[This book review article was published in the Winter 2013 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 462-475.]

 

Book Review Article

 

In the Wake of Mandela: Paul Theroux’s Latest Look at Sub-Saharan Africa

Dwight D. Murphey

Wichita State University, retired

 

The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari

Paul Theroux

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013

 

          The death of Nelson Mandela has brought new attention to South Africa, and more generally to sub-Saharan Africa.  The well-known travel author Paul Theroux has recently followed up his 2003 book Dark Star Safari, based on a gritty back-packing trip down Africa’s east side, with the present volume based on a similar trip to South Africa, Namibia and Angola in Africa’s southwest quadrant.  The remarkable thing about Theroux is that he mixes a compassionate love of the people with an honest, straight-talking account of unadorned reality.  In neither book is his picture of sub-Saharan Africa encouraging.  They are both recommended for readers who wish to see Africa – and especially the new post-Apartheid South Africa – without blinders on.

 

Key Words: Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, South Africa, Namibia, Angola, Paul Theroux, illusions about Africa, the “virtue industry”

 

When Paul Theroux refers in this book’s title to “the last train,” he tells us in effect that it is a narrative of his final intended trip to Africa.  An author of 46 books of fiction, criticism and nonfiction that center primarily on his much-traveled knowledge of the world, he describes himself as now “a 70-year-old man traveling like a backpacker… way past retirement age and alone.”  Be this as it may, even if he never writes another word, he is leaving a vast body of work, including this book, that is much to be valued.

The “zona verde” mentioned in the title is the “the green zone… the bush”; or, more broadly, all of Africa “that is not a city.”  Theroux deplores the squalid cities of sub-Saharan Africa, but even though he doesn’t shrink from describing the condition of rural Africa as itself dire – and thus seems to have reason for revulsion against both city and country –, he views it all with the sort of compassion that people often feel toward a place even though they know it is deeply flawed.  He clearly “loves Africa.”  It is important to point this out because he is, with only a few odd exceptions,[1] a truth-telling realist who describes at length the misery, squalor and human defaults that he sees during his travels through the continent.

He first went to Africa fifty years ago, becoming “a teacher in a small school in Malawi and then a professor at Makerere University in Uganda.”  He describes his time at the school as “some of the happiest years of my life.”  He revisited the continent in 2001, traveling down the east side of Africa in the grittiest sort of way, by “rattletrap bus, dugout canoe…” and the like.  His 2003 book Dark Star Safari gave a blow-by-blow account of that trip, and amounts to a strikingly perceptive and honest sociological report, in effect, of what he saw.[2]  It was judged “a best book of the year” by the New York Times and other leading papers.

Theroux decided to make a second trip ten years later, in 2011 traveling in like fashion up the west side of Africa, starting in South Africa and proceeding to Namibia and Angola.  He intended to go farther, but wisely desisted, knowing of the atrocities being committed against foreigners further to the north and feeling that he had seen so much squalor that it was unrewarding to see any more.  The Last Train to Zona Verde tells of this trip. 

Questions that were paramount in the mind of this reviewer when he acquired the book were whether Theroux would continue to be as forthcoming, or would rather have given in to the pressures of political correctness; and whether he saw any significant change having occurred during the ten years since his first trip.  His summation answers both questions: “The Africa of 2001 had undergone significant alterations – a few improvements, many degradations.” 

We will want to relate many of the specifics he tells about the three countries he visited, but first it will be well to notice what he has to say that, if taken to heart, can serve as a corrective to the illusions about Africa entertained by a great many people in the West.  Perhaps a clearing up of those illusions can make a small dent in the mentality of naïve sentimentalism that governs so much of what the West does in its pursuit of global meliorism.

