Paul Theroux Declared Persona Non Grata (Malawi)

“Two months before I was supposed to leave the Peace Corps,” Theroux recalled in a 1971 essay published in Esquire and reprinted in Sunrise with Seamonsters, “I was charged with conspiring against the government. All I did was to help several Africans: help one’s mother, help another with his car, maybe write a few mild anti-government [U.S.] articles. But I was linked to a plot to assassinate Hastings Banda. Well, people I knew were actually trying to shoot Banda. So it was more guilt by association.”

Theroux came home to be interrogated by the State Department and the Peace Corps. 

Writing about this in Esquire, under the title, “The Killing of Hastings Banda,” Theroux explained how he had innocently gotten mixed up with the German equivalent of the CIA. He was writing, “background” pieces for what he understood was a German magazine, but what was actually their intelligence service. This, of course, was –and still is–against Peace Corps regulations.

Theroux wasn’t kicked out of the Peace Corps for writing articles about Malawi, but toward the end of his second year as a Volunteer, he made the mistake of helping a Malawian friend, David Rubadiri, a former headmaster of Theroux’s school and later a delegate to the United Nations. Rubadiri had recently been denounced by Hastings Banda, had left the U.N. in New York, and was living in political exile in Uganda.

Paul wrote in his article how Rubadiri sent a letter to him from Uganda, “asking me if I could find it in my heart to help his mother flee the country, and also would I mind driving his car to Uganda with his set of best china, a dinner service for twelve.”

Theroux, as a favor to his friend, did transport the car, the mother and the china to Kampala. On his way back to Malawi by plane, and at Rubadiri’s request, he flew via Dar es Salaam, Tanzania to deliver an envelope to Yatuta Chisiza, a revolutionary who had organized an army that was attacking Malawi border posts in hopes of eventually overthrowing Banda.

As Theroux wrote in Esquire, “My readiness to say yes to favors may suggest a simplicity of mind, a fatal gullibility’ but I was bored.” Next, he carried a coded message from Yatuta Chisiza to a ‘Greek fellow” in Blantyre. When Theroux delivered the message–that on October 16 the Greek baker was to take his bread to Ncheu, a town thirty mile from Blantyre–the baker “trembled and went pale.”

Later, in a Chinese restaurant in Salisbury, Rhodesia, Theroux was told by Malawi APCD Wes Leach that Banda told the American ambassador that he had proof Theroux was plotting to kill him. Banda demanded the Volunteer be sent home.

Theroux guessed that the Greek baker had been caught, interrogated by the Malawi Criminal Investigation Department about the “bread van’ and, frightened for his own life, set up the American messenger. Using Theroux’s name, government agents had established correspondence with Chisiza in Dar es Salaam. Later, instead of finding ‘bread’ waiting in a van, Chisiza found Malawi soldiers, who ambushed and killed the revolutionary gunman from Tanzania. Sent home from Africa, Theroux stayed at the famous Claridge Hotel, around the corner from the first Peace Corps Headquarters in Washington, D.C., the Maiatico Building. He was in and out in less than a week. The Peace Corps then added to his misery by deducting his airfare from Africa to Washington from his readjustment allowance, leaving him with only $200–not much, even in 1965.

African friends, however, came to his rescue and found him a job at Makerere University in Uganda, where he was appointed the director of the university center for adult studies in Kampala.

[What happened next to Theroux?]









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  • Superior accuracy outside the box is probably not possible. Having led an edgy life and written about it it
    seems morphing out of and back into and out of again “the box”
    who’s margins are permeable in a way that his telling of his times are a collage mix mingling fact in
    with imagined novelistik schtikht surging/ swirling making great story-narratives that
    snake back to bite his butt.
    Being some sort of genius I bet he is taking ‘five’ now for awhile even while he has publicly announced he is done.
    I get the feeling that P.T. follows the model managed (possibly not better)
    by the Englishman G.G. who often called his novels ‘entertainments’ really wanting to
    be another Conrad.

  • I think that Paul Theroux’ statement that he was getting bored with his PC work, explains a lot. Why not simply go home, rather than engaging in reckless, dangerous adventuring (which he excuses as “gullibility”). However, we’re not talking about a six-year-old. This was dangerous business, trying to overthrow the new government, people were dying, others fleeing the country, and a LOT more would die as the new Hastings Banda government mobilized to defend itself from rebel factions. Being stationed in Zomba, the then-Capital, I heard a lot more than most PCVs.

    As for how dangerous all of this became (and raising obvious questions as to how the Peace Corps in-country administration could be so clueless and inept), the reported rebel harassment of Malawi border posts, hardly describes it. I remember one morning walking to work at the Geological Survey Dept, and was surprised to see what looked like the whole national army coming down the road past me. There was a large Army post in Zomba. The Army still went by it’s earlier name “1-KAR” (meaning First Battalion, King’s African Rifles; later renamed Malawi Rifles).

    Far from merely harassing a border post, a column of lorries full of rebel soldiers, invading the country at Fort Johnson, was advancing on Zomba, and had been stalled at the Shire River ferry, a mere 20 miles north of the Capital. The ferrymaster refused to send the ferry across, which stopped the advance. With phone lines cut, a British expatriate official had escaped to Monkey Bay, found a working telephone, and notified the KAR. Much of the rebel column was running out of petrol, and were combing the countryside for any fuel they could find. They weren’t aware the KAR had arrived in force at the ferry. The result was a slaughter, as the KAR aggressively shot every rebel they could find. For two weeks squads of KAR tracked down fleeing rebels. Officers tried to slow down the killing, in order to get some captives to interrogate. I would hear about all of this in detail, as the Askari (soldiers) and officers returned to Zomba. Assurances by returning officers allayed fears that PCVs (and everybody else, esp government employees) should be fleeing Zomba.

    i think to be colluding with the very people who had organized the invasion of the country with armed force, as Paul was doing, strikes me as reckless and foolhardy beyond belief — and with the fears and feelings extant at the time, might easily have caused retaliation against innocent, unsuspecting PCVs. How the PC country director could be so blase to events like this, remains as astounding as it is unexplained. This well before the arrival of Mr McCone. Mr McCone, upon arrival in August, several months after the invasion, surely must have been briefed on it. That he could take the position he did, potentially jeopardizing the entire Peace Corps Malawi project, is equally astounding. If there is anybody to thank, that we still have a Malawi PC Project, it probably is Pres Hastings Banda — and 1-KAR. JAT

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