before reviewing each country, however, it will be worth noting his general observations.  Theroux likes rural Africa, not because it is advanced but because he respects the fact that its people have long cultivated a remarkable tenacity at subsisting under all conditions. He loves, as well, the often-exotic beauty of the country.  But that is about it for the “good news.”  “Africa,” he reports, “is materially more decrepit than it was when I first knew it – hungrier, poorer, less educated, more pessimistic, more corrupt, and you can’t tell the politicians from the witch doctors.”  The Africa he saw on his recent trips “had slipped into a stereotype of itself: starving people in a blighted land governed by tyrants, rumors of unspeakable atrocities, despair and darkness.” Something he sees over and over again is the “unnecessary obsolescence of buildings.  Nothing was fixed or kept in good repair, the concept of stewardship or maintenance hardly existed.” 

            He says that “African cities did not even pretend to be anything except large slums… Improvisation had taken the place of planning.”  The cities “seemed to me miserable improvised ant hills, attracting the poor and the desperate from the bush and turning them into thieves and divisers of cruel scams….”

            All of this reflects, Theroux believes, the inner-being of the people.  They live their lives with “a fatalistic patience.”  This evokes no sense of building anything for the future.  “We build for the future… But it is a rarefied humanistic notion of the West, not an African tradition.  Change and decay and renewal were the African cycle… [This is] a hand-to-mouth method, but a way of life that had enabled people to get through dreadful times.”  In sum, “it’s a subsistence economy, and survival is something that Africans have learned.”

            This “survival” is of the group, not especially the individual.  People are “old” when they are forty; “a man of fifty was at death’s door, sixty-year-olds were just crocks and crones.”  This would be counted as far short of “survival” by individuals in the West.   Atrocities of unbelievable magnitude take their toll: “one million people died, mostly Tutsis, in the Rwanda massacres of 1994.”  And yet, the population continues to grow more rapidly than anywhere else in the world, “even with AIDS and infant mortality” [and famine and mass murder].   

            One might suggest that the vast growth in population is itself the cause, or at least a cause, of the squalor Theroux saw in the cities.   In his recent article “What Kind of Aid for a World in Want?” (The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, Spring 2003, pp. 97-102), Seymour Itzkoff of Smith College told how in the Horn of Africa “the annual population increase is acute: Somalia, plus 2.89 percent; Ethiopia, plus 2.68 percent; Eritrea, plus 3.05 percent.”  In “all of these nations,” he said, “women give birth on average to between 6-8 children.”  Such growth is not limited to Africa, but is characteristic of the Third World.  In The Death of the West, Patrick Buchanan tells how the “the Third World adds one hundred million people – one new Mexico – every fifteen months.”

            The Population Reference Bureau (www.prb.org) says that “Middle Africa is expected to be the fastest growing region in the first half of the 21st century, growing to 193 percent of its current size by 2050; western Africa follows, increasing to 142 percent of its 2003 population.”  Of course, war, famine and disease may deflect these projections.  That the Bureau is taking disease into account is especially apparent with regard to southern Africa, where significantly it says the population has gone into “a decline that no one would have predicted in the recent past.”  Thus, “the population of HIV/AIDS-ravaged southern Africa is projected to fall by 22 percent.”  

            If we consider just the countries Theroux visited, we find the following projected changes in population from 2003 to 2050: Egypt, 72 to 127 million; Ethiopia, 71 to 173 million; Kenya, 31.6 to 40.2 million; Malawi, 11.7 to 29 million; Mozambique, 17.5 to 19 million; South Africa, a decline from 44 to 32.5 million; Sudan, 38.1 to 84.2 million; Tanzania, 35.4 to 73.8 million; Uganda, 25.3 to 82.5 million; Zambia, 10.9 to 17.5 million; and Zimbabwe, 12.6 to 4.6 million.

            As the population has swelled, people have poured into the African cities.   It is a phenomenon seen many times historically: it is reminiscent of Britons’ having moved out of rural poverty and into the rapidly expanding manufacturing cities of the early industrial revolution; of the newly-emancipated serfs crowding Russian cities at the end of the nineteenth century; of Teheran’s burgeoning in size under the Shah as millions migrated from the countryside; and of the cities of Brazil having been swamped by a similar influx, with a vast growth in urban slums. 

