The Edmond Sun

May 29, 2013

AGAINST THE GRAIN: Travel writer details Africa’s changing social landscape

William F. O'Brien
Special to The Sun

EDMOND — Paul Theroux burst upon the literary scene in 1975 with the publication of “The Great Railway Bazaar” that detailed his journey by rail from Victoria Station in London to what was then the British Colony of Hong Kong. In the ensuing decades, Theroux has written a series of books about his journeys by rail.

In “The Old Patagonia Express,” he described his  expedition from Boston, Mass., to Tierra del Fuego at the tip of the South American continent. That trip took him through Perry, Okla., and he would write about it approvingly as a pretty small town with interesting buildings.

Theroux’s most recent work “The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari” is his account of his journey from Cape Town, South Africa, to Luanda, Angola, in West Africa. He reports that he first went to Africa as an American Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1960s as a 22-year-old college graduate, and lived in Malawi. He later taught at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda.

Theroux is critical of much of the aid and assistance that has come from Western governments to Africa in recent decades and believes that much of it has been siphoned off by corrupt government officials. He is also dismissive of the celebrities who arrive in Africa with a media retinue and either adopt a child or get their pictures taken at a hospital or school. But the author is impressed with the good work to improve the lives of Africans mired in poverty done by some of the individuals he encounters in his travels through South Africa, Namibia and Angola.  

And while Theroux may not be aware of them, there are many small charities, such as the Vilakazi Foundation of Oklahoma City that gives poor children in Cape Town school supplies and sports equipment. Charities like this one provide direct assistance to Africans in need.

He travels through several parts of Cape Town, and reports that there have been improvements since his last visit 10 years ago. Namibia was a German colony until it was seized by South Africa during World War I, and it was ruled by South Africa until it gained its independence in 1990. Theroux is surprised to find a large German presence in Namibia when he arrived there, and is entranced by the beauty of the Namib Desert that is in close proximity to the Atlantic Ocean. He is also impressed by the way people of different races live peacefully together in Namibia.

Much has been written in recent years about the increasing Chinese presence in Africa, and Theroux encounters Chinese people during his travels, and details how they are operating small stores and restaurants. But he hears from several of the Africans he meets that the Chinese are also building factories in their countries and that many of those structures are being constructed by laborers from China. The failure to use local workers is causing resentment against the Chinese, the author reports, and he predicts that the Chinese experience in Africa will end badly.

Theroux’s African journey ends in Angola, and he paints a grim picture of that nation. Angola is an oil rich nation, but its people are among the poorest in Africa, and the revenue from its oil resources enrich only its leaders. Its president, Jose dos Santos, is listed as one of the wealthiest men in Africa, and his daughter, Isabel dos Santos, was recently identified by Forbes Magazine as Africa’s first female billionaire. Luanda, which is often listed as the most expensive city in the world, is a place of incredible poverty, corruption and violence, Theroux reports. He believes that the people of Angola eventually will rise up against the corrupt regime that rules that nation. Theroux was 70 years old when he made his trip to Africa, and on several occasions he indicates that his age and health may require that he cease his travels. But he leaves behind a legacy of travel books that will allow readers to enjoy his travel adventures for decades to come.

WILLIAM F. O’BRIEN is a retired Oklahoma City attorney.