Joburg Expat: Dark Star Safari

August 18, 2013

Dark Star Safari

First of all, I admit I love Paul Theroux. Mosquito Coast, if a bit dark and sinister, is one of my favorite books.

So perhaps it doesn't come as a surprise that I loved Dark Star Safari, even though it is an entirely different story. It’s really just one long travelogue, spanning all the way overland from Cairo to Cape Town and touching on a host of African countries. What makes it different from more mainstream travel literature is Theroux’s alternative approach to his trips. He takes the term “off the beaten path” to its logical extreme, going where almost no other tourists venture, seeking out the dark corners, meeting the downtrodden, gathering great stories to tell.

I can’t praise this book enough. In fact, I consider it one of the best books about Africa out there. If you want it brief, the Washington Post’s review says it all: “Few recent books provide such a litany of Africa’s ills, even as they make one fall in love with the continent.”


I took my copy of this book on our recent beach vacation, and having no pen with me lounging poolside, I folded the corners of pages I found interesting. The book is already completely dog-eared for all the treasures I've found – anecdotes, observations, and imparted wisdom. If I now shared them all with you, I’d be writing an entire new book, but here are some of them:

“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.”

“’They do not want your life, bwana. They want your shoes’ [after their truck being shot at in Northern Kenya]. Many times after that in my meandering through Africa, I mumbled these words, an epitaph of underdevelopment, desperation in a single sentence. What use is your life to them? It is nothing. But your shoes – ah, they are a different matter. They are worth something, much more than your watch (they had the sun) or your pen (they were illiterate) or your bag (they had nothing to put in it). These were men who needed footwear, for they were forever walking.”

“Inevitably, on the Philae [an Egyptian river cruise ship] there was one of those helpfully nosy couples who asked all the questions the rest of us did not dare to ask for fear of revealing our ignorance.”

I laughed at this one, having harbored that sentiment often when traveling through Africa with my family. And it’s not only for fear of revealing my ignorance, but for a dislike of appearing impatient – the surest sign of the uninitiated African traveler.

On another occasion, while biding his time in Egypt waiting for a Sudanese visa, Theroux observes that “no one is very upbeat about Sudan” to a priest who is showing him around. The reply: “Wonderful people. Terrible government. The African story.”

That has got to be one of the most concise and yet accurate ways to describe Africa.

Or, about Addis Ababa: “Scamming is the survival mode in a city 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.” And later, while waiting for a train, “most trains in Africa look as if they are on their way to Auschwitz.”

If this sounds cynical and negative, I’m not doing Paul Theroux justice. He says all this in a humorous and patient way, as one might speak about a lovable but slightly eccentric relative. Still, he does paint a picture of despair. Not so much about the poverty he encounters everywhere. He enjoys his contacts with rural people who survive on subsistence farming or somehow scrape by on sheer ingenuity. What he deplores are the people who over the years have learned to wait for, or even demand, a free handout, be it from the government, from white landowners in Zimbabwe, or from foreign charities.

It is the foreign charities he has the least amount of love for, expressing what today amounts to less heresy than in decades past, namely that the best aid one could give to Africa would be to stop foreign aid entirely. Only then, he argues, might Africans in the poorest countries take matters into their own hands. Or perhaps not. But why then should they continue to be supported?

Because nothing, in Theroux’s experience, has changed, or if it has, then for the worse. Having worked in Malawi and Uganda as a peace corps volunteer in the 1960s, he can see the difference first-hand, and it gives no rise to hope that anything has improved in the last forty years. Quite on the contrary, he only sees decay. It is quite telling that he views the one country we've all heard so many horrors about, Zimbabwe, as one of the more hopeful African stories, because its people are mostly helping themselves. He calls Harare the most pleasant African city he had seen until then, enjoying good meals for a change, encountering well-educated and hardworking people.  In many other countries the horrors of war and dictatorship are gone, but there seems to be no ambition to build livelihoods. It's almost as if there is more energy for fighting than for living in peace. Granted, Dark Star Safari was written ten years ago and since then things have changed - most notably Zimbabwe's decline after hyperinflation and a disastrous election - but I’ve seen enough of these places to know that even today Theroux’s assessment is highly accurate.

And yet Dark Star Safari is not a depressing read at all. I quite enjoyed (with not a small amount of envy!) following the route from Cairo through Sudan, Ethopia, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe, my excitement progressively mounting the closer we got to his final stop and my home of three years, South Africa. Not only do you get to experience each pace so vividly you could swear you’d been there yourself, but you also come away with an extensive reading list to start a small library of its own, making this a rewarding literary excursion as well.

It’s funny, I don’t actually like travel literature all that much. I don’t really like to read up on a country before I go, much preferring to go and see and only later put it into context by reading more about it. The word “travel” is what actually kept me from reading Dark Star Safari much earlier. But how wrong I was. This is exactly the type of book I love to read. And, for that matter, aspire to write one day.

I particularly like his tales of going through actual border posts – the only way one can really grasp Africa, in his opinion – and all variations of train travel. Like this observation:  “Apart from the departure time, there was no timetable. No one knew when we were expected to arrive in Dire Dawa. ‘Tomorrow,’ the best guess, was all right with me.”

This is where the traveler new to Africa will expose himself. He will be totally stumped by such an imprecise answer and go to great lengths to extract a better one from whoever is willing to listen, usually to no avail. It’s like asking “when will the power come back on” when the lights just went out in your house in Dainfern (even though I am by no means equating the “hardship” of life in Dainfern with the hardship of Paul Theroux’s travels). You are much better off just going to bed instead of wasting your energy in pursuit of more information. But only living and traveling in Africa will teach you this – is it patience? I like to think so. But others might view it as indifference or a lack of ambition.

I imagine Paul Theroux came across very similar sights when traveling in Africa. This
picture was taken in Zanzibar (but we did not ride in that bus). 

Theroux embarks on his quest to travel by road – be it in a cattle truck, a train, a minibus, a dugout canoe, or whatever means available other than flying – from Cairo to Cape Town with this general idea: “…the image I carried with me on my trip was of a burned-out wilderness, empty of significant life, having no promise. I was in a land of despair, full of predators, tumbling down the side of a dark star.” Hence the name of the book, though he continues to allude to the dark star analogy throughout the story, like when he describes Africa as the anti-Europe, the anti-West, liking it precisely because “there was nothing of home here. Being in Africa was like being on a dark star.” And then “I was not dismayed. The traveler’s conceit is that he is heading into the unknown. The best travel is a leap in the dark. If the destination were familiar and friendly, what would be the point of going there?”

I love this last observation. It is the exact opposite of what I suspect  most Western tourists will tell you about their upcoming trip, yet rings very true to me. My motto, after three years in Africa, has often been “the crappier the experience, the better the story.” Or what a reviewer at the New York Book Review calls “the humor of ill humor.” I realize that not all tourists are after a good story, at least not more than they are after relaxation and luxury, but as a writer you know that you have to almost go looking for trouble if you want to experience anything worth putting to paper.

Paul Theroux certainly knows this.  As one acquaintance he makes along the way observes: “You’re going to Nairobi by road? Well, of course you are. Flying there would be too simple for you. It’ll take a week or more. You’ll have a terrible time. You’ll have some great stuff for your book.”

Great stuff indeed.