 

Theroux’s Piercing of the Illusions

          Theroux is so deeply committed to honest realism that he doesn’t “suffer fools kindly” when it comes to Africa.  Many commentators spread a thick layer of icing over the sordid realities.  We mentioned “political correctness” a minute ago, and it is in that context that we see the desire of most writers to be welcomed within the respectable mainstream’s indulgent perception of Africa.   Thus, Theroux writes candidly of “a tortuously argued op-ed piece in the New York Times by the historian and Africanist Jean Herskovits” which “smacked of special pleading” in its effort to paper over the atrocities committed by the Islamic Boko Haram sect in Nigeria.  He says that “decades ago, the only books about the Ju/’hoansi [a subgroup of the Bushmen] I could find were the works of Laurens van der Post, but I soon learned to be wary of him… [H]e was something of a mythomaniac.”  Theroux tells of fiction about Africa that overlooks the slums and places its story in “a cozy refuge.”  “The stink of the place, the hopelessness, the vile indifference, do not rise from the page.”  He says “much of Graham Greene’s fiction is misleadingly romantic in this flawed way.”  Theroux never sounds misanthropic in his ire, but his even temper doesn’t keep him from seeing through superficiality: “To anyone who breezed through the international airport [in Angola] on the red carpet and praised the country’s manners and modernity, I could say: You do not have the slightest idea.”  Wealthy Westerners who think they are getting a taste of Africa when they spend a few days on safari might do well to heed his admonition that “today in South Africa for a price you are guaranteed an African experience, even if it is no more than the commercial thrill of a glorified theme park.”  And it isn’t just others who have entertained illusions; he tells about himself that “The image of the Ju/’hoansi we cling to – I did anyway – is that of a wild-dwelling, self-sufficient people.  We seem to need them to be that way… purer… tenacious, resourceful, generous, peaceful, as if inhabiting Eden.”  But, seeing that the disillusioning realities are different, he asks about his original view, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”  

          The “virtue industry.”  What Theroux calls “the virtue industry” is a seemingly never-ending multibillion dollar endeavor by governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), churches and individuals to help the “underdeveloped” peoples of the world, most conspicuously in Africa and India.  It is here that Theroux does his most significant “illusion piercing.”

          He tells much about the nature of the melioristic activity – adding, as we will see, his own commentary.  The New York Times, he says, reported, about aid to Zimbabwe, that “in 2012 the maize harvest had been reduced by a third, 1.6 million Zimbabweans faced starvation, and the UN’s World Food Program would need to distribute emergency food aid.”   This help from outside came, of course, after what BBC News Africa describes as “the forced seizure of almost all white-owned commercial farms, with the stated aim of benefiting landless black Zimbabweans,” which, it says, “led to sharp falls in production and precipitated the collapse of the agriculture-based economy.”[3]  

His impression is one of “busybodying” when “the ‘gang of virtue’ make the visit to tell Africans how to improve their lives.”  The American Millennial Challenge Corporation (which in his opinion conducts “the most efficient” of all the foreign aid programs he’s seen) has a total fund of about $1 billion to spend “all over the globe, dispensing America taxpayers’ money in an effort to improve other people’s lives.” After seeing “tourist herds” in Namibia, Theroux asked the resident country director of the AMCC, “were U.S. funds invested in Namibia’s tourism industry?”  The director answered that $67 million was being spent for that purpose.     

It is interesting to note what Theroux is doing when the observes that “many tourist destinations in the United States… would have been glad to get the $67 million… In the aftermath of the 2008 economic slump… Hawaii got nothing, Cape Cod got nothing, but they struggled along.  Maine’s tourist industry was still in serious trouble.”  He is applying an American’s perspective, even though Theroux is about as far from parochialism as anyone can imagine; and he is, as economists would say, looking at the “opportunity cost” of the aid, pointing to passed-over alternative uses to which the money could have been put.  This reminds us that it is not enough just to look at whether the benefits are worth the cost (although even cost/benefit analysis often seems to be absent as to much aid); the forsaken alternatives are also to be remembered.

