Sunday, 2004-08-08

The Anti-Rhodes

Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town by Paul Theroux.

This is the best book I’ve read in a long time. Partly because of the great writing, partly because my own background growing up in Kenya, and partly for the fact that Theroux has mellowed quite a bit. I remember his alter-ego in My Secret History as a prick, which is perhaps ungenerous as that book is a novel. His previous travel books have also left a sour taste in my mouth, but here he’s much more generous to the people he meets.

The chapter on Kenya is depressing, as my memories of childhood there are happy, and I could see a bit of what he describes when we went back some years ago.

Two books have been added to my reading list after this chapter:

  • Graham Hancock, The Lords of Poverty: The Power, Prestige and Corruption of the International Aid Business
  • Michael Maren, The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity

A point Theroux makes when visiting Malawi, where he worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Sixties, is that only Africans can help Africa. The vast influx of foreign aid and charity hasn’t helped much. I’m sure that Africa’s problems are not due to aid and charity — the effects of colonialism and unfair trade practices by the rich world are much bigger factors — but aid hasn’t helped.

Theroux paints a bleak picture of a continent that just can’t be able to get its act together. He offers no solutions, only observations. But those are made with such clarity that the reader is left with the feeling that things will get better, one day.

PS Cecil Rhodes dreamt of an railway from the Cape to Cairo. Theroux has no such dreams, and he travels in the other direction.