            Theroux doesn’t reflect on the relation of population to the excruciating poverty.  What he does stress is the mental landscape of the people, as just mentioned, which does not embrace a concept of building for the future.  Such a mentality lends itself directly to squalor, and therefore no doubt deserves a significant part of any explanation of the decrepitude of the cities.  It is unlikely, though, that Theroux would deny that the exploding population also plays a major role. 

            There are additional factors that lend themselves to both the expanding population and the living conditions.  First, as we will see, there is a mentality centered on the supernatural that seeks an animistic explanation for events and that runs counter to the science we know.  Second, in Theroux’s observations about Zambia he tells of the Africans’ overwhelming preoccupation with sex.   And, third, researchers in comparative intelligence will no doubt observe that a serious I.Q. deficit is fundamentally important.  All of these combine to produce the effects Theroux observes.  They also bring about a devastating causal sequence: the primitivism involves farming methods that, with the extra population, ruins the productivity of the land and destroys the animal habitat; the worsened rural poverty then promotes emigration to the cities (and to the developed nations of Europe and America). 

His Observations About Individual Countries

            Here briefly is a glimpse at the details he gives about the countries he passed through. (A reader will notice a certain strangeness of style: Theroux uses the past tense when reporting current observations.  Despite the impression that gives, his book is very much a current report.)

            Egypt:  In Cairo, there were “back alleys that reeked of rotting food and litter, we passed basins of dirty water and buckets of garbage and chamber pots that were being emptied from upper balconies.”  In Aswan, there was donkey feces everywhere, “the sound of car horns and loud music… pestering beggars, lepers….” 

            Ethiopia: The capital, Addis Ababa, is only a century old, but “had a look of timeless decrepitude… dirty and falling apart, stinking horribly of unwashed people and sick animals, every wall reeking with urine.”  Harar features beautiful women, but Theroux can’t overlook “the beggars… they were old and young, blind, crippled, limbless women and children, war-wounded, fingerless lepers.”  Eight percent of the people are infected with HIV, and there were 150,000 AIDS-related deaths in 2000.  (It is worth reflecting on the fact that once someone has died, he is no longer counted in the percentage of those with HIV.)  “There were many prostitutes within the walls of Harar.”  The streets are so dangerous after sunset that “it was unthinkable to travel after dark.”

            Kenya: Theroux describes this as “one of the most corrupt and distressed and crime-ridden countries in Africa.”   Human life is cheap, with cattle having value but human beings almost none.  Forty people were killed on the roads during the two months preceding Theroux’s visit.  Kenya’s government receives bountiful aid money, but it is “a proven fact that this money went into the pockets of politicians.”  Despite the aid, Kenya is “a rapacious and hungry and scavenging society,” where “men and boys stood around in large groups, nothing to do.”

            Malawi: AIDS is rampant.  In 2002, there were two million orphans.  The annual per capita income was $200.  Theroux recites a typical experience: “Malawi had the worst and most expensive hotels… Where is the service?  There is no one to carry bags, no one sweeps the floors, the room isn’t clean, the toilet is broken.”  Famine results in people’s “eating boiled cassava leaves, digging for wild roots, and eating earthworms.” The shopkeepers from India were driven off years ago, but the shops have not been replaced by African shops; instead, they stand as grim reminders of the African way of life: “the roofs caved in, the windows broken, many of them vandalized with graffiti.”

            Mozambique: Theroux credits the Makonde people as being “some of the best artisans and carvers in Africa.”  Nevertheless, war, first against the Portuguese and then a civil war between FRELIMO and RENAMO, resulted in “millions killed or displaced.”  The town of Beira is “a ruin” with “abandoned buildings on streets where grass had sprouted.”  He tells how the Grand Hotel is now “a huge skeletal structure” taken over by the homeless, some of whom “were emptying buckets of [feces] over the [balcony] rails.”  Theroux says “I saw no positive results of charitable efforts.”

            Sudan: Muslims live in the north, Christians in the south, of this geographically largest of the continent’s countries.  The south has experienced forty years of war.  Theroux describes the people he saw on the streets of Khartoum: “…the slash marks on one tribal face, the tattoos and scarification on another, the knocked-out teeth or lip plugs of yet others.”             