Much of what Theroux tells us about the “virtue industry” gives insight into whether the billions spent on aid are effective.  Theroux thinks not: “Does this improvisational charity do any good?  History suggests no, that the countries are worse off for it.  Many African economists… have convincingly argued that most aid is harmful… [One] declares that the $1 trillion that African countries have received since the late 1940s has discouraged investment, instilled a culture of dependency, and created corruption.”  He goes on to say that “a great deal of aid is plainly political, and much is pure theater.”  We recall that in Dark Star Safari, based on his 2001 visit after being away 40 years, he reported that “Africa 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.”  It had “slipped into a stereotype of itself: starving people in a blighted land governed by tyrants, rumors of unspeakable atrocities, despair and darkness.”  Just the same, Theroux gives high marks to “a British charity called the HALO Trust… a gallant organization” that has cleared 68,000 land mines in Angola, leftovers from the 27-year civil war there.  (There is an international effort directed at landmines, but the problem dwarfs the efforts, as we see when we are told that more mines are added all the time, often by “non-state actors,” and that “there are estimated to be around 110 million anti-personnel mines in the ground.”)

If the effects of the “virtue industry” aren’t good, what does Theroux suggest?  He argues that “a better alternative to the endless gift-giving is investment.”  Also, “take the corrupting forms of foreign aid away and popular desperation might become more productive, rebellion leading to elections that might improve matters in the long term.”  Fundamentally, he believes that Africans will have to help themselves. 

Unfortunately, this may be a forlorn hope.  As Theroux explained in Dark Star Safari, “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… It is a subsistence economy, and survival is something that Africans have learned.” Something he observed many times over was an indifference toward keeping anything functional: “Nothing was fixed or kept in good repair, the concept of stewardship or maintenance hardly existed.”  He says that in Tanzania a railroad recently built by the Chinese is “now falling apart.”  In Lubango, he was told “we actually do have a mall.”  Going there, he found that it was “an eyesore, already falling apart.”  The “new Africa” is a scene of “unfixable blight,” with 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.”  Crowds of unemployed men would stand around, with none inclined to pick up any of the trash.  

Theroux is dubious not just about the outcomes, but about the mixed motives that impel the melioristic effort.  He acknowledges that there are “selfless idealists,” which is what he was while teaching in Africa a half century ago; but at the other end of the continuum he sees “the laziest boondogglers.”  We can’t doubt but that a great many well-meaning people contribute to their churches’ missionary funds, say, out of the best of motives.  (Theroux sees this, which leads him to explain his skepticism: “A lack of human charity is an appalling defect, so I am not condemning the actions of these people, only questioning them and finding them mostly misguided.”)  He does see considerable venality at work.  In his earlier book he observed that “much donor aid is self-interested.”  So many of the aid workers enjoyed the ministrations of African prostitutes that Theroux said “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 food parcels.”  He now refers to “highly paid advice givers” and speaks of “a continent plagued with foreign advisers.”  He takes particular umbrage at Hollywood “stars [who] act out their concern in public, their patronage rising to the level of a performance, like giant infants fluttering money into a beggar’s outstretched hands and pretending to ignore the applause.”  It is a scene marked by “grandstanding” and “photo ops.”

      

Theroux’s Observations About Sub-Saharan Africa in General

          We will see what Theroux observed in South Africa, Namibia and Angola, but first it will be instructive to review the many points he makes about sub-Saharan Africa in general.

          .  A continent of “huge, unsustainable cities.”  The population has long been migrating from the countryside into the cities, where “today, 200 million people… live in slums.”  He has seen many “cities that were indistinguishable from one another in their squalor and decrepitude… They all suffer from the same inadequacies – food shortages, no plumbing, no clinics, no schools, no security – and the same illnesses – cholera, malaria, TB, and HIV/AIDS.”  If outsiders manage to improve a slum, a perverse process sets in: “Every improved slum area attracts a new shantytown, every new shantytown attracts a squatter camp, every squatter camp attracts more people leaving their traditional homelands for an uncertain life in the city, among the multitudes of unemployed.”

          . Rapid population growth.  “Africa’s population is growing much faster than that of any other continent.  There are estimated to be a billion Africans now.  Within four decades it will be two billion people.”  This exacerbates, of course, the problems just described; and it works to defeat the efforts of outsiders who seek compassionate outcomes.  Indeed, those efforts feed the fires of burgeoning population.  Native customs add to it, too, such as in Angola where “a husband was merely a means to an end.  As in much of the region, the object of womanhood was to bear a child: a woman without a child was not really a woman, and had no status.”

