Watching the world cup football ads blare out of TV, and Shakira crooning ‘This time for Africa’, I finished reading The Dark Star Safari, Paul Theroux’s book about his overland travel through Africa on a route people agree is the toughest route to Cape town from Cairo. The irony is not lost on me.
I love his unique and picturesque writing style, that makes me see the landscape almost as he is seeing it. His writing hand and his heart are very close, he writes movingly about Africa, a continent he had come to in his youth as a teacher. He returns to the dark continent again to observe the continent he left 30 years ago.
I thought there were big change rippling through Africa, you could see it in the football, you could see it in the cellphone usage stats and you could see that in rapid fall in AIDS numbers. Not true says Theroux.
The dominant theme in the book is how much worse Africa has become from the time he was last in Africa, in fact he repeats it so many times that it starts to bore you. But you can see that he holds out hope for people of Africa, unlike is equally illustrious and once friend and now bitter rival V.S. Naipaul or Sir Vidia, who had famously quoted as saying “Africa has no future” and “Africa has no culture“.
His mantra is “leave Africa to Africans” and don’t try to impose western style society in Africa via the myriad development agencies, charities and missions. It is making locals more and more dependent on aid rather than their toil, and over a period of few decades proved counter productive. Represented by foreigners in White Landcruisers they are volunteers that come but don’t interact with locals and leave in a while, and after leaving there is nobody to take their place and it falls into disarray. In their desire to do good things they disrupt the fabric of society, like picking up educated local teachers to work for these NGO’s in administration at higher salaries
I also like him for being extremely opinionated, and in stark contrast with IMHO the other modern travel popularizer Michael Palin(Whose Himalaya’s I dig, because I traveled parts of that route). I remember Theroux taking jabs at Palin in his superb “The Ghost Train to the Eastern star“. He visits Bangalore in the same book and savages the city as ‘botched cosmetic surgery‘ and ‘huge unfinished and deforested city sagging under its dubious improvements‘, both of which I could easily relate to. Bangalore has become a beast that did not evolve but was created in an instant by a nature’s freaks. But that’s another blog coming I guess