October 5, 2002 - The Guardian: Malawi RPCV Paul Theroux returns to Malawi
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October 5, 2002 - The Guardian: Malawi RPCV Paul Theroux returns to Malawi
Malawi RPCV Paul Theroux returns to Malawi
Read and comment on this story from The Guardian which contains on excerpt from Malawi RPCV Paul Theroux and his new book where he talks about his recent visit to Malawi and the reasons that he left the Peace Corps in the first place at:
Epiphany under the sun*
* This link was active on the date it was posted. PCOL is not responsible for broken links which may have changed.
Epiphany under the sun
Almost 40 years ago, Paul Theroux was an idealistic young teacher in Malawi. In this exclusive extract from his new book, he returns to find his former school in ruins and the country in crisis
Saturday October 5, 2002
Paved roads ran where there had once been only rutted tracks; the train line to Balaka that I had taken in 1964 to a Mua leprosarium by the lake was defunct - and so was the leper colony.
The ferry at Liwonde across the Shire River had been replaced by a bridge. All this was progress, but still on these new thoroughfares the Africans, buttocks showing in their tattered clothes, walked barefoot.
I did not arrive in the hill-town of Zomba until after dark. The main street was unlit, people flitting and stumbling in the dark. Zomba had been the capital of Malawi's British incarnation, the little tea-growing protectorate of Nyasaland.
The still small town was a collection of tin-roofed, red-brick buildings clustered together at the edge of Zomba plateau. The Zomba Gymkhana Club had been the settlers' meeting place and social centre in British times but, absurdly, membership was restricted according to pigmentation, whites predominating, a few Indians, some golden-skinned mixed-raced people known then as "coloureds". Even in the years just after Malawi's independence in 1964 the club was nearly all white - horsey men and women, cricketers and rugger hearties.
Back then, I was not a member of any club, but was sometimes an unwilling party to rants by beer-swilling Brits, wearing club blazers and cardigans, and saying, "Let Africans in here and they'll be tearing up the billiard table and getting drunk and bringing their snotty little piccanins in the bar. There'll be some African woman nursing her baby in the games room."
This was considered rude and racist, yet in its offensive way it was fairly prescient, for the rowdy teenagers now at the billiard table were stabbing their cues at the torn felt, the bar was full of drunks, and a woman was breast-feeding her baby under the dart board. But if the fabric of the place had deteriorated, the atmosphere was about the same as before. Some relics remained - the sets of kudu and springbok horns mounted high on the wall, the glass cases of dusty fishing flies. The calendar was months out of date, the portraits were gone, the floor was unswept.
Soon my friend arrived and greeted me warmly. He was David Rubadiri, whom I had first met in 1963, when he had been headmaster of my school, Soche Hill - Sochay, was the correct way of saying it. The shortage of college graduates at independence meant that Rubadiri was plucked from the school and put into the diplomatic service.
The prime minister, Hastings Banda, appointed him Malawi's ambassador to Washington. There, Rubadiri prospered until three or four months after independence, when there was a sudden power struggle. The cabinet ministers denounced Hastings Banda as a despot and held a vote of no confidence in parliament.
From a distance, Rubadiri joined in, but Banda survived what became an attempted coup d'etat, and he turned on his accusers. Those who had opposed him either left the country or fought in the guerrilla underground. Banda remained in power for the next 30 years.
Rubadiri was disgraced for taking sides, and lost his job. He went to Uganda to teach at Makerere University. After it became known that I had assisted him - I delivered him his car, driving it 2,000 miles through the bush to Uganda - I was accused of aiding the rebels and branded a revolutionary. I was deported from Malawi late in 1965, ejected from the Peace Corps ("You have jeopardised the whole programme!"), and with Rubadiri's help, was hired at Makerere.
One week I was a schoolteacher, the following week a university professor. The combination of physical risk, social activism, revolutionary fervour, Third World politics and naiveté characterised this drama of the 60s.
So our careers, Rubadiri's and mine, had become intertwined. We had been friends for 38 years. His fortunes had risen again with the change of government in Malawi. In the mid-90s he was appointed Malawi's ambassador to the UN, and after four or five years, was made vice-chancellor of the University of Malawi.
He had two wives and nine children, and was now almost 70, grizzled and venerable. It was wonderful to see him again. We went down the hill to the University Club, another glorified bar from the 20s. One man I recognised almost immediately as an old student of mine - the same chubby face and big head on narrow shoulders, the same heavy-lidded eyes that made him look ironic. His hair was grey but otherwise he was Sam Mpechetula, now wearing shoes. I had last seen him when he was a barefoot 15-year-old, in grey shorts.
