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.
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?
A: The road to underdevelopment is paved with good intentions. Computers for villages with no electricity, etc. The worst thing that aid does is destroy initiative and create a sense of entitlement.
Q: The UN, World Bank, and international relief and development agencies all spend billions of dollars, but seem to have created a culture of dependency. Your critique seems similar to that often made concerning the U.S. welfare system. Is that a fair analysis? What's the solution?
A: It is fair to try welfare or aid, but if in 40 years it has not made a difference and only creates a culture of dependency, perhaps try something else. I would distinguish between emergency aid (which is necessary) and aid schemes which are generally self-serving-"Let us build you an expensive road with American bulldozers, American supervisors, and an American company under contract."
Q: You traveled from the Muslim north through heavily Christianized countries like Malawi. Different religions, different worldviews. Do the differences show up in the treatment of women, attitudes toward life, work?
A: Not much difference. Women and children are treated like cheap labor in both Muslim and Christian countries in Africa; for example in Ethiopia, which has been Christian since about the year 333 a.d., and also got Muslims fairly early. I might add that there seems to be less race-consciousness in Islamic places.
Q: You don't much like Christian missionaries. Why?
A: Preaching that good hard-working innocent people are sinners, making them repent, making a virtue of suffering, promising better times in the afterlife-this sort of evangelism seems to me to subvert cultures, by making people despise themselves and their traditions.
Q: On the other hand, you seem to have met many Christians whom you admired. I'm thinking of Una Brownly, going home to Ulster on furlough, and the Drummond family in Zimbabwe. Maybe even the founders of your Malawi school? Have Christians done anything worthwhile in Africa?
A: A person is not good because he or she is a Christian or a Muslim. Goodness arises from a pure heart. Christians must see that it is arrogant to think that people must be "saved" by them. The people I met and liked in Africa, religious or not, had pure hearts and humility, a sense of joy, no anger.
Q: Sometimes your graphic descriptions seem at odds with your ideology. You fantasize and idealize about relaxed sexual mores. At the same time you describe African societies that have been decimated by the same thing. Couldn't Christians be right about the benefits of sex within marriage?
A: Fantasies are often at odds with the realities of life-that's why they are called fantasies. I agree that monogamy is desirable and even ideal. My prescription: Preach abstinence and monogamy but hand out condoms.
Q: You seem to think that Africans would be better off if they returned to their pagan roots. How so?
A: Why do you use this loaded word pagan? Pagan means no religion. But all African societies had gods and faith in them; a belief in an afterlife; a reverence for the dead. They were told that all this was wrong and that only Christ or Allah could save them. I think they were doing very well before. There are many people in the world who are managing quite well without missionaries.
Q: Your saddest experience?
A: Hearing that a government minister in Malawi had recently stolen the entire education budget of millions of dollars. And, with all respect, hearing a young woman tell me that she was heading for Mozambique and adding, "They're all sinners, you know."
Q: Scariest experience?
A: Being shot at by bandits in northern Kenya-but the positive side to this, and other scary experiences, was that I actually had something to write about in my book.
Q: Most joyful experience?
A: Getting to South Africa after months of travel and realizing that South Africa had been reborn as a multiracial country, with justice and freedom. It was not long ago that Nelson Mandela was vilified-by Dick Cheney, Margaret Thatcher, and many others who called him a "terrorist," "communist," and a criminal. Israel, Japan, Britain, and many other countries traded with the oppressive and racist South African government. South Africa would have been chaos without Mandela.
Q: Ever a moment when you thought, despite yourself, God made this place?
A: I don't know what or who made the universe. It would be presumptuous of me, and beyond my powers to say. Of course, I respect God-fearing people and I admire religious people who are able to listen to a different point of view.
I am just a traveler. Not official, no ax to grind, going the hardest and most revealing way-public transport all the way through Africa. I greatly appreciate your questions and am grateful to you for listening to me and taking an interest in my book.