Was Paul Theroux a Super Vol or Super Radical? (Malawi)

Paul Theroux lived, not only on the edge of the Rift Valley but also on the edge of the Peace Corps. He was the Volunteer who lived in the African village without servants. He drank in the shanty bars instead of with the Brits at their gymkhanas. He went out with African women and did not date the pale daughters of British settlers when they came home on holidays from their all-white Rhodesian boarding schools. He hated the PCVs who ran with the ex-pats, the “wog bashers,” as they called themselves.

PCV Paul Nelson (Malawi 1963-65) remembers him from Training. “Paul was always his own person,” Nelson wrote me. “In those days of background checks and psychological interviews, Theroux did not fit the predetermined patterns. During one interview, when asked his opinion of marriage, he described it as a three-headed horse, leaving the interviewer puzzling as to what box that fit in.”

While he wasn’t ‘like’ other PCVs, and held himself apart from them, he was, the late Mike McCone told me years ago, “an outstanding teacher who lived up to the Peace Corps standard of involvement in his school.”

And it was this very involvement with his fellow teachers and African friends that got Theroux into trouble in Africa.

[To be continued]

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  • Looking forward to the “rest of the story”. Anybody in contact with Theroux so we can get his perspective as well? David

    • I’d say both–super vol and super radical–that’s one of the reasons he brings such a unique perspective to so much of what he writes. But yes–let’s try to get his perspective on all of this.

  • Hi John, I’m afraid much of the image you’ve been given of Paul Theroux is something of a literary fantasy, with little foundation in fact. And likewise the characterization of Nyasaland Protectorate of the time. It was a British Crown Protectorate, relatively poor, and in which a large percentage of hospitals and schools were, and always had been, run by religious denominations, and typically staffed by religious orders, or secular expatriate persons, coming from Europe, Canada, and later the US.

    In all the time I was there, I never heard the term “Wog-bashing”. Another fantasy.

    I’m anxious to read the rest of the essay, and maybe set a few things straight. For instance, Paul asserted he was living in a village, teaching at a village bush school. In fact, he lived at the very modern Soche Hill Teacher Training College, with modern bungalows with running water. lawns, and paved sidewalks. This located on the edge of the largest city in the country, only a couple miles distant. And going the other direction, the next largest city. Hardly “Bush”.

    And to correct another fantasy, Paul had a full time cook (of the Nyao Tribe) who besides doing the cooking, doing all the daily food shopping, also did Paul’s laundry, and fired up the water heater each evening for Paul’s showers. Not exactly what we’re being let to believe.

    Paul’s teaching assignment was at the Soche Hill Elementary School, a demonstration school appended to the Teacher Training College. Besides Mr Tambala, the headmaster, there was only one indigenous African teacher there. And, contrary to it’s original intent, the students from the College next door never were down there doing practice-teaching.

    The Teacher Training College was similar. I recall the staff living next to Paul was composed, of one elderly English couple, two other English expat teachers, two English and one Scottish VSO-assigned teachers. an Australian couple, and four/five PCVs. The only “Rhodesian” there was the Principal. On the other hand only one or two indigenous African instructors, who did not live on-campus. THIS is the “village” that Volunteer Paul Theroux was in.

    Most of Nyasaland’s secondary schools weren’t much different, and the group of peers and fellow teachers that a PCV would daily interact with, were rarely if ever indigenous Africans. It wasn’t at all unusual that the friends one made would, almost by default, be non-indigenous persons. No judgement about indigenous Africans.

    I haven’t any doubt that Paui was good English teacher. But it sounds like new arrival Mr McCone was sold a fantasy about much of the rest. JAT

  • Methinks the definition of a super or radical volunteer is distorted here, and perhaps Monsieur Theroux would be the first to agree.
    Drinking at local “shanty” bars & consorting with local women and eschewing servants & pimply Brits alike — ca c’est normale ca!

    In northern Mali, add zero electricity and wells so deep that buckets had to be pulled up by ropes tied to camels who then plodded out into the sandy dunes…

    The much vaunted sixties volunteers also served so close to colonial times that many got inextricably caught up in that soit-disant culture.

    I do look fotward to reading about Theroux’s run in with the law — that might surely merit the radical name.

  • Methinks the definition of a super or radical volunteer is distorted here, and perhaps Monsieur Theroux would be the first to agree.
    Drinking at local “shanty” bars & consorting with local women and eschewing servants & pimply Brits alike — ca c’est normale ca!

    In northern Mali, add zero electricity and wells so deep that buckets had to be pulled up by ropes tied to camels who then plodded out into the sandy dunes…

    The much vaunted sixties volunteers also served so close to colonial times that many got inextricably caught up in that soit-disant culture.

    I do look fotward to reading about Theroux’s run in with the law — that might surely merit the radical title attached to this piece.

  • Per Charles’ above suggestion, the latest activity I found was Oct -16, a few months ago. Also Wikipedia did not list him as deceased.

    Per Kitty’s thought, yes serving in the colonial and immediate post-colonial era, it was all but impossible not to be involved with that portion of the population which was not “indigenous African”. I use the term with caution as many Caucasian residents had been born in Africa, were native, and not technically “expatriates’. They were, however, part of an understood aristocracy.

    Today, a half-century later, there is a cautious, somewhat politically incorrect discussion whether self-rule has been a net plus or net loss for the average African. Read “Black Star Safari”, one of Paul Theroux’ later travel books about Africa, and you sense he was wondering that, too. JAT

  • From the previous comments (above) you can see that he made an impression of any kind and didn’t give a fig for.

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