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Forty years after being a Peace Corps worker in Malawi and a teacher in Uganda, Paul Theroux returns to Africa and finds things changed--for the worse. Now approaching his sixtieth birthday and wanting to escape from cell phones, answering machines, the daily newspaper, and being "put on hold," he is determined to travel from Cairo to Cape Town. He believes that the continent "contain[s] many untold tales and some hope and comedy and sweetness, too," and that there is "more to Africa than misery and terror."
Traveling alone by cattle truck, "chicken bus," bush train, matatu, rental car, ferry, and even dugout canoe, he tries to blend in as much as possible, buying clothing at secondhand stalls in public markets, carrying only one small bag, and avoiding the tourist destinations. He is an observant and insightful writer, and his descriptions of his travails are so vivid the reader can experience them vicariously. His interviews with residents are perceptive and very revealing of the political and social climate of these places, and his character sketches of Sister Alexandra from Ethiopia (a nun who "has loved") and of two charming Ethiopian traders, a father and son, who take Theroux to the Kenyan border, are delightful.
For most of the countries of Africa, however, he has no kind words. Kenya is "one of the most corrupt...countries in Africa," everything in Kampala, Uganda, has changed for the worse, and in Tanzania "there was only decline--simple linear decrepitude, and in some villages collapse." At the U.S. embassy in Malawi, he finds an "overpaid, officious, disingenuous, blame-shifting...embassy hack" and, in pique, he wonders, "Had she, like me, been abused, terrified, stranded, harassed, cheated, bitten, flooded, insulted, exhausted, robbed, browbeaten, poisoned?"
Theroux has become curmudgeonly over time, and it is difficult to "travel with" a man who sees himself as a hero for making the trip at all, but who also refuses to give a half-eaten apple to a hungry child when she begs for it. He is very critical in his comments about other writers. He admires Rimbaud, who lived in Ethiopia in the 1880's, he visits Naguib Mahfouz in Egypt, and he spends his sixtieth birthday with Nadine Gordimer, an old friend. But Hemingway ("bent on proving his manhood"), Isak Dinesen ("a sentimental memoirist"), Kuki Gallman (a "mythomaniac of the present day"), and V.S. Naipaul ("an outsider who feels weak") are abruptly dismissed. When he ultimately refers to his own "safari-as-struggle," it is hard not compare his temporary and entirely voluntary struggles to those of the African people he meets along the way. "Being in Africa was like being on a dark star," he says. His book reflects this darkness. (3.5 stars) Mary Whipple
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on 18 August 2004
Despite its pessimism, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, far more in fact than his earlier work on China, entitled 'Riding the Iron Rooster'. Is it a coincidence that Theroux identifies the themes of ignorance, neglect, failure and death in every country that he visits? Theroux can be accused of pomposity and a lack of empathy but I find his most base argument compelling; namely that Africans cannot be helped unless they show a willingnes to help themselves (or at best stop taking outside help for granted). I also grew to understand what lies behind Theroux's peregrinatory urges and how his earlier experiences of Africa in the 1960s had shaped his development in early adulthood. But what really makes the book rivetting is the annecdotes and life stories - often horrific, at best darkly funny - of those who he meets along the way.
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on 5 May 2005
Traveloguing is a way of life for Paul Theroux and he is good at it. Observant, gregarious and with unique literary associations that make each new trip he undertakes a pleasure to read about. On a number of occasions, he complains about Africans addressing him as Mzee (elder), and he blames it on the low life expectancy of the Africans. But read the book, compare it to his earlier work and the conclusion is: yes he is a Mzee. Travelling light, but with a lifetime of baggage. None of the fresh and optimistic outlook from the Great Railway Bazar, rather a look over the shoulder in amazement how things could go so wrong in the African continent. And for a large part a not very happy sentimental journey. His analyses can still be razor sharp, but there is also a lot of repetition. Yes Paul, you have arrived, you are a mzee.
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on 5 January 2009
I have read several Theroux travel books in the past and have always imagined him as a difficult man - easy to take offence, bad tempered and opinionated yet very intelligent and certainly an excellent writer. I read this book over 2 nights as found his journey across the African continent fascinating, and as he himself hopes a reader will feel, how much nicer it is to read about someone else's horrible times in travels from the comfort of one's armchair!
I found some of his views on aid and aid workers in Africa very controverisal. I don't know how many people would agree that the best way to help Africa would be to cut off all aid so they can help themselves. However it certainly gave me food for thought and I think there may be more than a grain of truth in what he says in that patronising endless aid is doing nothing to improve Africa's problems and may even be perpetuating them.
However I must say I also found his meaness apalling, refusing even a scrap of food to a semi starved child from his luxury train window, probably still using the same philosophy that 'aid is bad'. For all his criticisms of the system, he is still a rich Westerner who could afford to make a very expensive trip and travel where he wishes, yet still despises those who for whatever very complex reasons, are living in squalor.