He was now 52, in a jacket and necktie. He was married, a father of four, and a teacher at Bunda College, outside Lilongwe. So at least I could say that one of my students had taken my place as an English teacher in a Malawi classroom. That had been one of my more modest goals.
"Do you remember much about our school?" I asked. "It was a good school - the best. They were the best days of my life," he said. "The Peace Corps guys were wonderful. They brought blue jeans and long hair to Malawi."
"What a legacy," I said. "They talked to Africans. Do you know, before they came, white people didn't talk to us."
Dinner was at Rubadiri's house, the former home of the British High Commissioner - a sprawling one-story colonial mansion. His wife, Gertrude, stayed up late, drinking tea and monologuing. She was intelligent and, for her generation, highly educated, having gone to Fort Hare university in South Africa. Robert Mugabe, later guerrilla fighter and erratic president of Zimbabwe, had been one of her classmates.
"Mugabe was so studious - we called him 'Bookworm'."
Fearful of offering an insult, I at first tentatively suggested that on my return to Malawi I was seeing a country greatly reduced. Gertrude seized on this, for she too had been away for a long time - perhaps 25 years.
"Things are worse," she said decisively. "When I came back in 1994 the poverty here really shocked me. I could not believe the people could be so poor... The people were dressed in rags. The streets were littered with rubbish. The foreign charities here are doing our work for us - so many of them! What progress are they making? Will we have them for ever? There were not so many before. Why do we still need them after so long? David says I am a pessimist, but to tell the truth I am a bit ashamed."
I set off the next morning to revisit my school, 45 miles down the road from Zomba. I had been imagining this return trip down the narrow track to Soche Hill for many years. It was a homecoming in a more profound sense than my going back to Medford, Massachusetts, where I had grown up. In Medford, I was one of many people struggling to leave, to start my life; but in Malawi, at Soche Hill school, I was alone, making my life.
The African world I got to know was not the narrow existence of the tourist or big-game hunter, or the rarified and misleading experience of the diplomat, but the more revealing progress of an ambitious exile in the bush.
In Malawi I began identifying with Rimbaud and Graham Greene, and it was in Africa that I began my lifelong dislike of Ernest Hemingway, from his shotguns to his mannered prose. Ernest was both a tourist and a big-game hunter. The Hemingway vision of Africa begins and ends with the killing of large animals, so that their heads may be displayed to impress visitors with your prowess.
That kind of safari is easily come by. You pay your money and you are shown elephants and leopards. You talk to servile Africans, who are generic natives. The human side of Africa is an afternoon visit to a colourful village.
Of all the sorts of travel available in Africa, the easiest to find and the most misleading is the Hemingway experience. In some respects the feed-the-people obsession that fuels some charities is related to this, for 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.
Fearing the draft, I had joined the Peace Corps and been sent to Nyasaland, an African country not yet independent. So I experienced the last gasp of British colonialism, the in-between period of uncertain changeover, and the hopeful assertion of black rule. That was lucky, too, for I saw this process at close quarters, and African rule, necessary as it was, was also a tyranny in Malawi from day one.
My work justified my existence in Africa. What I liked then was what I still like, village life, and tenacious people, and saddleback mountains of stone and flat plains. The road from Zomba had everything - vistas almost to Mozambique, the savannah of scattered trees, small villages, roadside stands where people sold potatoes and sugar cane - famine food, for the maize was not yet harvested.
I liked the sweet somnolence of rural Africa. I stopped at the nearby town of Limbe, which began abruptly, the edge of the town slummy, with outdoor businesses, bicycle menders, car repairers, coffin makers - the rest of it chaotic, litter and mobs, and a proliferation of bars and dubious-looking clinics. I went into a bank to get a cash advance on my credit card.
The clerk said, "This transaction will take three days." An African behind me in line sighed on my behalf and said, "That should take no more than an hour. That's disgusting."
He was a Malawian, Dr Jonathan Banda, a political science teacher at Georgetown, in Washington DC. He had left Malawi while quite young, in 1974, had travelled and studied in various countries but had finished his PhD in the United States. He had just come back to Malawi and he was disappointed by what he saw.
"It is dirty - it's awful," he said. "The people are greedy and materialistic. They're lazy, too. They show no respect. They push and shove. They are awful to each other."
I asked him about charities and aid agencies - the agents of virtue in white Land Rovers. What were they changing? "Not much - because all aid is political," he said.
"When this country became independent it had very few institutions. It still doesn't have many. The donors aren't contributing to development. They maintain the status quo. Politicians love that, because they hate change. The tyrants love aid. Aid helps them stay in power and it contributes to underdevelopment. It's not social or cultural and it certainly isn't economic. Aid is one of the main reasons for underdevelopment in Africa."