            Tanzania:  Under Julius Nyerere, Tanzania closely mimicked Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and continued to do so long after China itself abandoned it. The schoolbooks were all translated into Swahili, since English symbolized imperialism.  The result after forty years of independence is that “that vast fertile country of twenty million people had achieved a condition of near bankruptcy and had one factory.”  “In the capital almost half the adults had no jobs.  But those with jobs did next to nothing.”  He concludes that “nothing had ever worked in Tanzania.”   The roads are in almost impassable condition – except the tourist routes (which are part of the Potemkin Village created for outsiders).

            Uganda: Theroux’s description starts on an upbeat note: “Right from the frontier, Uganda seemed a tidier, better-governed place than Kenya.”  But this collapses under the weight of the specifics.  It, too, has two million orphans from AIDS.  The university at which Theroux taught in the 1960s is now falling to pieces.  Prostitutes are ubiquitous, and “everything was on the wane.”  The country experienced nine years of terror under Idi Amin.  Now, however, “Uganda, even in its apparent recovery, was a welfare case.”  The welfare comes from donor countries, who contribute over half the country’s budget.

            The reader gets a feel for the local color and conditions when Theroux recounts how people collect grasshoppers and white ants to fry, and that children amuse themselves by flying rhino beetles attached to a string.

            Zambia: An AIDS worker, a woman from Finland, told him: “There is so much sex.  It is all sex.  And so young!... Ten years old is common.”  She added: “No one will talk about AIDS, and everyone is infected.”  When she tried to talk with people in the villages about it, the result was that “they wanted to have sex with me.”  Earlier, we discussed the role of exploding population as a cause of the cities’ squalor.  What this Finnish AIDS worker tells about the sexual context sheds much light on that population increase.

            In its politics, Zambia has not seen a free election since the 1960s. 

            Zimbabwe: Here, the Robert Mugabe government (in power since the blacks took power in 1980) encourages the “land invasions” of white farms.  Mugabe speaks of whites as “snakes.”  A result: there are “food riots” in Harare, the capital.  Unemployment is at 75 percent, inflation at 65 percent, despite salaries’ remaining low.  There is “government-sanctioned torture and murder”; the traditional healers, the mondhoro, often call for the strangulation of a child as a sacrifice; and there are “body parts killings,” as in Malawi, to harvest organs for use in tribal medicine.

            We have seen how in Tanzania Nyerere caused all schoolbooks to be translated to Swahili.  The same insularity is perceived as a virtue in Zimbabwe.  Theroux says “a bill had been passed stipulating that music, drama, news, and current affairs programming on Zimbabwe radio and TV had to be purely Zimbabwean, ‘in order to foster a sense of Zimbabwean national identity and values.’”

            South Africa: Theroux’s journey down the eastern side of Africa ended with South Africa.  Much is still operating at an advanced level there, and he reports that “almost everything worked, even the political system… The universities were excellent, the level of public debate was impressive….”  We are surprised by the juxtaposition of these observations with his many others: Theroux speaks of “the perverse miracle of South African freeways and beautiful houses and dismal orderly squatter settlements.”  He went to a squatter camp where he saw “the 8,500 inhabitants lived mainly in squalor… There was no running water, there were no lights, nor any trees.”  The South African newspapers constantly run accounts of “muggings, maimings, and robberies with gratuitous violence.  In the quaintest story (sic) a man had been assaulted – one eye poked out, his throat slashed, and his penis chopped off.”  He quotes the paper as saying that “police suspect that his genitals… will be used for muti [medicine] by an inganga [witch doctor].”   Earlier, we noted Theroux’s statistics about 20,000 murders and 52,000 reported rapes a year.  As a personal irony, Theroux tells how he left his belongings in a hotel’s safekeeping, only to have all of them stolen anyway.

            As in Zimbabwe, an advanced civilization was bequeathed in South Africa to a black majority – and there is now the same active hostility to the whites who created it that exists in Zimbabwe.  Theroux is informed of farm invasions “ending in the disembowelment of the farmers,” and that 950 farmers have been murdered since 1994 (although a white with whom he conversed said it was “twice that number”).  Whites refer to “our holocaust,” and have compiled a book of photographs called Volksmoord/Genocide showing “dismemberments, decapitations, and maimings.”  “White flight,” similar to that which has long occurred in the United States, first from the city cores and most recently from entire states, has beset the city of Johannesburg.

