Paul Theroux Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Paul Theroux
Photo: Greg Martin

Paul Theroux

How to pronounce Paul Theroux: Thor-ew (which, incidentally, is different to Henry Thoreau which is pronounced like 'thorough')

An interview with Paul Theroux

Read an interview with Paul Theroux in which he discusses his recent travels through Africa, his views on foreign aid, and his hopes for Africa's future.

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 man’s road. Another person could take the same trip and would have different experiences. That’s a truism, of course. This trip was special to me—because the road was in part Memory Lane—and 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 employed—perhaps as a teacher; and is a responsible parent and homeowner. This happened to me in Malawi and Uganda—wonderful memories. My old friend Apolo Nsibambi—we used to drink and argue in the 1960s—is now Prime Minister of Uganda. I loved seeing him after 30 years. The passage of time is more dramatic in Africa—amazing 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 didn’t 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 borders—negotiating on land, usually on foot, the national frontier. That experience teaches a great deal about the state of the country. Of course, it’s 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 heart—even 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 don’t 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 visits—being 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, Moi’s handpicked successor?
Kenya’s government has been deeply corrupt. Moi’s government tortured friends of mine. Everyone knew it was horribly governed. I heard the other day that a man in Moi’s 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 away—looks like we’ll have to give you some more." I don’t 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 much—which 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 approached—even harassed—by 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 business—like a shop, or a farm, or a bar—and 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. That’s 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 times—in 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 out—so 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 don’t you stay home and fix the problem?" They said: Let someone else do it. And I said: It’s not going to be me.

Africa is known to be a dangerous place, particularly at the border crossings—almost 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 in—at 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 else—also aren’t I a wealthy, middle-aged, semi-well-known American writer who doesn’t need to put up with this crap? The answer is yes and no. I did need to put up with this crap or else there’s 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 feeling—because 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 1960s—that it would become materially better off, better educated, and healthier—has 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 infrastructure—bad 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 Africa’s future?
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 me—without relying on the Peace Corps or USAID or other foreign donors.

Was there a pivotal moment when you felt utter despair for the African situation?
I don’t 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 people’s private lives. Women are treated like a separate and inferior species in Saudi Arabia. There is starvation in North Korea. Brazil’s 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.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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Books by this Author

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On the Plain of Snakes jacket Deep South jacket Mr. Bones jacket The Last Train to Zona Verde jacket
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