An Interview with Paul Theroux
You taught in Africa in the early 1960s. Why did you decide to return after
almost 40 years?
Since leaving Africa in October 1968 I thought of the places I had worked,
the people I had known, and the hope we all had. I constantly thought: What
happened? I longed to return, and I thought I would do it in the year I turned
60. My book represents one mans road. Another person could take the same
trip and would have different experiences. Thats a truism, of course. This
trip was special to mebecause the road was in part Memory Laneand
because I loved the challenges. There is nothing in the world more vitalizing
to me that traveling in the African bush.
It is wonderful for a teacher to meet a former student and see that he or
she is gainfully employedperhaps as a teacher; and is a responsible parent
and homeowner. This happened to me in Malawi and Ugandawonderful memories.
My old friend Apolo Nsibambiwe used to drink and argue in the 1960sis
now Prime Minister of Uganda. I loved seeing him after 30 years. The passage
of time is more dramatic in Africaamazing to witness its effects, for I
first set foot there in 1963, which was another age altogether.
You traveled from Cairo to Cape Town by train, bus, taxi, kayak, and often
by foot. Why didnt you fly?
Flying from one capital city to another is not travel to me. Travel,
especially in Africa, must be overland and must involve the crossing of
bordersnegotiating on land, usually on foot, the national frontier. That
experience teaches a great deal about the state of the country. Of course, its
sometimes dangerous and always time-consuming.
Anyone who has traveled in Africa and not crossed a national frontier has
truly missed the necessary misery and splendor of the journey. Crossing an
African frontier alone suggests why any sort of development is so difficult. I
do not recommend this to the faint of hearteven traveling by road from
South Africa to Mozambique is no picnic; but from Ethiopia to Kenya, Kenya to
Uganda, Tanzania to Malawi, and Malawi into Mozambique (customs post under a
mango tree on the Shire River) you learn a great deal.
Also, I dont fit in. I am a traveler, a stranger, an eavesdropper. I
have no status and do not want any. I have an aversion to being an official
visitor. I had to borrow a necktie in order to see the US Ambassador in
Kampala. I hate official visitsbeing an honored guest at factories and
schools. I often feel like the king or prince in an Elizabethan drama, who
puts on a cloak and wanders anonymously in the marketplaces of his kingdom to
find out what people really think.
Kenya was in a horrible state when you visited, with widespread government
corruption under Daniel Arap Moi and a dejected populace affected by years of
corruption and terror. Do you see hope for Kenya after their free elections in
December 2002 and the defeat of Kenyatta, Mois handpicked successor?
Kenyas government has been deeply corrupt. Mois government tortured
friends of mine. Everyone knew it was horribly governed. I heard the other day
that a man in Mois government had stolen "hundreds of millions of dollars."
Imagine that amount of money and the thief who took it. So, now that Mwai
Kibaki has won the election and is in power do we say, "Well, all that money
was stolen and squirreled awaylooks like well have to give you some
more." I dont think so. My solution would be to forgive the debts of these
countries and then after a suitable period of time, make them account for
every penny they are given.
You encounter foreign aid workers throughout your journey yet the
typical African lives you describe are plagued by what has become routine
desperation. What has been the benefit of 40 years of foreign aid?
Not muchwhich is why the whole issue needs rethinking, My answer about
begging (just below) has larger implications in the aid industry, which is a
begging-and-donating mechanism. I would distinguish between emergency aid
(flood in Mozambique, famine in Zambia, earthquake in Rwanda) and the routine
dumping-food-in-the-trough that many agencies practice. Such agencies have
taken over the care and welfare of people from governments. Malawi is an
example. Foreign agencies run hospitals, schools, orphanages etc., while the
politicians pretend to govern. I am in favor of making people responsible for
their own problems. You have floods because you cut down all your trees. You
have a famine because the minister sold the grain stocks and stole the money.
Unprotected sex causes AIDS. Pointing out the obvious, perhaps, but not many
people do it.
As a white man and an obvious traveler you were constantly approachedeven
harassedby beggars. You write about the many times you fled them or turned
a blind eye. How did you do it?
I am not intolerant of beggars, but maybe a little skeptical sometimes.
Even in the here at home I say to panhandlers, "Why are you asking me for
money for nothing? You want fifty cents? If you wash my car I will give you
twenty dollars." The offer of work usually drives them away. Obviously there
are many deserving destitutes. But for many others begging is a career. In all
cases, handing money over is not a solution.
