April 2, 2003 - News Observer: Malawi RPCV and best-selling author Paul Theroux talks about Kenya, Ethiopia and Foreign Aid to Africa
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April 2, 2003 - News Observer: Malawi RPCV and best-selling author Paul Theroux talks about Kenya, Ethiopia and Foreign Aid to Africa
Malawi RPCV and best-selling author Paul Theroux talks about Kenya, Ethiopia and Foreign Aid to Africa
Read and comment on this interview from the News Observer with Malawi RPCV and best-selling author Paul Theroux where he talks about Kenya, Ethiopia and Foreign Aid to Africa at:
Interview with Paul Theroux*
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Interview with Paul Theroux
By MARVIN HUNT
MH: Let me say at the start that I think DARK STAR SAFARI is the best travel book you're written. And that's saying a lot for the author of THE GREAT RAILWAY BAZAAR.
PT: Thanks for saying so. I just got a message today saying that the [review] in THE NEW YORK TIMES is on the one hand good and on the other hand bad, mixed and annoying. But, yeah, that's great. I'm glad you liked it. It was a lot of trouble to write. And the trip was a lot of trouble.
MH: I'm sure it was. In fact, your African sojourn - traveling by cattle truck, chicken bus, ferry and taxi through some of the most remote and dangerous parts of the continent - seems to me the most arduous trip you've made. Is that impression accurate?
PT: It was a very hard trip in some respects. But because there was no time factor, no limit, I went at my own speed. Travel is very difficult if you're under a time constraint-if you've got to be back at work Monday morning. So then you become a kind of tourist, and you take short cuts. But if you're traveling and you have months and months ahead of you, there's no hurry. If there isn't a bus until next week, then you say, I'll wait.
MH: But traveling in the back of cattle busses, paddling canoes, and so forth.
PT: That's a lot of trouble. But to tell you the truth, its not that it's uncomfortable; it's that if there's a problem-you're in a car crash in Africa, and you end up in the hospital- you probably won't get out of the hospital alive. Because if you need a transfusion-any kind of health issue that arises if you're traveling in Africa is likely to be very severe. The hospitals are very bad and, because of AIDS, you don't really want to get a transfusion.
MH: So this is not the kind of trip someone would be wise to take if they were afraid of ill health.
PT: No. You have to be in the pink. You've got to be mentally up for it, calm and happy, optimistic. And you have to be physically up for it. You've got to be strong. Because you're going to miss meals and lose sleep and all sorts of things that weaken you. I got actual stomach upsets a number of times. I don't write about them much, but I felt very unwell at various times at various places. [On the way back] I stopped by Ethiopia and got seriously ill. I contracted some sort of parasite and was sick for five months. It weakened you, you lose a lot of weight, you feel very demoralized. But I tried not to make too much about it because no one wants to read about that. Everyone gets sick.
MH: Looking back on it, do you see a high moment and a low moment in the trip?
PT: I think the high moment would be toward the end when I realize I'm going to be all right. You know, I've kind of made it. I'm rolling through South Africa thinking, I actually didn't die. I had great experiences and I'm going to live to write about it. That's a high. South Africa is a wonderful place. Full of interest. It's not hard to travel there. There's trains, there's busses, and people are friendly. Getting toward the end of the trip, I was feeling sort of home free. I had enough incident and enough insight to write a book about it.
A low point was being back in Malawi where [forty years ago] I was a teacher in the Peace Corps and hearing that one of the government ministers had stolen most of the [nation's] education budget and thinking, well, what do you do about this? How can you save a country if there are thieves running it, a cleptocracy. So, that's a low point. Apart from shooting people for stealing, what do you do? There's nothing that can be done, really.
MH:. In DARK STAR SAFARI you point out that in countries with the highest concentration of aid workers - "agents of virtue," you call them - things are getting worse. After thirty or more years the poorest places in Africa are poorer than ever. In Malawi you have what you call an epiphany, that only Africans can solve African problems. Okay, you've persuaded me that that's the case. Given that, what is the proper response of the West to the suffering of Africa?
PT: Obviously, with starvation and famine, you have to do something. You can't simply let people die. But there's a difference between emergency food aid and other kinds of aid, other kinds of help. You can't turn your back on starving people, but in terms of other kinds of aid, clearly something has gone very wrong. The traditional approaches-Peace Corps workers, building roads and so forth-hasn't made a significant difference. If I were going to put it in a nutshell, it's that Africans have to care enough about their country to do something themselves. It's not just a question of money but rather of will power. I'll give you an example: like Haiti, African countries have a terrible problem with deforestation, floods and all the concomitants of that. It's beyond terrible. Whose fault is that? They've cut the trees down.