Highly recommended.
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Forty years after being a Peace Corps worker in Malawi and a teacher in Uganda, Paul Theroux returns to Africa and finds things changed--for the worse. Now approaching his sixtieth birthday and wanting to escape from cell phones, answering machines, the daily newspaper, and being "put on hold," he is determined to travel from Cairo to Cape Town. He believes that the continent "contain[s] many untold tales and some hope and comedy and sweetness, too," and that there is "more to Africa than misery and terror."
Traveling alone by cattle truck, "chicken bus," bush train, matatu, rental car, ferry, and even dugout canoe, he tries to blend in as much as possible, buying clothing at secondhand stalls in public markets, carrying only one small bag, and avoiding the tourist destinations. He is an observant and insightful writer, and his descriptions of his travails are so vivid the reader can experience them vicariously. His interviews with residents are perceptive and very revealing of the political and social climate of these places, and his character sketches of Sister Alexandra from Ethiopia (a nun who "has loved") and of two charming Ethiopian traders, a father and son, who take Theroux to the Kenyan border, are delightful.
For most of the countries of Africa, however, he has no kind words. Kenya is "one of the most corrupt...countries in Africa," everything in Kampala, Uganda, has changed for the worse, and in Tanzania "there was only decline--simple linear decrepitude, and in some villages collapse." At the U.S. embassy in Malawi, he finds an "overpaid, officious, disingenuous, blame-shifting...embassy hack" and, in pique, he wonders, "Had she, like me, been abused, terrified, stranded, harassed, cheated, bitten, flooded, insulted, exhausted, robbed, browbeaten, poisoned?"
Theroux has become waspish, and it is difficult to "travel with" a man who sees himself as a hero for making the trip at all, especially after he refuses to give a half-eaten apple to a hungry child when she begs for it. He makes snide remarks and demeans other writers. He admires Rimbaud, who lived in Ethiopia in the 1880's, he visits Naguib Mahfouz in Egypt, and he spends his sixtieth birthday with Nadine Gordimer, an old friend. But Hemingway ("bent on proving his manhood"), Isak Dinesen ("a sentimental memoirist"), Kuki Gallman (a "mythomaniac of the present day"), and V.S. Naipaul ("an outsider who feels weak") are abruptly dismissed. When he ultimately refers to his own "safari-as-struggle," it is hard not compare his temporary and entirely voluntary "struggle" to those of the African people he meets along the way. "Being in Africa was like being on a dark star," he says. His book reflects this darkness--and his own. Mary Whipple
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on 4 November 2003
Yet again Theroux does not disappoint in his most recent of travel writings. The first theroux book I read was 'The Great Railway Bazaar', and at first glance it is easy to misinterpret his style as being somewhat pompous and self-fulfilling. After reading closer however, I think it more accurate to see his words as deeply personal, a journey through not only a place that holds for him much familiarity, but a place for which Theroux harbours a great deal of emotion.

This book glistens with both the wonderful highs of human spirit, and also the desperate lows that come with a journey so arduous as the one he has undertaken here, both spiritually and physically.
It cannot be easy to shatter your own dreams and memories of a place that you hold so dearly in your heart, and yet at times theroux does just this in the book, with a frank earnesty that I find both refreshing and very touching.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys travel writing for a tale of a journey, and a taste of a place and of the trip itself. Theroux is still the master of his art, and to my mind all other travel works must first be judged by his.
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on 29 October 2013
Hearing Theroux on the radio discussing this book and his travels I could relate to his experiences in Africa. So had to obtain a copy to see how he viewed his travels.

Whilst he followed another route than my own travels it was interesting to read his reactions on returning to his old school in Malawi - the decay, the sadness, for both the school and also recognition that his experience had embedded in his memory was no longer "live". The entry onto a river trip in Southern Africa totally distant from all shores of western existence is an experience we should all try to achieve at least once in our lives. To extend the metaphor those experiences become an anchor to ones humanity.

Overland? Well not quite. He missed the delights of Wadi Halfa. Nile Perch and chips anyone?
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Forty years after being a Peace Corps worker in Malawi and a teacher in Uganda, Paul Theroux returns to Africa and finds things changed--for the worse. Now approaching his sixtieth birthday and wanting to escape from cell phones, answering machines, the daily newspaper, and being "put on hold," he is determined to travel from Cairo to Cape Town. He believes that the continent "contain[s] many untold tales and some hope and comedy and sweetness, too," and that there is "more to Africa than misery and terror."
