Overland from Cairo to Cape Town


Paul Theroux

Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003, 472 pp.   ISBN 0 618 13424 7


Paul Theroux is a well-known travel writer and novelist.  He was raised in a Christian family and appears to be in his early 60’s.  He joined the Peace Corps and taught high school in Malawi and then college in Uganda in the late 60s.  He knows some of several African languages.  And he knows a number of people, from his teaching in the 60s, from previous trips, and from his writing contacts.


In this book he describes his experience traveling overland the length of Africa.  It is an inside look at Africa, from the buses and mutatus and log boats, from the borders between countries that foreigners rarely see, from the panhandlers and pickpockets and hangers on, and primarily from conversations with Africans themselves across the continent.


Theroux is rich with words and he is especially picturesque about things that trouble him, of which there are many.  In many places the politicians are simply polished thieves.  Interestingly he seems to feel that Africans are indolent, and kept that way by the self-serving interests of aid agencies.  He has much scorn for such agencies.  Most of the ones he mentions are secular organizations.  He reserves his harshest words for missionaries and evangelists.  But he likes Africa and Africans, especially the many who helped him on his way and told him stories. 


The report that follows does not indicate my agreement, but having always heard about aid and development and evangelism from a missionary perspective, I am captivated and alarmed by the descriptions and analyses of a skeptical observer.


“Since the Kenya government cared so little about the well-being of its people, concerns such as health and education had been taken up by sympathetic foreigners.  The charities were well established.”  “These organizations had grown out of disaster relief agencies but had become multinational institutions, permanent fixtures of welfare and services.”  (192)


He refers to several books that conclude that ‘aid doesn’t work’ and ‘aid isn’t help.’  These writers are kinder to volunteers in disaster relief than to highly paid bureaucrats in institutional charities, but assert that all aid is self-serving. (193)


Graham Hancock writes, “Here is a rule of thumb that you can safely apply wherever you may wander in the Third World.  If a project is funded by foreigners it will typically be designed by foreigners and implemented by foreigners using foreign equipment procured in foreign markets.”  Why not use African labor to solve African problems? (193) 


“Africans refused nothing.  A road, a dorm, a school, a bank, a bridge, a cultural center, a dispensary—all were accepted.  But acceptance did not mean the things were needed, nor that they would be used or kept in repair.”  (204) 


In Uganda.  “Everything was on the wane.”  “The projects would become wrecks, every one of them, because they carried with them the seeds of their destruction.  And when they stopped running, no one would be sorry.  That’s what happened in Africa: things fell apart.  The ruin seemed like part of the plan.”  “Change and decay and renewal were the African cycle: a mud hut was built; it fell down; a new one replaced it.”  “As the university, a useless compound, became ruinous, Ugandans fled and saved themselves in their mud huts, in the ancient refuge of their villages.” (205)


“But Uganda, even in its apparent recovery, was a welfare case.  More than half of its budget came from donor countries.  AIDS had peaked in 1992 at 30 percent and through intense education had decreased: now 10 percent of the population was infected.  The disease had killed off the better part of a generation.  It was a nation of two million orphans.” (223)


“They were, it turned out, the sort of podgy, cookie-munching, Christ-bitten evangelists who pop up in places like Mwanza with nothing but a Bible and a rucksack and the requisite provisions: cookies and cake and a hymn book in Swahili.”  (243)  [He didn’t talk to these people but overheard snatches of conversation on the train.  He was traveling in tattered clothes with a rucksack, and was perhaps eating cookies as well.  It’s easy to criticize people when you don’t know them.  He rarely spoke poorly of someone with whom he had a significant conversation, save the one on p. 431-433. Dlm]


“It is for someone else, not me, to evaluate the success or failure of charitable efforts in Africa.  Offhand, I would say the whole push has been misguided, because it has gone on too long with negligible results.”  “Where are the Africans in all this?”  “No Africans are involved—there is not even a concept of African volunteerism or labor-intensive projects.”  (272)


“Perhaps that was why I liked rural Africa so much and avoided towns, because in villages I saw self-sufficiency and sustainable agriculture.  In the towns and cities, not the villages, I felt the full weight of all the broken promises and thwarted hope and cynicism.” (273) [He was very discouraged by the larger towns and cities – begging, crime, danger, graft, messiness, indolence, etc. dlm]