We could go in and plant more trees, but the main thing is getting people to stop. Africans have to care enough to stop cutting trees. In Africa I said to people, I was a teacher here almost forty years ago. Where are all the teachers now? And they said, well, no one wants to be a teacher. They don't earn enough money. But [I was a teacher here] once and if [Africans] don't care, why should I go? or you go? Who should our kids go? Africans have to solve African problems. Africans have to be spreading the word about AIDS, they have to be teaching, they have to be caring. In the forty years since I moved to Africa, things have only gotten worse. There are no successes.
MH: What has foreign aid done?
PT: The whole thing about aid is that it's a power trip for a lot of people. And it hasn't really made much difference. I'd be willing to say, okay, let's spend the next forty years bringing food and building roads and doing it. But it hasn't worked. Let's try something different. I'm not a right-wing fanatic, you know that. But it hasn't worked. So, clearly something else has to be tried. There are no successes [in Africa]. No one can point to a place and say it's a success.
Kenya had one government, lots of aid since-it became independent in 1963. Lots of aid. And a lot's happening. When [Kenya] had an election a few months ago and the new guy came in, he said "we need a lot of aid "[here we laugh]. The government had stolen all the money. Why are you going to need a lot of help? [We laugh again] I mean, why are you going to need a lot of help? I mean, what about the other stuff you got. I mean, you can write off the debt [pace Bono], but I'd say something else. Inspire people.
I mean, the major difference between the Africa I knew [forty years ago] and Africa now is [that] when I was there people were born in the country and thought they would live and die in their country. That was their destiny and their fate. If the country was in a state of deterioration, they would have to face that. Subsequently, in the seventies, people started to say "why should we fix the problem? Someone else will fix the problem. No one cares. And they went to Raleigh-Durham and Boston and London and all the other places. So they said, screw it, I'm leaving.
Why should you or I or our children care if Africans don't. Maybe we shouldn't be guilt-tripped into sending tons of money or books. Maybe [we should] see what happens if we don't do those things. Why not just see what people are willing to do for themselves. People are now living hand-to mouth in a subsistence fashion. Things can't get much worse than that.
MH: Has the entire apparatus of colonialism collapsed in east and central Africa?
PT: Well, there wasn't a lot there to begin with. In east and central Africa, for example, there was never any big educational system, there was no medical system. [From colonial occupation] they had the law, the police and the army, on a small scale. Everything was done on the cheap. It's characteristic, when imperial powers colonize a country, it's not altruistic, you go there because it's a racket, a deal. There's money to be made.
Digression on Angola
In East Africa, it's true, the British had a library here and a jail and a courthouse there, and a small college-but all on a small scale; no substantial infrastructure in the region. So, unfortunately, upon independence [generally in the 1960s] a lot of untrained people were running undeveloped countries. People had to start from nothing, and even that was done with foreign aid. It didn't inspire people. Ex-colonial people were balancing the budget.
But you know that some donor countries have stopped giving aid. Denmark has stopped aid to African countries because they've said the money is not being well used. It's wasted, you've stolen it. That's a fact. They just shut it down, said we're not going to give it up. And a lot of Africans are angry about that. saying how could you do this to us. But [the Danes are] saying, stop stealing and we'll start giving. This is just a waste.
MH: What's now happening in Iraq, is it going to devastate travel? Will the door to the East be closed to us?
PT: No, I don't think so. People will be more frightened of travel, and certainly they're not going to be in the Middle East; will be staying away from Muslim countries. In the short run it will affect travel, but in the long run it will affect our economy. Obviously this war is going to go on even after we take Baghdad. That's just the beginning of the problem. Over the long term it will affect international relations more than the individual traveler. Where do people go anyway? They go to Bermuda and the Bahamas, Italy and Mexico. Or Thailand, for that matter. When's the last time you knew someone who went on vacation to Basra?
MH: Would it be possible now or in the foreseeable future for you to retake the trip [by train through Asia] that you made in The Great Railway Bazaar (1975)?
