Renowned travel writer, Paul Theroux’s, account of a solitary journey from Cairo to Cape Town in 2001. If you do not appreciate nostalgic, and often quite opinionated ramblings, then give the book a skip. You may enjoy a glossy safari lodge brochure better. I enjoyed his narrative because of its individualistic tone and Theroux’s often contentious rantings against foreign aid workers and African governments’ inability to put their people first.
His nostalgia is quite evident when he writes about Malawi and Uganda where he was a Peace Corp worker and university lecturer respectively in the 1960’s. A nostalgia that quickly descends into melancholy when he realises that all the good intentions of 35 years earlier have left very little evidence of progress, and in fact the situation had regressed in many cases. In his opinion. Which is what seems to rile some reviewers of his book. They find it almost offensive that he has the audacity to take NGOs and aid workers to task for what he perceives as their self serving attitude and naive blundering in the countries they profess to assist. I wonder how many of them have actually lived in Africa – and I don’t mean a 2 week stint at a luxury safari lodge. As one reviewer put it, Chinua Achebe has criticised Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ for its perceived racism. Does that mean that it is a less important book despite being filled with powerful and universal analogies. I don’t think so.
Glimpses of a whimsical soulfulness and his honest quest for understanding shine through occasionally. There are moments on his journey when you want to salute the 60 year old for having the guts to venture into the unknown, often at some risk to himself, in order to experience seldom visited parts of Africa. Getting shot at during a border crossing, taking passage on an ancient mercantile ship across one of the big lakes and moving from one country to another, in a dugout on a jungle river, does not smack of your average sextarian. He shows a sincere interest in the views and perspectives of the local denizens, while at the same time not succumbing to condescending cowardice by not challenging some entrenched local views and customs. Theroux’s Africa is one of people, not the Big Five perfectly framed for the photo album.
It would be easy to write Theroux off as a grumpy curmudgeon who is merely frustrated at the fact that his particular vision of progress in Africa has not come to fruition. That, however, would be a very simplistic and ignorant reading of his entertaining book. Sure, he sometimes takes liberties with historical fact and his last 100 pages on South Africa came across as sycophantic with regards to his well known friends and one dimensional with regards to a complex country. A small distraction in an otherwise thoroughly entertaining book. A must read for ‘real’ adventure travellers.