          . Political depravity.  Theroux says “the murderous, self-elected, megalomaniacal head of state with the morals of a fruit fly, with his decades in power, along with his vain, shopaholic wife, his hangers-on, and his goon squad, is an obscene feature of African life that is not likely to disappear.” To these factors, he adds that “in every African tyranny it was the army’s loyalty to the leader and its impartial cruelty that made the difference.”  And looking out upon the “hinterlands of Africa today,” he sees that they “are now controlled by heavily armed warlords, mercenaries, rebel armies, hostile tribes, secessionists, and religious fanatics – hard-line Islamists (Boko Haram, Ansar Dine) or crazed Christians (the Lord’s Resistance Army).”

          . Economic polarity and corruption.  When someone suggests to Theroux that he “just didn’t see the nice areas,” he says he did peek inside the small gated communities, walled compounds “where they had their own generators, water sources, and amenities: tennis courts, swimming pools, golf and social clubs, and of course armed sentries and guard dogs.”  There are places in South Africa where “every house is a fortress,” surrounded by high walls. He points out that “a lack of money [is seldom] the problem in the hellholes of the world,” since a country like Angola earns “billions of dollars a year from its oil, diamond, and gold exports.”  The “kleptomaniacs in power,” occupying one pole, ignore “the mute and brutalized” mass of the people, who cluster by the tens of millions at the other pole.  Bribery and corruption are “a way of life in Angola.” 

          . The characteristics of the people.  There are residuals of seemingly untouched primitivism, such as is seen in the “Mwila people… less than thirty miles from Lubango [in Angola],” where, in keeping with ancient custom, they “still smeared themselves with animal fat [and] coated their hair with mud and cow dung….”  There is a belief in spirits and in healers who are said to be able to cure AIDS: “a healer with a civet cat pelt on his head, surrounded by stinking bones and feathers and snake skins.”  In Angola, there is a “rite of passage” for girls in which “the girls drink beer mixed with a semen of the man presiding over the ceremony.”  Theroux tells us that in Malawi there are “one million AIDS orphans.” 

          In the cities, the stark primitivism of ancient cultures gives way to a new, updated primitivism.  In Angola, Theroux heard “a continual clamor of shouts and music from boom boxes of the people picnicking on the beach… many of them screaming at each other.”  We are told that “rap and hip-hop now dominate African pop music... all of it blasting at full volume.”   If we think such music comes to America from Africa, it is surprising to learn that the flow is the other way: “Much of it is imported unchanged from the United States.”  Theroux explains that rap music is ubiquitous in sub-Saharan Africa.  It is “the howl of the underclass, the music of menace.”  A whole tone of life comes with it: “rap-themed T-shirts and shorts… skateboarding, break dancing, and graffiti.” “It was a rare public wall in Africa that had not been tagged with graffiti.”

 

The three countries Theroux visited in 2011

          The Last Train to Zona Verde is based, as we’ve noted, on his 2011 trip to South Africa, Namibia and Angola.  Although his narrative about them necessarily describes much of what we have already seen him tell about sub-Saharan Africa in general, it is instructive to see those things as he witnessed them in specific places.

South Africa.  About the Khayelitsha area in the city of Cape Town, he describes its “great sprawl…, with its population of half a million and its more than 80 percent unemployment, the place with the worst reputation for crime, idleness, gambling, fighting, and binge drinking.”  He walked near the Bill Gates cultural center in the Langa area: the streets “were littered with garbage, old tires, and broken bottles.  Even the recently planted flowers and patches of fenced-off grass had been trashed… Only ten years old, the center was already in a state of disrepair – unswept and seemingly neglected.”  He told of a woman with nine children who lived in a shack, and of others who lived in rusty metal shipping containers.  The Langa area, he said, had approximately 40 burials of AIDS victims every Saturday. 

In South Africa, there was an annual rate of 32,000 murders and more than 70,000 rapes. Some are the victims of anti-white racism.  “Since apartheid was banned in 1994, more than 3,000 white farmers had been murdered by black assassins.” Theroux tells of the “racist rants of one of South Africa’s rising demagogues, Julius Malema,” who has “presided over the [African National Congress’s] Youth League since 2008… his fist upraised,” urging “the politics of racial incitement.”  Malema is famous for his “hate song, ‘Shoot the Boer,’” which “advocated the killing of white farmers.”  Those of us who are familiar with the perversities of contemporary Western culture cannot be surprised that Bono, an Irish  “multimillionaire rocker” who is “the front man of U2,” toured South Africa in 2011 and “loved the song.”