PT: No, even shortly after I made that trip it was no longer possible. For that book I went through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan more or less continuously, with very few impediments. I got an Afghanistan visa when I was in Teheran. Now there are huge gaps [in that route] that are just impossible. I couldn't take THE GREAT RAILWAY BAZAAR trip now. That's what happens, though. The world, countries open and close. And a lot of the ones that were open then are closed now. And vice versa. I couldn't go to Afghanistan now, but I can go to Vietnam and China in a different way.
MH: Should Americans travelers avoid Islamic countries?
PT: Not as much as you might suppose. In Africa I talked to many Muslims. One on one I found that even in the most fanatical countries, you're not going to necessarily get hassled. I find you can talk to people and they don't hold you personally responsible. In general, that's true.
MH: In Ethiopia you visited Shashemene, a Rastafarian town occupied since the 60s by immigrants from Jamaica, who worship Haile Selassie, prince Ras Tafari, the Lion of Judah. How do they fit in to Ethiopian culture?
PT: A little bit of Jamaica in Ethiopia. The Ethiopians aren't crazy about the Rastas, however. They feel as though the Rastas don't grasp the essence of Ethiopian culture, which is ancient and subtle. And they don't really get the cult of Haile Selassie. He's a leader, but he's not a godly figure to Ethiopians. There are many things in Ethiopia that Rastas just don't get, and they're not really interested in. They're also not great farmers, they're not entrepreneurial. But they have great ganja and their music. You know, Africa is a wonderful place for someone who's trying to escape, and the Rastas discovered that. Africans are tolerant people. If you go there, they're not going to bother you. The Rastas found wives, and Ethiopian women are really lovely. Give me twenty acres and I might move to Ethiopia.
You know, I'm glad to know you're interested in the Ethiopian Rastas. There's an element of vindication there. I pitched the idea of a magazine story about the Shashemene Rastas to magazine editors and no one would buy it.
MH: When we last talked, after your HAPPY ISLES OF OCEANIA, I asked you where's left for Paul Theroux to go?
PT: Did I say Africa? I don't know, Marvin. A trip like this is expensive. It takes its toll. I'm going to see what happens. I don't like doing thankless things. And I don't need to. I can perfectly well write articles about, ah, French cuisine. I don't have to put my ass on the line. And this trip was physically very risky, dangerous, expensive. I'm going to see how appreciated this is. That remains to be seen. I've written plenty of books.
MH: You might not write another travel book?
PT: I can't say. There are plenty of places to go, some more interesting than others. I don't have any plans, though.
MH: In that earlier interview, I asked you where else you'd like to so. You said Outer Space. Given what happened to Columbia, would you still go?
PT: Yeah, sure. I saw Buzz Aldren about four years ago, and I asked him what's it like and, you know, he said it's great. And I said, but I couldn't do it myself? And he said, sure you could. He said your grandmother could go. It's simple, really. You just strap yourself in, and you go. He said anyone could do it. I'd go in a minute. I'd jump at the chance. The risks don't bother me at all.
MH: Finally, since moving to Oahu, you've taken up beekeeping. What's the appeal?
PT: When he retired Sherlock Holmes became a beekeeper. Did you know that? All you do with the bees is set up all the stuff; the bees do the work themselves. And in Hawaii they reproduce very fast. Even where you are, you get a chilly winter. [Here] the bees are multiplying all the time, the hive building and building. You're putting up more boxes. You start out with three hives and pretty soon you've got fifty.
MH: But why do it? Why keep bees, above all other hobbies. Is there a Zen to it?
PT: I always had a desire to do it. It always seemed to me something that would be fun. And you don't have to feed them. They cooperate, they look after themselves. You give them the superstructure of the hive, and they do all the difficult things-building the comb and making the honey. Honey is wonderful. Honey lasts forever. It's an emblem of permanence. Hawaii is perfect [for beekeeping].
MH: Virgil devotes the Fourth Georgics to beekeeping, in the middle of which recounts the story of Orpheus' trip to the Underworld. He returns to bees at the end.
PT: Virgil's farm was near Naples, wasn't it? You can get very rhapsodic talking about bees. But I'll tell you this, the bees that I have are Italian. Apis melaflura, it's a Ligorian honey bee, are from Italy. The most productive bees in the world-in North America, in the Pacific, in Europe-the all originate, pretty much, in Italy. We do have American bees, but they were overwhelmed by the more productive European honey bee.
MH: And you don't get stung?
PT: All the time, yeah. But I'm not allergic to it. And people say that there's a positive homeopathic effect to it. It's very good for inflammation, arthritis, things like that. There's sunshine, there's flowers, fresh water, warmth, eternal summer.
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