I walked up the main street to see if the Malawi Censorship Board was still operating. Indeed it was, still a government office in its own substantial building at the east end of town. I knocked on a door at random and found an African man in a pinstripe suit sitting at a desk, a Bible open at his elbow.
"I can sell you this," he said, and handed me a pamphlet titled Catalogue of Banned Publications, Cinematograph Pictures and Records, with Supplement, dated 1991.
"Please give me five kwacha." He then opened a ledger labelled Accounts Section Censorship Board, and filled out a lengthy receipt in triplicate, stamped it, and tore out a copy for me.
"Don't you have anything more recent than 1991?" "Please wait here. I will need your name."
This Malawian catalogue of banned books would have constituted a first-year college reading list in any enlightened country. Flipping through the pamphlet I saw that it contained novels by John Updike, Graham Greene, Bernard Malamud, Norman Mailer, Yukio Mishima, DH Lawrence, James Baldwin, Kurt Vonnegut, Vladimir Nabokov and George Orwell.
Animal Farm was banned, as well as - more predictably - many books with titles such as Promiscuous Pauline and School Girl Sex. Salman Rushdie's name was on the list - the president, Mr Muluzi, was a Muslim, that could explain it - and so was my name; after all these years, my novel Jungle Lovers, set in Malawi, was still banned.
The censorship officer was still down the hall. It seemed to me that the wisest thing to do was leave the censorship board before they linked my name with that of the pernicious author on their list.
I drove out of Limbe by a familiar route: uphill through a forest that had once been much larger, past a village that had once been much smaller, on a paved road that had once been just a muddy track. My hopes were raised by this narrow but good back road that ascended to the lower slopes of Soche Hill, for I assumed that this improved road implied that the school too had been improved.
But I was wrong, the school was almost unrecognisable. What had been a set of school buildings in a large grove of trees was a semi-derelict compound of battered buildings in a muddy open field. The trees had been cut down, the grass was chest-high. At first glance the place seemed abandoned: broken windows, doors ajar, mildewed walls, gashes in the roofs, and just a few people standing around, doing nothing but gaping at me.
I walked to the house I had once lived in. The now-battered building had once lain behind hedges, in a bower of blossoming shrubs, but the shrubbery was gone, replaced by a scrappy garden of withered maize and cassava at one corner. Tall elephant grass had almost overwhelmed it and now pressed against the house. The building was scorched and patched and the veranda roof broken. Mats lay in the driveway, mounds of white flour drying on them - except that falling rain had begun to turn it to paste.
To someone unfamiliar with Africa the house was the very picture of disorder. I knew better. A transformation had occurred, an English chalet-bungalow turned into a serviceable African hut, not a very colourful hut, even an unlovely hut. But it was not for me to blame the occupants for finding other uses for the driveway, or chopping the trees up for firewood, or slashing the hedges, or growing cassava where I had grown petunias.
I met two teachers standing in the wet road, chatting together. They introduced themselves as Anne Holt from Fife in Scotland, and Jackson Yekha, a Malawian - new teachers here.
"I've read some of your books," Anne said. "I didn't know you'd taught here." She was 22, as I had been here at Soche Hill, and so as a ghost I was visiting and haunting my earlier self, and seeing myself as I had been: thin, pale, standing on a wet road in the bush, with a foxed and mildewed textbook in my hand.
It was Jackson Yekha, not I, who bemoaned the poverty and disorder in the country. He said, "Things are terrible. What can we do to change?" I said, "First you have to decide what's important to you. What do you want?" "I want things to be better. Houses. Money. The life."
"What's stopping you?"
"The government is not helping us."
"Maybe the government wants to prevent things from becoming better."
I sketched out my theory that some governments in Africa depended on underdevelopment to survive - bad schools, poor communications, a feeble press and ragged people.
They needed poverty to obtain foreign aid, they needed ignorance and uneducated and passive people to keep themselves in office for decades.
"The NG0s pull out the teachers," Jackson said. "They offer them better pay and conditions."
That was interesting - the foreign charities and virtue activists, aiming to improve matters, coopted underpaid teachers, turned them into food distributors in white Land Rovers, and left the schools understaffed.
The library, a large substantial building, had been the heart of the school. It had never been difficult to get crates of new books from overseas agencies. My memory of the Soche library was an open-plan room divided by many high bookcases and filled shelves, 10,000 books, a table of magazines, a reference section with encyclopedias.
It was almost in total darkness. One light burned. Nearly all the shelves were empty. The light fixtures were empty too.
"What happened to the books?"
"Students stole them."
I thought: I will never send another book to this country. I also thought: if you're an African student and you need money, it made a certain criminal sense to steal books and sell them. It was a justifiable form of poaching, like a villager snaring a warthog, disapproved of by the authorities but perhaps necessary.
