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'Dark Star Safari' by Paul Theroux

In the heart of Africa, Paul Theroux finds its soul

Sunday, April 06, 2003

By Len Barcousky, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Just about everyone Paul Theroux talked to before and during his Cairo-to-Cape Town trek agreed he shouldn't try it.

"Bad people there" was the most common phrase he heard. "Don't go alone" was the second most common.

 
 
"Dark Star Safari"

By Paul Theroux

Houghton Mifflin ($28)

   
 

But, of course, he did, and the resulting book describes his grueling, stimulating and exhausting 5,000-mile journey among terrific people and terrible governments.

Theroux is clear-eyed, opinionated and often tetchy in dealing with both beggars and bureaucrats. He doesn't confuse transition with progress.

The natural cycle in Africa is decay and renewal, he writes, and in 2001 he found much more decay than renewal. AIDS, corruption, unchecked urban growth and ill-planned Western assistance projects have combined to create disaster.

Few writers have been more prolific. The much-traveled Massachusetts native has produced novels, short stories, nonfiction and memoirs, writing about a book a year ever since he first went to Africa in the mid-1960s as a Peace Corps volunteer.

"Africa is materially more decrepit than it was when I first knew it -- hungrier, poorer, less educated, more pessimistic, more corrupt, and you can't tell the politicians from the witch doctors," he writes.

Age seems to obsess him. He turned 60 on this trip, and he comments several times that he would be considered an old man in Africa. He also notes, defensively and too often, that Africans often mistake him for a man in his 40s or 50s.

Still, he gets really upset when younger men call him "mzee," meaning "old man" in Swahili.

In part, his journey represents an attempt to recapture lost youth in a challenging undertaking. And challenge himself he does.

In his other travel adventure books, such as "Riding the Iron Rooster," "The Pillars of Hercules" and "The Old Patagonian Express," he traveled hard. Even the worst aspects of those journeys must have seemed downright relaxing compared to this trip by train, steamer, small plane, freighter, truck, taxi and dugout canoe.

Theroux writes that he had premonitions that he would die on this journey. At several points he seems to be tempting fate in the routes he takes and even in what he chooses to eat.

He rides through bandit country on the border between Sudan and Kenya in the back of a truck; bandits do indeed shoot at him. When he decides to travel down the Shire River in Malawi, he goes by dugout canoe, accompanied by a pot-smoking paddler. "Even glassy-eyed from the dope he seemed to remember me," Theroux writes of his companion.

While Theroux is appalled by much of what he sees in Africa, he is regularly impressed by the individual efforts made by Africans, black and white, to better their lot.

He travels across Lake Victoria in an ancient steamboat. "At the lowest depth of the engine room, amid the most deafening noise, the worse heat, the hottest pipes ... a young African crewman was sitting at a wet table doing complex mathematical equations."

In temperate, resource-rich Uganda, which was looted and terrorized by the murderous Idi Amin, he sees more signs of hope. Successful Africans there are urging their children to make their careers and lives at home.

"The proof of your political faith was the way you guided your children," he writes. "A loving parent did not willingly sacrifice children to muddled thinking or a doomed economy."

Theroux saves his heaviest fire for Western aid workers, who he argues encourage a culture of dependency. "Medical and teaching skills were not lacking in Africa," he writes. "But the will to use them was often nonexistent. The question was should outsiders go on doing jobs and taking risks that Africans refused?"

Theroux calls this his Malawi epiphany: "Only Africans were capable of making a difference in Africa. Everyone else, donors and volunteers and bankers, however idealistic, were simply agents of subversion."

That is overstatement, since it fails to differentiate between short-term crisis relief and bureaucratic boondoggles. But it is not without some truth.

While Theroux gets through his trip relatively unscathed, eventually the odds catch up with him. On one of his last days in Africa, he ate something awful and found himself infested with hardy intestinal parasites. "I was inert, weak, with the odd debauched nausea of an extravagant illness."

There's no doubt he'll beat that bug and, despite his "advanced" age, get back on the road. He dedicates "Dark Star Safari" to his mother, Anne. She just turned 92.


Len Barcousky can be reached at lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184.

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