            Accordingly, a major conceptual issue looms.  The question that comes most obviously to mind in light of all that Theroux has told us about the African people is whether the black majority will be able to maintain the advanced economy and civilization passed to them not so very long ago.  From all indications, the answer is no.  But, oddly, Theroux never asks the question.  This may reflect his own conceptual confusions, or he may know the answer and find it most convenient to let the facts speak for themselves. 

Other Themes in His Narrative

            His contempt for “agents of virtue.”  A subject that runs through his narrative, and that should be mentioned before any review is concluded, is his contempt for the “aid experts” who drive all over Africa in “spiffy white Land Rovers” and serve as “agents of virtue.”  He says they “ranged from selfless idealists to the laziest boondogglers cashing in on a crisis.”  Everywhere, there is (and has been for forty years) a series of “good-hearted, misguided efforts to elevate Africans in a Western way.”  New aid workers “did not realize that for forty years people had been saying the same things, and the result after four decades was a lower standard of living, a higher rate of illiteracy, overpopulation, and much more disease.”  While he was in Tanzania, he reflected that “foreign charities… had been at it for decades and the situation was more pathetic than ever.”

            He says that “foreigners working for development agencies did not stay long, so they never discovered the full extent of their failure.”  The Africans themselves do not take part in the effort, and much of the money winds up in the pockets of their politicians.  Although many of the “agents of virtue” are idealists, not all are in fact virtuous: “so much donor aid is self-interested”; many aid workers enjoy the abundant prostitutes; and “I was not shocked when I learned that the hotshots who doled out aid in some African countries demanded sex from famine victims in return for the food parcels.”  The conclusion, according to Theroux, is that he felt “a solemn sense that since only Africans could define their problems, only Africans could fix them.”  The Africans would not do so in a Western way, but in a way that would reflect “a sort of nihilism that was also a form of serenity and a survival skill.”

            A substantial literature has grown up, according to Theroux, to tell us these things.  He refers to “the antidonor books, The Lords of Poverty and The Road to Hell,” which make the point that “foreign aid has been destructive to Africa – has actually caused harm.”  Along the same lines, the African economist George B. N. Ayttey has “documented the decline in African fortunes as a result of donor aid” in Africa Betrayed and Africa in Chaos.

            Female circumcision.  Theroux, as someone familiar with Western medicine, puzzles over the rationale expressed to him for female circumcision, in which the clitoris is cut off.  One African man claimed it vastly increases a woman’s sexuality.  Although we have reason to doubt this, one thing is clear: sex looms large in African life.  Theroux hardly visits a country without remarking upon the prostitutes.  In Nanyuki in Kenya, “prostitutes in tight dresses walked up and down in stiletto heels.”

            Lynching.  Lynching is common.  Theroux tells of the mob-killing of a thief in the outskirts of Nairobi, of the lynching of another thief in Zambia, and of a mob’s beating to death a ghoulish healer (who cut the heads and other body parts off of accident victims to use in his treatments) in Tanzania.  For American readers, the significance of these observations lies in knowing that the conventionally-accepted literature on lynching in the United States claims that lynching has been a uniquely American phenomenon (and especially a phenomenon of the American South), which is said to be a manifestation of the United States’ being a uniquely violent society and of Southern racism.  There is much evidence to suggest that this claim is a myth, fashioned out of ideology.  It requires a studied refusal to see what happens elsewhere in the world.

            The world of spirits.  A spirit-world has long been a part of African belief-systems.  An illustration comes when Theroux tells us that “in a village such as Marka, in the Lower River District of Malawi, no one is dead.  If people appear to vanish from their corporeal existence, it is just a ducking out before returning as spirits.”  This is consistent with the extensive description of  the belief in witchcraft, ghosts, fetishes, dreams and shadows as real entities, and ubiquitous spirits that Robert Milligan gave a century ago after living for several years as a Presbyterian missionary in western Africa (in Gaboon, Cameroon and the French Congo).  (See his The Jungle Folk of Africa, 1908, pp. 249-270.)  Milligan described a mentality that is diametrically opposite to the science that is basic to modern civilization (and is very much like the belief-systems that prevailed in Europe in both medieval and ancient times): “Those phenomena which attract the African’s attention he ascribes immediately to a supernatural cause.  He does not look for a natural cause.  If a tree falls across his path, somebody threw it.  The activity of spirits accounts for everything.”  Within such a frame of reference, the individual inhabits, in effect, a totally different world than we do.

