April 20, 2003: Headlines: COS - Malawi: Writing - Malawi: San Francisco Chronicle: Malawi RPCV Paul Theroux finds hardship an integral part of revisiting 'old, eternal Africa

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Malawi: Peace Corps Malawi : The Peace Corps in Malawi: April 20, 2003: Headlines: COS - Malawi: Writing - Malawi: San Francisco Chronicle: Malawi RPCV Paul Theroux finds hardship an integral part of revisiting 'old, eternal Africa

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Malawi RPCV Paul Theroux finds hardship an integral part of revisiting 'old, eternal Africa

Malawi RPCV Paul Theroux finds hardship an integral part of revisiting 'old, eternal Africa

Hardship an integral part of revisiting 'old, eternal Africa'

John Flinn Sunday, April 20, 2003

"Nobody wants to hear me complain," said Paul Theroux.

We were having a drink at the bar of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, and the author was explaining why he hadn't said more in his new book about the serious and frightening intestinal parasite he picked up at the end of his epic overland journey from Cairo to Cape Town. There's only a brief mention, on the very last page.

"Things like that are just one of the hassles of travel," he said. "And, let's face it -- half of all travel is hassles. Or is it two-thirds? What would you say?"

I've never stopped to work out the numbers. I suppose it varies according to the trip. But I understood Theroux's point. Hard travel -- as opposed to sunny vacations or guided tours -- often requires hardship, uncertainty, discomfort and fear.

Theroux got his fill during his African journey by local transportation -- rattletrap colonial trains, rusting lake steamers, overloaded buses driven by children barely tall enough to see over the steering wheel -- through Egypt, the Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya and on to South Africa. Along the way he was shot at, howled at and robbed. And, at the very end, he picked up a nasty hitchhiker that left him weak and nauseated for five months.

The result is "Dark Star Safari" (Houghton Mifflin), for my money Theroux's most engaging travel book since "The Great Railway Bazaar." It's a rich and revealing passage through an Africa most visitors never see -- or choose to ignore -- as they fly from one game park to the next.

The continent holds special meaning for Theroux, who turns 62 this month. In the 1960s he spent six years in central Africa, first in the Peace Corps in what's now Malawi and later as a teacher at Makerere University in Uganda. He has a deep love of traditional village life, he speaks two African languages --

Swahili and Chichewa -- and he's got contacts. One of his old school chums, for example, is now the prime minister of Uganda.

"Living in Africa was the formative experience of my life," he said. "It's the only place I've ever felt completely happy and fulfilled. So I wanted to go back and see what happened to it."

To "take the measure of the place," he said, required rough travel. That was the only way to appreciate the difficulties and miseries that fill the daily lives of most Africans. "Besides," he said, "Africa is still one place where you can travel like a 19th century traveler -- on bad roads or nonexistent ones, where you can get lost and stuck and where you can be alone, and, most of all, where you can be truly out of touch. That's the oldest and most rewarding form of travel."

Few travel writers can touch Theroux when it comes to painting an unforgettable scene, whether it's driving out into the vast and sun-seared Sudanese desert -- on a road built by Osama bin Laden -- to pitch his tent among forgotten, half-buried pyramids, or witnessing the nightly feeding of the hyenas outside the ancient city gates of Harar, Ethiopia: "Hyenas that had gotten something to eat were chewing, and their chewing was loudly audible, for hyenas eat everything, including the bones, masticating them with the snap and crunch of a wood chipper."

Sadly, the optimism Theroux remembers from his Peace Corps days in the 1960s, when African nations were winning independence from their European colonial overlords, has evaporated. "Back then, people thought, 'We've got a chance now, we've got a shot.' They thought the prosperity that had been withheld from them was just around the corner. There was a hint of disappointment early on, but nothing like the disenchantment that came later."

The watershed event, Theroux believes, was the invention of the jumbo jet, which brought tourists in large numbers to Africa. "That also made Africans realize they could leave," he said. "In my time there, the attitude was, 'Maybe we can fix the problem, fix the country, get an education.' Then it was as if the country had sprung a leak, and it became something you left, something you abandoned. A lot of bright people went to the United States or Canada on student visas, which eventually turned into green cards."

Theroux being Theroux, he's raising eyebrows by laying some of the blame on Western charities and aid organizations. "They all seem like sanctimonious prigs on a power trip," he told me.

"You can't fault them for feeding hungry people during a famine," he continued. "But you have to ask, why, after all this time, are they still necessary, all over Africa? It's a self-perpetuating boondoggle.

"A lot of African governments allow the (aid organizations) to run the schools and hospitals -- it's cheaper for them, and one less thing to worry about. Governments have just stopped taking responsibility for their own social services.

"I thought (the charities) were supposed to be solving the problem, not keeping it on the boil. The teacher training college where I was a Peace Corps volunteer 40 years ago still hasn't trained enough people to take over teaching the schools."

At a dinner last fall in New York, after U2 singer Bono pleaded for more charity for Africa, Theroux turned to his table mate, Kurt Vonnegut, and said: "The Africans, rich and poor, need to work on saving Africa. It can't be done from the outside."

But, he told me, "to paint this gloomy picture is missing the point of Africa. Writing about aid workers is missing the point. Writing about animals in the game parks is missing the point. Writing about catastrophes is missing the point. What I wanted to do was write about the old, eternal Africa, where people are self-sufficient and life goes on. I saw people living by their wits,

people who have become indestructible. That's what Africa teaches us -- who we were, and who we are."

And what about the little souvenir he brought home, the intestinal parasite? For five months, Theroux was laid low. He couldn't eat without feeling nauseated; he lost a lot of weight. It seemed immune to Western medicine: Doctors couldn't diagnose it; antibiotics couldn't conquer it. Eventually it just cleared up by itself.

"But the whole time I was writing the book," he said, "I had a little bit of Africa gurgling inside me."

E-mail John Flinn at travel@sfchronicle.com.

When this story was posted in October 2004, this was on the front page of PCOL:

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RPCV Carl Pope says the key to winning this election is not swaying undecided voters, but persuading those already willing to vote for your candidate to actually go to the polls.

Take our poll and tell us what you are doing to support your candidate.

Finally read our wrap-up of the eight RPCVs in Senate and House races around the country and where the candidates are in their races.

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Story Source: San Francisco Chronicle

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Malawi; Writing - Malawi



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