Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town
by Paul Theroux
Friday, November 17, 2023 — Book Review
Two decades ago, the novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux took an overland trip through Africa, starting in Cairo, Egypt and ending in Cape Town, South Africa. This certainly isn’t the safest or the most comfortable means of experiencing the supposed “dark continent”, but it makes for some interesting experiences and insights. Keeping in mind that Theroux’s observations are just one point of view among many, his resulting book Dark Star provides a unique look at a region of the world that holds a permanent place off the beaten path.
While Dark Star is an easy book to read, breaking it down into its individual elements is a good way to approach its merits and examine its flaws. The first element of importance is Theroux’s sense of place. Wherever he goes, the author describes what he sees and the vibe he gets from his surroundings. Starting on the tourist trail in Egypt, he heads south through Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Zambia, and South Africa. You quickly get a sense of what he appreciates and what he doesn’t. He doesn’t like sites that are swarmed with tourists, nor does he like cities with their concentrations of crime and poverty. He also doesn’t like the “death traps” as he calls public transportation which are usually over-croded minivans driven at dangerous speeds on poorly maintained roads, pockmarked with hippopotamus-sized potholes. If you’ve ever traveled in a Third World country, you will know exactly what he is talking about.
The places that Theroux does like are usually rural, especially farm lands or jungle villages. These are the places where he sees Africans at their best, meaning Africans being Africans in the absence of corrupt and filthy cities built up on the foundations of European colonialism. Some of the book’s best passages involve descriptions of the pyramids in Sudan which are rarely seen by tourists, a boat trip across Lake Victoria, another boat trip from Malawi across the Zambezi over the border into Zimbabwe, and the pristine countrysides of Zimbabwe and South Africa. All places, whether Theroux likes them or not, are described with language that is clear, simple, and direct, making it easy to visualize what he sees.
Another element that is done to near perfection is writings about the people. Theroux talks with tour guides, people on the streets and in the villages, farmers, nuns, educators, government officials, Indian businessmen, prostitutes, authors, intellectuals, and ordinary people. Just like with the places he goes, he describes these people vividly with precision so that you feel like you quickly get to know them. But not everyone is to his liking. He gets into small argument with a fanatical Rastafarian in Ethiopia, a little ornery with physically fit young men who refuse to work, government officials who demand bribes to do their jobs, and he really gives a hard time to a young American missionary woman about the psychological damage that her evangelical ministry is doing to the local people. There is also plenty of anger directed at clueless tourists as well as NGO and charity workers who he sees as being the Westerners who do the most damage to Africa.
The third element of importance is the author, Paul Theroux himself, and his thoughts and commentaries on everything he sees. Before getting into this subject, it should be mentioned that Theroux had a purpose to his journey. In the 1960s he worked as a Peace Corps volunteer, teaching in Malawi. After getting involved with a Leftist political group, he got fired then accepted a teaching position at a college in Uganda. He wanted to return and see what results, if any, his contributions to Africa grew into. What he found was a major disappointment. The charming campuses and villages where he had lived were in ruins and instead of a thriving civilization, he saw emaciated beggars, starving children, an ignorant populace, and chronically corrupt politicians. Shops that were formerly owned by Indian immigrants were abandoned and burnt to the ground, the result of a campaign of ethnic cleansing. African people wanted to buy from shops owned by Africans, but Africans never took control over the businesses after the Indians were killed or chased away. They resorted to begging, theft, petty crime, prostitution, and laziness instead of making an effort to build better villages for themselves. Due to the hopelessness of African society, the most educated citizens fled to America or Europe instead of staying in their home countries where they were most needed.
Throughout his travels in Tanzania, Uganda, and Malawi, Theroux gets increasingly bitter and cynical. He wanted to see Africans thriving and they weren’t. He directs all his wrath towards the Western charities and NGOs who he says are making the local people dependent on aid rather than learning how to run their societies for themselves. Even worse, these organizations work by bribing corrupt politicians to allow them to do work there, keeping greedy and psychotic leaders in positions of power they don’t deserve. Theroux points out that rural people who have given up on the hopeless market economy and returned to subsistence farming are the happiest and healthiest Africans he encounters. Heecomes close to advocating for a type of post-capitalist agrarian anarchism.
Some readers have criticized Theroux for his pessimistic views on contemporary Africa, but he does cite studies that support what he says. He also encounters a lot of Africans in several different countries that agree with him. To make sense of his negativity, you also have to remember that traveling overland through Africa is not exactly stress free. Anybody who has been on an extended backpacking trip anywhere in the world will tell you that traveler’s fatigue is a real thing. Theroux took a longer than average trip through one of the most underdeveloped regions in the world, got shot at by Somali bandits, stuck in the middle of nowhere when his transportation broke down, and got sick with food poisoning, magnifying his traveler’s fatigue to a outsize extent. These circumstances would make you grouchy too. But even in the darkest times, Theroux never loses his appreciation for Africa, the wildlife, the landscapes, and the people who are trying to make the best of their situations. Besides, by the time he crosses the river from Malawi into Zimbabwe, his mood really lightens up.
Dark Star is an engaging travelogue that should be read both critically and with an open mind. All the while, remember that this is Paul Theroux’s singular point of view. That doesn’t make it wrong; that just means that there are other points of view to take into account that may go against what he says even if they don’t necessarily invalidate his opinions. He saw what he saw and he expresses it well. This is raw and honest travel writing and if you haven’t been tough enough to make the same kind of journey, you’re not in a good place to be judgmental of the conclusions he draws.