I looked around the dismal school and thought how I had longed to return here. I had planned to spend a week helping, perhaps teaching, reliving my days as a volunteer. This was my Africa.
"You're planting a seed!" Some people had said. But the seed had not sprouted and now it was decayed and probably moribund. I wanted to see some African volunteers - caring for the place, sweeping the floor, cutting grass, washing windows, glueing the spines back on to the few remaining books.
Or, if that was not their choice, I wanted to see them torching the place and dancing around the flames; then ploughing everything under and planting food crops. Until either of those things happened I would not be back.
On my return to Zomba I drove to Blantyre (named after David Livingstone's birthplace in Scotland) and stopped at a shop on a side street, Supreme Furnishers, to see another of my students, Steve Kamwendo. He was now branch manager, aged 51, father of six, a big healthy man. I told him where I had been. His face fell.
"You went to Soche?" he said. "Did you shed tears?" He lamented that the school was in a bad way, that crime was terrible and life in general very hard. His own business was good. Malawian-made furniture, and bedsteads and lamps from South Africa and Zimbabwe, were popular because furniture imported from outside Africa was so expensive.
"Your old students are doing well, but the country is not doing well. People are different - much poorer, not respectful."
"What about your kids, Steve?"
"They are in America - four of them are in college in Indiana. One is graduating in June."
By any standards, his was a success story. All his savings went towards educating his children elsewhere and, though he was gloomy about Malawi's prospects, he was encouraging his children to return to the country to work.
"It's up to them now," I said.
I returned to Zomba sooner than I had expected, with an unanswered question in my mind. Why were the schools so underfunded?
"I can tell you that," Gertrude Rubadiri said.
"The money was taken."
It seemed that two million American dollars, earmarked for education from a European donor country, had recently been embezzled by politicians in a scam that involved the creation of fictional schools and fictional teachers. The men were in jail, awaiting trial, but the money was gone.
After dinner one night, I sat with David Rubadiri. In his expansive mood he was a romantic. He had lived through the worst years of Malawi, he had occupied high positions, he had been an exile, and he was now powerful again, running the national university, though it was millions in debt and so behind in salaries that all classes had been cancelled. Students were threatening to hold demonstrations in Zomba. "Your children are doing so well," he said.
"When I was in London one of them had his own TV show and the other had just published a novel. Clever chaps."
"Thanks," I said. Though I was flattered, I found it hard to say more. My feeling of annoyance had turned into physical discomfort.
"What I would like," David said in an emphatic way, a little theatrical, "is for one of your children to come here for a spell."
After what I had seen since entering Malawi weeks before, I found the idea shocking and unacceptable, like Almighty God instructing Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Shock gave way to incredulity and bewilderment.
"What would either of my sons do here, for goodness sake?"
"He would work, he would teach, he would be a source of ideas and inspiration." It was the old song, but just a song. I said, "But you've had plenty of those people. Years of those people. Years and years."
"I want your son." What he meant as praise and, perhaps flattery, offended me. Now in his insistence he sounded like one of Herod's hatchet men, just before the Slaughter of the Innocents. I want your son. Why were these murderous Biblical metaphors occurring to me? Perhaps because Malawians were such a church-going bunch.
"How many children do you have, David?"
"As you know, nine."
"How many of them are teaching here?"
"One is in Reno, one in Baltimore, one in London, one in Kampala, another..." he stopped himself and looked tetchy.
"Why are you inquiring?"
"Because you're doing what everyone does - you're asking me to hand over one of my kids to teach in Malawi. But Marcel taught in India, and Louis was a teacher in Zimbabwe. They've had that experience - have yours?"
I was a bit too shrill in my reply. He took it well but he saw me as unwilling, someone no longer persuaded by the cause. He suspected that I had turned into Mr Kurtz. He was wrong. I was passionate about the cause. But though my children would be enriched by the experience of working in Africa, nothing at all would change as a result of their being here.
Still trying to control my indignation I said as quietly as I could, "What about your kids? This is their country. They could make a difference. They are the only people - the only possible people - who will ever make a difference here."
This was my Malawian epiphany. Only Africans were capable of making a difference in Africa. Everyone else, donors and volunteers and bankers, were simply agents of subversion.
Back in Blantyre, I saw a man on the sidewalk lying in wait for me. Seeing me, the man smiled and frolicked ahead, flapping his arms to get my attention. Then he crouched in front of me, blocking my path, and said, "I am hungry. Give me money." I said "No", and stepped over him and kept walking.
· This is an edited extract from Paul Theroux's book Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town (Hamish Hamilton, £17.99).
· This is an edited extract from Paul Theroux's book: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town (Hamish Hamilton, £17.99). To order a copy for £15.99 plus p&p call Guardian book service on 0870 066 7979.
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