The poverty is so striking that tourists flock to see it, as though it’s an attraction in its own right.  In keeping with his disdain for the superficiality and inanity of so many Westerners’ perceptions of Africa, Theroux writes of this as “slum tourism” and “poverty porn.”

Needless to say, none of this amounts to a rounded, thorough account of South Africa.  It’s a narrative of what he saw as a traveler, and constitutes testimony, in effect, about certain conspicuous features.

Namibia.  Namibia was a German colony known as Deutsch-Seuddwestafrika until it was made a South African colony following Germany’s loss in World War I.  It gained its independence in 1990, and because of its German history sees a good many German tourists, who enjoy German hotels and restaurants.  About forty thousand Germans live there.  Theroux found the town of Swakopmund a “bourgeois refuge,” clean and virtually unlike any other African city; but he notes that the township of Mondesa, on the edge of Swakopmund and with a population of thirty thousand, is a slum composed of cinderblock huts, shacks and shanties.  Namibia is the site for many big-game hunting safaris.  He sees them, of course, as a “ridiculous charade,” with the safari companies running concessions where the game can be found and doing the work to create trophies by “stuffing and mounting” the dead animals.

The country as a whole is a vast, rocky, dry desert, and is sparsely populated, which nevertheless “receives the attention of many charity-minded Americans.”  It has only one real city, Windhoek, the capital with a quarter of a million people.  There, there is much poverty and unemployment, and Theroux advises that “the neighborhoods of Windhoek are dangerous.”  The average life expectancy in Namibia is 43.  Twenty percent of the population has HIV/AIDS.  Despite the poverty, it seemed to Theroux that everyone had a cell phone.

He had some contact with the pygmies, which leads him to tell of a bizarre custom among them: “…one which allows a woman whose husband has committed adultery to strangle the woman who presumes to be her rival.”  The husband, he says, isn’t punished.

Angola.  Although there are many tribal languages, Portuguese is Angola’s main language, reflecting the country’s 400 years as a Portuguese colony prior to its independence in 1974.  During its centuries of colonization, Portugal made Angola a penal colony, the repository of its (all male) “brutalized criminals and illiterate peasants.”  The analogy to Britain’s use of Australia and Russia’s of Siberia is apparent, but superficial, Theroux says, because the sort of man (they were all males) transported to Angola was much worse than the people who were sent to either Australia or Siberia.  In the event, “many of the exiled Portuguese convicts became important slave traders.”  They were aided by indigenous mulattos who “traveled deep into Africa” to bring back captives.  Benguela was once among the grimmest slave ports on earth… It is estimated that as many as four million slaves were shipped out of Angola or died in raids, on marches to the coast, or at sea.”  Holding pens held captive slaves in Benguela and Luanda.  Portugal got in line with the anti-slavery movement in 1878 by outlawing slavery, but a form of de facto slavery known as “forced labor” continued until 1961.  Now, true to Angolan history, China has been bringing in “criminals, working off their sentences.”  They work as slave labor, building so poorly that Theroux was told “the buildings [they have built] are now starting to fall apart.”

Burnt-out tanks and trucks litter the countryside, giving testimony to the 27-year civil war that followed independence.  The war was a Cold War face-off pitting Cuba and the Soviet Union on one side against South Africa on the other.  Fifty thousand people died in “the biggest conventional battle fought anywhere on earth since World War Two.” An estimated 20 million land mines remain as a source of constant danger.  Understandably, there are no wild animals.