            This leads to such a thing as the 2003 vampire scare.  The president of Malawi had to formally deny “that his government was ‘sucking people’s blood in exchange for maize donations from abroad.’”  The governor of one of the provinces was stoned, Theroux reports, “for being suspected of ‘harboring bloodsuckers.’”  The same mentality leads to “body parts killings,” which caused nineteen people to be killed and eviscerated in Malawi in 2003 for use of their organs as “mankhwala” [medicine].

            Cannibalism.  It is odd that Theroux tells his readers that “cannibalism had never been institutionalized by Africans in the Congo… The suggestion of flesh eating was just another racist dig….”    He doesn’t tell his source for saying this.  It runs counter to much that is known about the Congo and equatorial Africa in general. 

            In Into Africa: The Epic Adventure of Stanley & Livingstone (Doubleday, 2003), Martin Dugard tells how Livingstone once fled Nyangwe, located on the upper Congo (the Lualaba River), and made his way east to Ujiji.  The path, Dugard says, was “through virgin jungle and country populated by cannibals.”  In fact, it was “the heart of cannibal country.”  He tells how Livingstone entered into his journal of May 27, 1871, that “a stranger in the market had ten human under-jawbones hung on a string over his shoulder.  On inquiry he professed to have killed and eaten the owners… When I expressed disgust, he and others laughed.”  Surprisingly, among the cannibals of Manyuema “the bodies were not cooked before eating, but soaked in running water for several days until bloated and tender.”

            In The River Congo (Harper & Row, 1977), Peter Forbath says “I first saw the Congo during one of the bloodiest moments… The place was Stanleyville (now called Kisangani); the time, the Simba uprising of 1964.  For 110 days… the Simbas, a jungle army of cannibal warriors… held Stanleyville in a reign of terror… Mutilated corpses lay in the streets, some partially devoured….”  Speaking of the Bantu, Forbath says that “when Stanley first came down the river these people were cannibals, and they are known to indulge in the grisly practice occasionally still, for ritual reasons, out of hunger, simply for the taste of it.”  He tells how along the Lualaba River in 1874 “row upon row of human skulls lined the palisades around the villages, and bones from every part of the human anatomy could be seen scattered around the cooking sites.”

            E. J. Glave was one of Henry Stanley’s officers, first going to the Congo in 1883.  In 1890, Glave wrote an extensive description of conditions in the Congo for Century Magazine (Vol. 39, pp. 824-838) under the title “The Slave-Trade in the Congo Basin.”  He observed that slavery was the center of a tribal chief’s wealth.  Some of the slaves were exchanged to Arab traders, whose slave trade was still going on, for transport to Turkey and elsewhere.  Others, held in the vast system of internal slavery, were ritually executed – decapitation for the men, strangulation for the women -- to commemorate such occasions as the death of the chief’s mother.  The many others were held as livestock to be eaten.  He told of the thriving trade carried on by the tribes between the Ubangi and Lulungu rivers.  “These natives buy their slaves solely for food.  Having purchased slaves they feed them on ripe bananas, fish, and oil, and when they get them into good condition they kill them.”   Glave wrote that “cannibalism exists among all the peoples on the Upper Congo east of 16 degrees E. longitude, and is prevalent to an even greater extent among the people inhibiting the banks of the numerous affluents.”

            These sources’ information suggests that Theroux, while excellent in his personal observations, allows himself sometimes to be deluded by the ideological folklore that often passes for fact in today’s world.  To attribute the reports of cannibalism in Africa’s history to a “racist dig” is itself a racist comment, aimed at Westerners.  Here again we see Theroux’s conceptual confusion, which runs right alongside his perceptual honesty.

            Conclusion.  This review has told the highlights of Dark Star Safari, and critiqued some of them; but the book itself must be read to obtain the full flavor of eastern Africa and the story of Theroux’s own close scrapes as he made the journey.