Dark Star Safari is one of Paul Theroux’s best travel books to date. He sets out to journey from Cairo to Cape town shortly before his 60th birthday in a bid to escape the modern world and see what has happened to the continent he had lived in as a young man. Assailed by images of reporters showing civil wars, famine and poverty and close up camera shots of starving children with the caption ‘and these are the lucky ones’, Theroux finds himself stirred to investigate.
“All news out of Africa is bad. It made me want to go there.” He begins the book, “There I had lived and worked, happily, almost forty years ago in the heart of the greenest continent.”
Educating us to the real meaning of the word ‘safari’, as ‘journey’ in Swahili Theroux strikes out on the ultimate safari through some of the most dangerous territory in the world by road. He is ‘shot at, delayed and robbed’ but is happy to be out of the reach of the world.
“Travel in the African bush is also a sort of revenge on mobile phones and fax machines, on telephones and the daily paper, on the creepier aspects of globalisation that allow anyone who chooses to get their insinuating little hands on you. I desired to be unattainable.” He identifies with Mr Kurtz of Joseph Conrad and throughout the book he continues to hark back to the Heart of Darkness. The horror! The horror!
Theroux begins his journey in Egypt while he waits for visas and is hassled to death by relentless Egyptian hustlers. They pester him for baksheesh and dollars until he begs them to stop saying the word ‘money’. At the same time he tires to take the long view:
“..I saw this patter as another age-old artifact, like the plaster sphinxes and the chess sets and the camel saddles they sold to the tourists, the patter was just another home-made curio, polished over the centuries”
Everyone persists in telling him that Egypt is not actually part of Africa and he thinks back to the time that the map of Africa was unexplored and full of white spaces.
“So the image I carried with me on my trip was of a burned-our wilderness, empty of significant life, of no promise, a land of despair, full of predators, that I was tumbling down the side of a dark star.”
His visas arrive and Theroux travels off gleefully to Sudan where everyone has warned him not to go. He talks to anyone and everyone as usual and gets invited to a gathering of Sufis. The dervishes all unite for a prayer meeting and their fervour is such that Theroux finds himself getting quite nervous. He is also enraptured by the spectacle though.
“..this was the lovely weird essence I looked for in travel – both baffling and familiar in the sunset and the rising dust beaten into the air by all those feet, dervishes and spectators alike.”
Into Ethiopia and he fins himself on a pilgrimage to visit the town where Arthur Rimbaud had made himself an exile. Abandoning the life of France’s most cherished poet at the age of 19, Rimbaud had disappeared in Africa to become a gun runner and grumpy expatriate in the xenophobic province of Harar. Theroux discovers that it’s not the idyllic hideaway one would have imagined but rather a place lepers, hyenas, illegal ivory trade, open drains and locals who come rushing out of the doorways simply to yell “Foreigner!” in his face.
“All this explained why Rimbaud was so happy here. He had liked Africa for being the anti-Europe, the anti-West,”
One of the common features of the recent past in Africa is the imprisonment and torture of political dissenters and, in fact, anyone with an opinion. Theroux meets some journalists who were all in jail for extended periods with nothing left to keep them sane but their creativity. They somehow got hold of a copy of Gone With the Wind and decide to translate it. A pen was smuggled in and the book was translated on 300 sheets of cigarette foil paper. The papers were smuggled out with the departing prisoners and finally collate years later into an official translation.
The most dangerous part of Theroux’s travels come when he dares the road between Ethiopia and Kenya, a route many refuse to believe is even passable. He hitches a ride on the back of a truck and ends up being shot at by local bandits. He mentions that he doesn’t want to die and the other passengers laugh at him. The bandits don’t want his life but his shoes. He quickly sees the point.
“What use is your life to them? It is nothing. But your shoes – ah, they are a different matter, they are worth more than your watch (they had the sun) or your pen (they were illiterate) or your bag (they had nothing to put in it). These were men who needed footwear, for they were forever walking.”
Later on the same road he’s picked up by an overland tourist expedition and is stunned by the inanity of such travel. Whilst the drivers fixed the vehicle, paid the baksheesh, haggled for the supplies, cooked the food and arranged the accommodation, the backpackers sat in the back and fiddled with their Walkmans. Hell-bent for genuine experience and adventure these young travellers never had to cope with anything more than travel sickness.
“If you had asked any of them where we had travelled the answer would have been, ‘was that where Kevin barfed?’… or ‘was that where the road sucked?’”
The thing that makes Paul Theroux the angriest in Africa seems to be the hype, propaganda and hypocrisy. In Kenya, one of the most dangerous countries in the world, tourists still flock for adventure safaris; guarded by teams of armed security guards they’re carefully escorted by helicopter to go and shoot some big animals. When in reality they would have faced far scarier predators in an evening stroll in downtown Nairobi.
But what really gets Theroux’s goat are the self-righteous aid workers, Through the book he harps back on this theme, pointing out that nothing has got better in most Africa countries after half a decade and billions of aid dollars. Wherever he goes the aid workers are arrogant, hostile and holier-than-thou as they cruise in their four-wheel drives and attract legions of prostitutes as camp followers. Whilst not slamming all relief efforts en masse he does conclude from his research that:
“…all aid is self-serving, large-scale famines are welcomed as a growth opportunity and the advertising to stimulate donations for charities is little more than ‘hunger porn’.”
Almost wherever he goes he never sees any Africans involve in the process of helping themselves. All the projects and programs are funded, staffed and run by foreigners using foreign equipment purchased in foreign countries. Theroux concludes that the Africans see no reason to do anything about their problems as someone will always come and do it for them.
In Malawi he revisits his old school where he had taught in the 60’s and finds it in ruins. The education funds had all been embezzled by the government officials. He stays in the home of the old headmaster of the school and is depressed by the dinner parties; the guests recall the 1970’s when the Indian shopkeepers were thrown out of the country to make way for Africa businessmen. The shops failed shortly afterwards and were closed. To explain the failure the guests mock the Indian obsession with counting the items in their stores – simple book keeping.
“We are not cut out for all this number-crunching.” He laughs and Theroux almost has a fit.
““I had never heard such bullshit… This man was saying: This is all too much for us. We cannot learn how to do business. We must be given money.”
Shortly afterwards his old friend, the headmaster asks Theroux why he doesn’t send his son to Malawi to work for change. Theroux irritably asks him where his own children are at present. Oh, Reno, Baltimore, London… he replies, before realising the pit he’s dug for himself.
In fact as Theroux goes through Africa the only hope he sees is in the opposite of progress. In rough times the Africans often just went back to their traditional life of maize farming and making ends meet out in the wild. They forsook their city clothes and urban dreams and just got on life as they always had.
The best of the hypocrisy is saved for near the end in Zimbabwe. Theroux pays a visit to a farm that has been occupied by black squatters and interviews one of them. The squatter in question demands that the farm owner plough his land.
“Having invaded his land and staked his claim… he now wanted free seed, free fertiliser and the fields plowed at his bidding, his victim working the tractor. It was like a thief who has stolen a coat insisting that his victim have the coat dry-cleaned and tailored to fit.”
Perhaps because Africa is so close to his heart, Paul Theroux hardly drops a line in Dark Star Safari. Traveling through really quite difficult territory he remains a down-to-earth explored and social commentator, ready to talk to anyone if they have something interesting to say. He interests himself in kidnappings, rape, extortion and murder and yet never lets his hope or love for the human race be quenched.
“The kindest Africans haven’t changed at all and even after all these years the best of them still went bare-assed.”