When I wrote about the role of charity in Africa, I heavily relied on a treasure trove of quotes out of Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari. But I could barely scratch the surface in either of those blog posts, and wanted to remedy that with a more extensive list of Paul Theroux’s best Africa observations.
Dark Star Safari is, in my opinion, as close as you can get to the bible about travel and life in Africa. In it, Paul Theroux certainly does not mince words. He tells it as he sees it, and some might find reason to disagree or be offended, particularly when it comes to the value of foreign aid organizations. But I find that overall his descriptions of Africa, all the way from Cairo to Cape Town, are spot-on.
Just to explain his background: Paul Theroux lived in Africa several decades ago, when as a young and idealistic man he was a teacher for the Peace Corps in Malawi and Uganda. When he now returns to Africa with the idea to traverse it from top to bottom without the use of an airplane, he is often disillusioned by the lack of progress in the countries whose future seemed more promising the first time around, when they were bustling with volunteers just like him ready to change the world. Nevertheless, he thrives on meeting average citizens wherever he goes, the kind of people most of us might never get to know when traveling, and he describes these encounters in exquisite detail on the pages of Dark Star Safari.
I hope that the following whets your appetite to go ahead and buy the book. If you’ve ever been to Africa, are planning to go, or simply love reading a fascinating memoir, you won’t regret it.
Paul Theroux Quotes
“I was reassured that the trucks [we traveled on] were full of cattle and not people, for in these parts cattle were valuable and people’s lives not worth much at all.”
…and here my kids were complaining to be double-buckled 4 in a backseat meant for 3. I can just hear them should I propose transport by cattle truck!
“Scamming is the survival mode in a city [Addis Ababa] where tribal niceties do not apply and there are no sanctions except those of the police, a class of people who in Africa generally are little more than licensed thieves.”
I haven’t been to Addis Ababa but I know a thing or two about thieving police officers. Although I’d say “thieving” is not a fair label. More like “eternally scheming to take advantage of people not at the top of their game.” If you read one of my traffic cop stories, you might agree.
“African cities recapitulate the sort of street life that had vanished from European cities – a motley liveliness that lends color and vitality to old folktales and much of early English literature. An obvious example was Dickens’s London, an improvised city populated by hangers-on, hustlers, and newly arrived bumpkins – like Nairobi today.”
“A motley liveliness” – what a great phrase to describe the street scene in African cities. Most people who’ve been to Africa and had to leave for whatever reason will point to that picture of hustle and bustle, of cheerful color, of simply life in all of its forms and variations, as the thing they miss the most.
On first sight you may find African cities a bit overwhelming, perhaps scary, and might wish for a more “normal” morning commute. But you soon get used to the sights and, more often than not, the daily interactions with vendors and beggars and newspaper boys, and only realize how much you enjoyed them when you’re back in the Western world where city streets carry all the excitement of a convention of dental drill manufacturers.
“Tanzania was a tourist destination. The comrades, the Maoists, the ideologues, the revolutionaries, the sloganeering Fidelistas, were now hustling for jobs in hotels and taking tourists for game drives. And if as a Tanzanian your village was not near any lions or elephants – and Tabora wasn’t – you were out of luck, and had to put up with crummy schools and bad roads and this amazingly casual railway, once called the Central Line, which had been built almost a hundred years ago by the Germans.”
“The routine [of the minibus taxi] was: the driver speeded, swerved, stopped, dropped one person, picked up two, sped away leaning on his horn. Whenever he stopped there was a petty quarrel, someone with no money, someone asking him to wait, some yelling in Swahili ‘Hey, I’m walking here!'”
Aaaah, minibus taxis. Who doesn’t have a story or two about a run-in with one? My take is this: As much as they’re reviled by other motorists, you can’t really judge them until you’ve used one for your own transport. In which case you might resent them even more, because they often are unsafe and yet cost a fortune when measured against your monthly income. And yet without one you couldn’t keep any kind of regular job at all.
As a German by birth, I cannot help but smile about the German railway line. I know in my heart about the many evils of colonialism, which Germany is lesser-known for than its European neighbors but participated in nonetheless. But the fact that the railway built by the Germans a hundred years ago still functions today – without, I’m sure, any meaningful upgrades – fills me with a sense of pride, as in “we Germans sure know how to build things that last.”
“These [foreign aid projects in Uganda like flour mills, schools, and hospitals] were like inspired Christmas presents, the sort that stop running when the batteries die or that break and aren’t fixed.”
“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.”
This is a recurring refrain in his book, and perhaps the most controversial one. It sounds so hopeless, perhaps precisely because we all know or have left behind just such a project. And yet my guess is that this won’t stop such projects from being taken on again and again. Maybe because those of us who “help” enjoy it too much while we are doing it, without that much thought about what happens afterwards. Maybe we give these inspired Christmas presents for our own sake more than the sake of those we seek to help?
“No other place I had seen on my trip was so well lit at night as this introduction to South Africa. No other country had been so electrified. The light was interruptive and disturbing, for it gave bright, not quite right glimpses of prosperity – tall power lines and large houses and used-car lots with shiny vehicles and the sinister order of urban life.”
” ‘Don’t go to a squatter camp. Don’t go to a black township You’ll get robbed, or worse.’ The next day I went to a squatter camp.”
If you’ve only seen South Africa and no other African country, you often forget how “un-African” it is in many ways. We experienced that same sense of surprise about the electrification and modernity of South Africa, both when arriving the very first time and expecting anything but 8-lane highways, and when returning from trips to other, less-advanced African countries like Mozambique.
The quote about squatter camps is my favorite sentence in the entire book. It’s as if Paul Theroux was a little devil on my shoulder egging me on that first time I ventured into Alexandra.
Anywhere in Africa
Paul Theroux has such a way with words. I found myself nodding particularly wildly at the passages below, knowing that I shared these thoughts but wouldn’t have been able to put them into such eloquent prose. Maybe like me you’ll find your feelings reflected in what I’ve shared here with you, or maybe you see the world differently.
In any case, I hope that you pick up a copy of Dark Star Safari.
“But African time was not the same as American time… As African time passed, I surmised that the pace of Western countries was insane, that the speed of modern technology accomplished nothing, and that because Africa was going its own way at its own pace for its own reasons, it was a refuge and a resting place, the last territory to light out for. I surmised this, yet I did not always feel it; I am impatient by nature.”
“I had learned what many others had discovered before me – that Africa, for all its perils, represented wilderness and possibility. Not only did I have the freedom to write in Africa, I had something new to write about.”
“The best travel is a leap in the dark. If the destination were familiar and friendly, what would be the point of going there?”