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"This is what the world is going to look like when it ends."
on 14 April 2013
On his loosely planned itinerary, author Paul Theroux expects to travel up the west coast of Africa, primarily by train and bus, from Capetown to Timbuktu in Mali. He has set no time limits and made no advance reservations, and he will do what he has always done - seize opportunities as he travels, make notes as he goes, and then describe what he sees. Ten years ago, when he wrote Dark Star Safari about East Africa, he was dispirited by what he saw, both in governments and in the daily lives of ordinary citizens. The people were even hungrier and more impoverished in 2004 than they had been in 1963, when he was a Peace Corp volunteer in Malawi.
This new book, written ten years later, shows even more poverty and economic horror, but Theroux himself is a much more thoughtful and sensitive narrator here, and as he makes sometimes risky trips into rarely visited areas, teaches a few English classes, and meets and admires a number of people dedicated to improving lives, he conveys that admiration to the reader. Theroux also reveals his own fears and insecurities, something I have never seen him do in previous books. Now seventy-two, he expects this to be his "ultimate" trip, and he no longer feels that he has to test himself. He becomes more "human," more one of "us," than I have seen before.
In Capetown, South Africa, Theroux notes that life for the poor has improved somewhat, though he decries the "township tours," run by tour companies, which now take tourists through poor townships - "the voyeurism of poverty," he thinks. Though these townships are improved somewhat, new and more desperate people have come to the city without any resources, creating new slums on the outskirts of the townships. By contrast, Windhoek in Namibia, founded by Germans, is clean, the city almost absent of trash. Tsumkwe, a rural crossroads in Namibia, however, is "a famine-haunted, thinly populated bush area, near the Angola border. The bush people he meets there are, he decides, the "most victimized and brutalized people in the bloody history of southern Africa...They are reminders of who we once were, our ancient better selves."
A trip to a tourist camp in Okavango Delta in Botswana establishes the dramatic contrasts between the wealthy tourist and the local people who live outside the delta, highlighted when some young people wait for tourists to finish their meals then ask politely if they can eat what is left on their plates. Angola, Theroux's next stop, proves to be the turning point. One of the richest countries in the world in terms of oil production and revenues, Angola epitomizes for Theroux the corruption at the heart of African life. No animals or birds exist in the wild here, thanks to years of bloody wars and the millions of land mines that prevent humans and animals from moving freely, and ultimately, Theroux must decide whether to continue on to a preserve to see the rare sable antelope with its five-foot long horns. Ultimately Theroux asks, "What had I learned?" And then answers: "Proctology pretty much describes the experience of traveling from one African city to another, especially the [horrific] cities of urbanized West Africa," a sad conclusion to this lifetime of travel.