Angola has the usual sub-Saharan politics, a “thieving tyranny.”  The president “appointed himself in 1980 and has been in power ever since.”  The country’s squalor (with 90 percent unemployment in Luanda) exists side-by-side with great wealth; Theroux says Angola has makes billions of dollars a year from its oil.  The president’s daughter, Isabel, is a billionaire.  Bribery, ranging from “petty intimidation” to “million-dollar bribes demanded by government ministers of the oil companies and the gold and diamond concessions,” is “a way of life in Angola.”  Economically, the country could be an agricultural mecca, “feeding all Africa,” but instead “all the fresh food is imported from South Africa.”  Theroux was told that “Angolans don’t make anything.  Everything is imported.”  Much of it, from China, is outrageously priced.

The human traits are much the same as Theroux describes for sub-Saharan Africa in general.  He visited Lubango, a city of a million and a half people, finding most of them living in hovels.  To get to the mall, he had to step over a dead dog, “which was not moved the entire time I was in Lubango.”

 

Some Oddities and Missing Elements

          Theroux is as committed to true description and to the puncturing of illusions as any author we know, so it is surprising to find an occasional lapse that flies in the face of the realities he has depicted.  The oddities are centered on South Africa, about which he says “anyone knowing its history, especially its recent history, could be confident that Cape Town was a city with a future, one that inspired the notion that all things are possible.”  And again: “How did South Africa compare to the country I had seen on my trip ten years before…?  I could honestly say it was brighter and better, more confident and prosperous… The South African people had made the difference… no thanks to [the] government….”  A decade ago, in Dark Star Safari, he wrote similarly: “The long political struggle had made a family of all South Africans – a forgiving if a sometimes unruly family.”

          This is strange.  After telling of Julius Malema, who we’ve seen calls for the killing of the white farmers, he speaks of Malema as “a possible future leader of South Africa.”  And in general about South Africa he says (several pages removed from the optimistic prediction just quoted) that “their recent past was so full of ambiguities none could say what the future might hold for them.”  We recall, of course, what he has described about the slovenliness and growing squalor, the great polarity of wealth, an annual rate of 32,000 homicides and 70,000 rapes, and the 3,000 murdered white farmers.  Speaking as he always does in the past tense, but referring to the recent situation, he speaks of “industrial cities that were not faring well in South Africa’s post-independence economy.”

          What accounts for this striking disparity?  One suspects, but doesn’t really know, that the rosy predictions were inserted upon the insistence of editors who hoped thereby to make the books “politically correct.”  It doesn’t ring true that the inconsistency is due to Theroux’s own thinking.

          We have already sounded the caveat that Theroux does not purport with his travels to be making a comprehensive analysis of each country.  Nevertheless, there are two features of what he describes that we wish he had explained.  When, say, he tells of eighty percent unemployment in the Khayelitsha area of Cape Town, we are left wondering how those half-million people manage to feed themselves, however meagerly.  We are told that Africans have mastered the art of surviving on next to nothing, but how do those in the shanties and packing crates have even that much? 

Another question that isn’t sufficiently answered is why so many millions of people leave the bush and come into the cities to live miserably there. A related question: why don’t millions, after finding conditions in the cities intolerable,   migrate back? Theroux asked a woman who had made the migration, and was told that it was “because of drought” in her village; and Theroux invokes an author who says “people feel more secure in a crowd, so they flee the emptiness and insecurity of the countryside.”  The phenomenon of what we call “peasant pressure” has occurred in many places: in England at the advent of the Industrial Revolution as people flocked into the industrial cities; in Russia before the Russian Revolution; in Iran before the ousting of the Shah.  When Theroux went into the bush, he mainly described the primitivism of what remains of the ancient ways of life. Could it be that the life there is so unpleasant that anyone hearing of an alternative will embrace it, no matter how bad it may be?

 

The Last Train to Zona Verde is a worthy successor to Dark Star Safari.  It has much more to recount than we have been able to convey here.  Highly recommended.  

 



[1]    See the discussion of these few oddities near the end of this review.

[2]   We reviewed Dark Star Safari in our Winter 2004 issue, pp. 455-467, as a book review article entitled “Eastern Africa as Seen Through the Eyes of a Realist.”  This may be read and downloaded free of charge at www.dwightmurphey-collectedwritings.info as Article 87 (i.e., A87).

[3]   BBC News Africa, posted September 26, 2013, on www.bbc.co.uk