Vehicles.  “The most expensive of them, of course, were the white four-wheel drives displaying the doorside logos of charities, every one that I had ever heard of and some new ones….”  I was not surprised when they refused to give me a lift—I knew from experience that they were  the last people to offer travelers assistance.  Still, I was annoyed.  I analyzed my annoyance.  It was that the vehicles were often driven by Africans, the white people riding as passengers in what resembled ministerial seats.  They had CD players, usually with music playing loudly, and now and then I saw the whole deal: an African or a white person driving in his white Save the Children vehicle one-handed, talking on a cell phone with music playing—the happiest person in the country.  For every agent of virtue I saw slogging his or her guts out in the field, I saw two of them joy-riding.” (290-91)


“I thought: in a culture where foreigners constantly showed up, offering themselves and their time and even material help, charity was nothing special—in fact, in Malawi it was another necessary routine, not philanthropic but a permanent drip feed, part of a system of handouts.” (292)


“I began to understand the futility of charity in Africa.  It was generally fueled by the best of motives, but its worst aspect was that it was noninspirational.  Aliens had been helping for so long and were so deeply entrenched that Africans lost interest—if indeed they had ever had it—in doing the same sort of work themselves.  Not only was there no spirit of volunteerism, there was no desire to replace aid workers in paying jobs.  Yet many Africans were unemployed, doing nothing but sitting under trees.” (293)


“Medical and teaching skills were not lacking in Africa, even in distressed countries like Malawi.  But the will to use them was often nonexistent.  The question was, should outsiders go on doing jobs and taking risks that Africans refused?” (298)


“I seldom saw relief workers who did not in some way remind me of people herding animals and throwing food to them, much as rangers did to the animals in drought-stricken game parks.” (311)


The school where he taught in the 60s and the houses he lived in were decrepit, falling apart.  The books were gone from the library.  No one maintained anything.  “I wanted to see some African volunteers caring for the place—sweeping the floors, cutting the grass, washing windows, gluing the spines back onto the few remaining books, scrubbing the slime off the classroom walls.  Or, if that was not their choice, I wanted to see them torch the place and burn it to the ground and dance around the flames, then plow everything under and plant food crops.”  (321)


“Maybe none of these flawed schools were problems at all but only foreign institutions like foreign contraptions….”  (321)


One of his former colleagues told him, “Your old students are doing well, but the country is not doing well.  People are different—much poorer, not respectful.”  [I noticed that his former students and colleagues were doing well materially.  Several had high-level government jobs and others had sent their kids out of the country for an education.  But it wasn’t clear to me that they were any better off morally.  I wondered how they would have turned out if Theroux had given them a Christian education. Dlm]


“It seemed that two million American dollars, earmarked for education from a European donor country, had recently been embezzled by the finance minister and two other politicians in a scam….”  “A large and essential part of the education budget had been stolen by the government official to whom it had been entrusted.” (322)  [Are Africans unwilling to expend volunteer effort to maintain things partly because they know the leadership is stealing it all? Dlm]


“That was my 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.” (327)


“The education system was appalling, but there was no shortage of dreary hymn-singing pietists and preachers who promised people food if they handed over their souls.” (328)


“…the agents of virtue, all white, all short-timers.”  “They were saving lives—you couldn’t fault them, but in general I despaired at the very sight of aid workers.  They were no more than a maintenance crew on a power trip, who had turned Malawians into beggars and whiners, and development into a study in futility.” (330)


 “One of the epiphanies of my trip was the realization that where the mode of life had changed significantly in the Africa I had known, it had changed for the worse.” (426)


“The happy hunting ground of all minds that have lost their balance is not the works of Shakespeare (as Buck Mulligan says) but the Holy Bible.” (430)


Describing a missionary.  “You just wanted to weep, not for such smug, pigheaded ignorance, but for what made it worse: Susanna was here in Mozambique spreading disinformation and fear.” (431)  “So this Christ-bitten nag and every other twaddler like her sought out Africans in remote fastnesses such as Nampula, to abuse them with the notion that they were sinners, to browbeat them into arcane forms of atonement, such as screeching hymns and the dues-paying routine of tithes.” (433) [Pejorative words can reveal prejudices as well as observations. Dlm]


He is very scornful of the rich tourists who go to game parks with expensive equipment.  They know nothing of the Africa that Africans live in.


Theroux saw the one business that was booming throughout much of Africa was coffin making.