Friday, September 18, 2009

"The kindest Africans had not changed at all, and even after all these years the best of them are bare-assed."

I have been travelling a fair bit recently; I will spare you the details as they are pretty mundane, suffice to say that I have been in Mt Gambier for 4 weeks on a university placement and this weekend will be the first one I have actually spent in the town. In fact today was the first Friday I have spent at the hospital…

I have been reading Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari on aeroplanes and at airports… two sets of flights to Canberra and back was enough time for me to finish it. The book is subtitled “Overland from Cairo to Capetown”, but this is as much a book about Africa itself as it is about travelling, and about the writer re-discovering the continent where he had lived and worked 40 years before this safari.

Theroux writes in a way that I find evocative and engaging without being wordy; he makes me want to visit Africa and Egypt – which is ‘not Africa’. He keeps the distance and observer role of a journalist, but seems to have a talent for talking to people, for drawing their stories out of them. He is also not afraid to ask questions about the political situation, a thing that should be done carefully in some countries!

Overall, I would have to say that the picture Theroux paints of much of Africa is pretty bleak. It seems to be a continent of corrupt governments, dependant on foreign aid – even propped up by it. Too many people have ‘inherited’ this same dependence and feel entitled to assistance from white people with no effort on their own part. Theroux’s view of foreign aid workers and missionaries is dim; to put it a little harshly, they feed nothing but the culture of dependence and their own egos. His portrait of Robert Mugabe is almost terrifying, and his depiction of Zimbabwe at that time nothing short of tragic… in the 10 years since, little seems to have changed.

Perhaps most depressing of all is that he does not find the situation improved in the 40 years since he was a teacher in Malawi. In fact he finds it worse – the school where he once taught is falling over, the library devoid of books (they have been stolen by students) and few of his former pupils have made much of their lives. Throughout Africa he finds the same thing – Western-built infrastructure is falling apart and there is nothing to replace it. Indian immigrants have been scared away, their shops closed and no Africans have the ability/ willingness to open new businesses in their place – rows of shops in countless towns lie empty and abandoned. There are many other examples of this sort of degeneration.

Theroux’s eventual conclusion with respect to foreign aid seems to be this: for hundreds of years, Westerners have been doing more harm than good in Africa. We should get the heck out of there, and let Africans fix their own problems in their own way*. And herein lies the ray of hope. The idea that “the best of (Africans) are bare-assed” (usually literally) runs strongly throughout this book. Despite the apparent hopelessness of the situation, there are many good and kind Africans. There are those who are willing to work against the status-quo and even their own governments to improve their countries. Despite everything, he seems to see a ray of hope for Africa.

*My words, his ideas.

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