Common Cents for June 22, 2012

For Father’s Day, the family gave me a book I wanted entitled Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux. It is a narrative of the author’s trek from Cairo to Cape Town via truck, train, bus, minivan, car, ferry, and even dugout canoe. In his twenties, he had been a member of the Peace Corps in Malawi soon after that country’s independence; he spent another four years in Uganda as a professor at a university. Now, fast approaching his 60th birthday, Theroux observes his old stomping grounds with a fresh set of eyes, mature eyes.

What had changed? Was life better? Had any of the hope of the years after the colonial masters left survived? He knew things were going to be different, but how much different? Was it really as bad as he feared, as he had read and heard? If so, what was the cause? What went wrong?

Theroux is an interesting cat. He can be acerbic, very, and you could best describe him as an extroverted misanthrope; however, that would be an oxymoron. Regardless, he is incredibly observant, and very forthright. This engenders amazingly entertaining and vivid reading, and I have put down the book on numerous occasions to Google some place or person in Mozambique or Tanzania or elsewhere. This helps to make the colors in my head more vibrant, and the din a little more cacophonous. It makes it real; I can see it and hear it all.

As for Africa today compared to his idealistic youth? Well, in so many words, Theroux thinks it is a dump. It might be a lovable dump, but he despairs at the ruin and disrepair. His former home in Malawi is now a shell. The books at the village school in Malawi? Stolen. The smart Indian-run shops throughout east Africa? Empty, with the original signs still out front. The railway stations and rolling stock? Haven’t been touched since he left 35 years ago, held together by rust. It goes on and on and on. Everywhere, things seem worse than they were in the 1960s, in so many ways.

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