Close-Up View of the Dark Continent

Dark Star Safari

By Paul Theroux, 472 pp., Houghton-Mifflin 2003  ....   reviewed 27 January 2004 by David P. Stern


      "Dark Star" in this book is Africa, a world apart from the rest of Earth. Africa--enormously diverse in cultures, languages, climates, religions, histories and traditions, yet united in poverty and in a desperation which only seems to get worse. Here is a lively travelogue of an overland trip from Cairo to Capetown (one break, a flight to bypass a war zone)--travel by train, ship, by rickety local buses, trucks, one segment even by dugout canoe.

    Theroux is no stranger to Africa. He served here with the Peace Corps 35 years earlier, learned local languages, established enduring friendships and got to love the country. Through him we see crowded Egypt, Islamic Sudan, lawless northern Kenya, with him we ride by rusty ferry across Lake Victoria, and on and on--Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique (still riddled with land mines), Zimbabwe and South Africa. Too many encounters, too many personalities and stories to summarize easily, but one thing you can be sure of, you will not be bored.

    One moment as a sample. In the desert between Ethiopia and Kenya the truck on which Theroux has hitched a ride is ambushed by "shifta," a pair of highwaymen. Shots are traded, the driver accelerates, and as they emerge from danger, the soldier clinging to the bars of the truck next to Theroux, the one who had fired at the robbers, shakes his head and laughs.

    "I said: "Shifta?"
    "Yah." He smiled at my grim face.
    I said "Sitaki kufa." I don't want to die.
    He said in English, "They do not want your life, bwana. They want your shoes."

        Many times after that, in my meandering through Africa, I mumbled these words, an epitaph to underdevelopment, desperation in a single sentence. What use is your life to them? It is nothing. But your shoes--ah, they are a different matter. They are worth something, much more than your watch (they had the sun), or your pen (they were illiterate) or your bag (they had nothing to put in it). These were men who needed footwear, for they were forever walking."

    It is a pilgrimage of sorts for Theroux. He returns to the school he helped establish in Malawi, once thriving but now a shell. He returns to Makerere University in Uganda, where he used to teach, also in dire straits now. Being a writer, he touches base with Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt's Nobel prize winner, with Nadine Gordimer, aging guardian of South Africa's conscience, also with the memory of Arthur Rimbaud, French poet of the 19th century who settled in Harrar, Ethiopia, and sold Emperor Menelik guns which helped him defeat the Italians.

    Everywhere he sees Africa regressing. People were also desperately poor during his stay in the 1960s, but they were hopeful and willing to work for a better future. Today hope is in short supply. The institutions, railroads and roads built by colonial powers a century ago stand neglected and decaying, and cities are overwhelmed by an exploding population. Society still produces creative and enterprising individuals--to whom America is the promised land, watched from afar but attained by only a few--but governments are bloated and corrupt. Lack of hope may also be the reason for an appalling lack of sexual restraint in the middle of the world's worst AIDS epidemic.

    What about the future? The great wave of European involvement in Africa, Theroux feels, has spent itself, and Africa of the 21st century is regressing back to the 19th. In rural areas, at least, the future may not be much different from the past, with poor people again scratching a marginal living from the land. One can wonder, though, about those giant city slums like Nairobi and Cairo.

    And yet, this is not a sad book. Wherever Theroux goes, he finds likeable personalities, inspiring memories and interesting stories. There are many messages here worth pondering over, and some may even keep you up at night. Dark star or not, Africa is part of our world, too.


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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
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Last updated 27 January 2004