'Agents of virtue'

International | Author Paul Theroux returns to Africa and raises troubling questions about Western relief work on the continent

Issue: "Weapons of mass hysteria," March 15, 2003

FAMED WRITER PAUL THEROUX begins Dark Star Safari (scheduled for publication on March 28) with the statement "All news out of Africa is bad." Wars, famines, AIDS, butchery, corruption define the way journalists, and therefore most Americans, view the continent.

As a Peace Corps volunteer and teacher in Malawi and Uganda in the mid-1960s, Mr. Theroux had a different memory, one of a newly liberated Africa on the verge of self-determination. Determined to learn what happened, he traveled overland from Cairo to Capetown, interrupting his ground trip only to fly into and out of Sudan because its borders were closed. By ramshackle bus, truck, car, train, and boat he made his way slowly south, braving bad roads, bandits, heat, sickness, and delay.

The result is Dark Star Safari, a fine read filled with evocative descriptions: "Khartoum, a city of tall white-robed men in thick Aladdin-like turbans and tall veiled woman in bright gowns and black gloves, was a place without rain, wide and brown like its intersecting rivers." Sometimes Mr. Theroux interrupts his narrative to recall a historical event that occurred in the place, or compares his observations with those of a writer visiting the same spot a hundred years before.

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Traveling by cattle truck through northern Kenya, Mr. Theroux and his party were ambushed by shifta. "I don't want to die," he told a soldier, who shot back at the bandits and replied, "They don't want your life, bwana. They want your shoes." That thought is a centerpiece of the book: "Many times after that, in my meandering through Africa, I mumbled these words, an epitaph of underdevelopment, desperation in a single sentence. What use is your life to them? It is nothing. But your shoes-ah, they are a different matter."

One of Dark Star Safari's recurring themes is the witting or unwitting damage done to Africa by Western charities and other aid programs. "Agents of virtue" appear and reappear, whizzing by in their white Land Rovers, full of noble intentions and rarely questioning whether their aid is helping or hurting its recipients. Mr. Theroux describes aid workers staying in the best hotels, driving luxury vehicles, talking on cell phones, listening to their CDs, and refusing to give lifts to stranded travelers. Their aid allows African leaders to stay in power, indifferent to the needs of their people, and turns those people into "beggars and whiners."

Though Mr. Theroux saves his most scathing criticism for "agents of virtue," he doesn't like Christianity either. He records at length his conversation with a young woman on a mission in Mozambique. "Like all the other missionaries, Susanna was determined to bully Africans into abandoning their ancient pantheism." His diatribe against her real (and imagined) beliefs goes on for pages. But then the reporter reasserts himself, and he describes with admiration, and a bit of skepticism, the shelter for street kids that she runs in Maputo.

Dark Star Safari is not the last word on Africa. It will bother many people, especially those with a vested interest in keeping big charities well funded. For the chair-bound traveler, though, Mr. Theroux is a curious, brave, and sometimes abrasive guide, who raises questions that Christians and others must ask before contributing more money to relief and development programs that promise hope but create more despair.

Q: Let's start with the numbers. How many miles, how many days, how much money did you spend on your African adventure?

A: I didn't count the miles, but if you measure from Cairo to Cape Town, that's the distance. Miles mean nothing. In Africa everything is measured by time-"half a day's walk to town." My trip took about four months. Not much money, except for air fares to and from Africa.

Q: You were a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi in the mid-'60s. Going back after 40 years, you found that what had changed had changed for the worse. Why is that?

A: I was a Peace Corps teacher from 1963 to 1965 in Malawi, and a regular English teacher in Malawi from 1965 to 1968. After so many decades, I expected some improvement, but I only concluded that things were worse when Africans themselves told me this was true. Of the many reasons for failure I would put demoralized people high on the list; also meddling from outside (unrealistic goals), untrained people, corruption, and the strong temptation of Africans to emigrate. Why bother to build your country when you can go to the USA?

Q: You save some of your sharpest language for professional helpers or "agents of virtue." How can well-meaning people cause so much trouble?


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