Traveling alone by cattle truck, "chicken bus," bush train, matatu, rental car, ferry, and even dugout canoe, he tries to blend in as much as possible, buying clothing at secondhand stalls in public markets, carrying only one small bag, and avoiding the tourist destinations. He is an observant and insightful writer, and his descriptions of his travails are so vivid the reader can experience them vicariously. His interviews with residents are perceptive and very revealing of the political and social climate of these places, and his character sketches of Sister Alexandra from Ethiopia (a nun who "has loved") and of two charming Ethiopian traders, a father and son, who take Theroux to the Kenyan border, are delightful.
For most of the countries of Africa, however, he has no kind words. Kenya is "one of the most corrupt...countries in Africa," everything in Kampala, Uganda, has changed for the worse, and in Tanzania "there was only decline--simple linear decrepitude, and in some villages collapse." At the U.S. embassy in Malawi, he finds an "overpaid, officious, disingenuous, blame-shifting...embassy hack" and, in pique, he wonders, "Had she, like me, been abused, terrified, stranded, harassed, cheated, bitten, flooded, insulted, exhausted, robbed, browbeaten, poisoned?"
Theroux has become curmudgeonly over time, and it is difficult to "travel with" a man who sees himself as a hero for making the trip at all, but who also refuses to give a half-eaten apple to a hungry child when she begs for it. He is very critical in his comments about other writers. He admires Rimbaud, who lived in Ethiopia in the 1880's, he visits Naguib Mahfouz in Egypt, and he spends his sixtieth birthday with Nadine Gordimer, an old friend. But Hemingway ("bent on proving his manhood"), Isak Dinesen ("a sentimental memoirist"), Kuki Gallman (a "mythomaniac of the present day"), and V.S. Naipaul ("an outsider who feels weak") are abruptly dismissed. When he ultimately refers to his own "safari-as-struggle," it is hard not compare his temporary and entirely voluntary struggles to those of the African people he meets along the way. "Being in Africa was like being on a dark star," he says. His book reflects this darkness. Mary Whipple
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on 2 January 2003
Theroux's narrative of his adventurous journey is fascinating. His contacts range from former colleagues who are now in positions of power to new acquaintances at the bottom of the social stratum. His gloomy conclusions recognise the inability of post colonial African leaders to provide good government as well as the negative effect of the self serving and disempowering aid industry. This book should be read by all those who have an interest in what optimistically used to be called the developing world. Theroux is smart enough to avoid proposing solutions. I suspect that he thinks that there aren't any.
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Forty years after being a Peace Corps worker in Malawi and a teacher in Uganda, Paul Theroux returns to Africa and finds things changed--for the worse. Now approaching his sixtieth birthday and wanting to escape from cell phones, answering machines, the daily newspaper, and being "put on hold," he is determined to travel from Cairo to Cape Town. He believes that the continent "contain[s] many untold tales and some hope and comedy and sweetness, too," and that there is "more to Africa than misery and terror."
Traveling alone by cattle truck, "chicken bus," bush train, matatu, rental car, ferry, and even dugout canoe, he tries to blend in as much as possible, buying clothing at secondhand stalls in public markets, carrying only one small bag, and avoiding the tourist destinations. He is an observant and insightful writer, and his descriptions of his travails are so vivid the reader can experience them vicariously. His interviews with residents are perceptive and very revealing of the political and social climate of these places, and his character sketches of Sister Alexandra from Ethiopia (a nun who "has loved") and of two charming Ethiopian traders, a father and son, who take Theroux to the Kenyan border, are delightful.
For most of the countries of Africa, however, he has no kind words. Kenya is "one of the most corrupt...countries in Africa," everything in Kampala, Uganda, has changed for the worse, and in Tanzania "there was only decline--simple linear decrepitude, and in some villages collapse." At the U.S. embassy in Malawi, he finds an "overpaid, officious, disingenuous, blame-shifting...embassy hack" and, in pique, he wonders, "Had she, like me, been abused, terrified, stranded, harassed, cheated, bitten, flooded, insulted, exhausted, robbed, browbeaten, poisoned?"
Theroux has become curmudgeonly over time, and it is difficult to "travel with" a man who sees himself as a hero for making the trip at all, but who also refuses to give an apple to a little girl when she observes it through the window of his train compartment and begs for it. He is very critical in his comments about other writers. He admires Rimbaud, who lived in Ethiopia in the 1880's, he visits Naguib Mahfouz in Egypt, and he spends his sixtieth birthday with Nadine Gordimer, an old friend. But Hemingway ("bent on proving his manhood"), Isak Dinesen ("a sentimental memoirist"), Kuki Gallman (a "mythomaniac of the present day"), and V.S. Naipaul ("an outsider who feels weak") are abruptly dismissed. When he ultimately refers to his own "safari-as-struggle," it is hard not compare his temporary and voluntary struggles to those of the African people he meets along the way. "Being in Africa was like being on a dark star," he says. His book reflects this darkness. Mary Whipple
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