When you were in Africa in the 1960s many countries, including Kenya and
Mozambique, were forming their own governments after centuries of colonial
rule. As a traveling observer how do you think those countries have fared
since the end of colonialism?
They have fared badly, because of poor leadership, lack of resources, the
colonial hangover, the subversion of foreign institutions. In Malawi and
Zimbabwe Africans told me that when they tried to start a businesslike a
shop, or a farm, or a barand they failed because at the first sign of
success their relatives showed up and cadged from them, or implored them to
pay their relatives school fees. Thats a common tale of woe. But I
noticed something else, as well. In the past, people tried to make things work
and struggled in hard timesin Asia, in Latin America, in Africa. In the
past 15 years people have given up struggling at home and tried to emigrate.
During my trip I heard many stories of emigration. People failing in rural
Tanzania do not think of making a new life elsewhere in East Africa. They are
headed for South Africa and the promise of work, or else a visa to Britain or
the United States. I met many people who wanted a ticket outso economic
failure could be tied to people disgusted with their prospects and wanting to
leave. As a traveler in Africa my traveling companions were often Africans
heading elsewhere. Often I said to them, "Why dont you stay home and fix
the problem?" They said: Let someone else do it. And I said: Its not going
to be me.
Africa is known to be a dangerous place, particularly at the border
crossingsalmost all of which you crossed by foot! Did you have any
experience where you really thought your life was in danger?
I was certain my life was in danger when bandits fired at the cattle truck
I was riding in from the Ethiopian border through the northern Kenyan desert.
I was assured by a man ducking next to me, "They do not want your life, bwana.
They want your shoes." I also felt my life was in jeopardy in every "chicken
bus" and old car I rode inat great speed, on bad roads, with a young
reckless driver at the wheel.
Traveling in Africa, I had to learn patience, humility, survival skills,
and to keep reminding myself that I was "prey" To most people I represent
Money-on-Two-Legs. I am as risk averse as anyone elsealso arent I a
wealthy, middle-aged, semi-well-known American writer who doesnt need to
put up with this crap? The answer is yes and no. I did need to put up with
this crap or else theres no insight and no book.
You describe cities in South Africa and even Harare, Zimbabwe, as
relatively orderly with reliable public transportation and a working class.
Why such a big difference between the cities in the south the sub-Saharan
cities further north like Addis Ababa, Nairobi, Kampala, and Mbeya?
All African cities I have seen are a horror. I tried to avoid them, by
traveling in the bush. Africa is a separate place. Traveling in it I seemed to
be on another planet. I liked this feelingbecause the world has shrunk and
you often meet people in South America and Asia who regard themselves as
living in a suburb or satellite city of the United States.
By having been largely ignored and neglected, Africa has remained itself.
Who would want to visit China now that it is an overheated economy of consumer
goods and greedy materialists? Pacific islands have remained culturally
interesting by being so far away and neglected. Whatever was hoped for Africa
in the 1960sthat it would become materially better off, better educated,
and healthierhas not come about. But whose hopes were these?
What impresses me about the many African countries that I traveled through
from Cairo to Cape Town was how people have survived tyrannical governments,
food shortages, disease and poor or no infrastructurebad roads, no phones,
etc. Of course, the governments need the people to be poor and to look
distressed in order to get donor money. Malawi is a great example of that.
Nothing positive has happened to Malawi since I left there in 1965. Yet in the
villages and by the lakeshore and in the bush people go on.
What part of your trip filled you with the greatest hope for Africas
The knowledge that African friends of mine who were educated, with good
jobs in education or health, were encouraging their children (in some cases
American educated) to remain in Uganda, Kenya, or Malawi to work "to be part
of the process" as one mother said to mewithout relying on the Peace Corps
or USAID or other foreign donors.
Was there a pivotal moment when you felt utter despair for the African
I dont feel despair. But it sometimes seems that Africa exists in a sort
of shadow cast by the outer world. But Africa is not darker or crueler or
harder than other places. Prisoners are tortured by the Israeli government.
China interferes with peoples private lives. Women are treated like a
separate and inferior species in Saudi Arabia. There is starvation in North
Korea. Brazils slums are worse than anything in the world. Until recently
you could not buy condoms or get a divorce or an abortion in Ireland: maybe
still true? There are plenty of barbarities in the world that make Africa seem
serene and civilized.