15 May 2013

Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux

Posted by Callan Bentley

The week before last, on the flight home from Texas, I finished reading Dark Star Safari, Paul Theroux’s 2004 account of traveling overland through Africa from Cairo to Cape Town. I’ve enjoyed Theroux’s traveling writing very much over the years, and although he’s written some great novels (I’m thinking of Mosquito Coast), most of them don’t appeal to me as much as the travelogues do.

I’ve been reading a lot lately, but most of it has been for book reviews that will be published in upcoming issues of Earth magazine. But this one has been on my shelf for a while, and I’ve been meaning to read it since it was published nine years ago. I enjoyed it. I’ve taken three trips to Africa in my life: Namibia in winter of 1996-7, Tanzania and Kenya in summer 2002, and then South Africa most recently in the winter of 2011-2012. Three of those four countries were on Theroux’s route south (see map below).

Why read a travelogue like this? For me, it’s an easy way to dip into the experience of travel (the good, the bad, the ugly) without any of the hassle or risk. Theroux gets into some hairy situations, and he ventures to inhospitable places – the real Africa, off the tourists’ well-beaten path. I like reading about decision-making as to logistics of how to get from point A to point B, or solving the problems of being away from home, out experiencing the world. I like the commiseration I feel when I read of Theroux crammed into a matatu with a dozen other people, of dealing with intestinal distress abroad, of arguing with mean-spirited people. All are familiar experiences to the traveler in Africa, and the great thing about a travelogue is that you can close the book and turn out the light when you want. Unlike actually being there, there’s nothing to compel you to resolve things ASAP, and for some reason, I like that.

The chief take-away message from the book is one of policy. Wherever Theroux traipses in East Africa, he finds do-gooders from the West mucking things up. He concludes that Western aid to Africa ultimately does more harm than good, as it enables corrupt government and encourages a “handout” mentality. Whether you agree with that assessment is of course up to you, but I’ve got to admit that he makes a pretty compelling case, with anecdotes and interviews aplenty as evidence. The most heartbreaking part of the book is when he revisits his former Peace Corps site in Malawi. There, he finds his old school in ruins, ransacked and gutted by thievery and disrespect. Some of his former students are now government ministers, and he gets together with them to bemoan the country’s descent into squalor. He effectively conveys the sense of how the good work he thought he was doing in the 1960s — the promise he felt, the sense of hope and forward momentum — is totally lost, and the country’s economy and character have become mired in a lack of ambition, victimization by the world economy, and drained of vitality by the too-close association of neighbors. As a returned Peace Corps Volunteer myself (Mongolia, 1998-99), I found this fascinating. As a traveler to Africa, I found it dispiriting and authentic.

Overall, the book wasn’t as fascinating a journey as some of his other books, and I think that’s because it was a more personal book – a return to one of the formative experiences of his own life, and thus there was a modicum of navel-gazing in Dark Star Safari that I didn’t get from The Great Railway Bazaar or The Happy Isles of Oceania. I don’t feel like I learned much that was ‘exotic’ and interesting about Africa (history, anthropology, geography), but instead the book does an effective job painting a picture of sad stasis and decay, of failed policies and crowded conditions in the cradle of our species.