Paul Theroux and "Agents of Virtue"

A friend lent us Paul Theroux's African travel tale Dark Star Safari, and it has given me enough to think about that it likely bears sharing. I have never read anything of his before, and was comforted to hear at the end of this story that recognizes himself in the phrase "Pessimistic Globetrotter", since that makes me think things aren't as glum as he paints them. Theroux lived in Malawi in the 60's for 2 years and then taught in Uganda for a number of years, but hadn't really been back to Africa since. He left in the optimism of the independence movement, and since then had only heard the harsh news with which we're all familiar. It left him wanting to find out if it's really "that bad", and if so, why.
It was on the whole a pretty engrossing story, and a great primer on tons of geography and culture. And I must give him credit personally for two main things: First, he travels overland all the way from Cairo, Egypt, to Cape Town, South Africa (with a couple minor exceptions in Sudan that couldn't be helped). In doing so, he can provide first-hand observations from many unknown parts of Africa, especially the areas around the national borders, which appear to be often minimally-governed. In Ethiopia, he asks the Kenyan ambassadors how the road is to Kenya, and they reply that in decades of their work, they have never once taken it. Thus, Theroux's perspective is a novel one.
Second, he provides a little push back for which I can't help but cheer. On entering Malawi, a young man on the bus repeatedly refers to him as Muzungu, a generic pan-African term for white man. This bothers him, since he knows that decades ago, a young man would have always addressed him, as a senior, with a term of respect. So, he turns to him and says in Chichewa "Do you want me to call you 'dark man'? Because if you don't, please don't call me 'white man.'" The young man casts his eyes down, and addresses him as is appropriate for Malawian culture.
However, the reflection that causes me the most pause is Theroux's conviction that foreign donor aid is not only not helping the situation in Africa, but is actually hurting, a net negative that at its best is well-meant, but nevertheless is fuelling a culture of dependence and sloth on the part of African nationals, who no longer take the initiative to solve their own problems. He all but explicitly states that the best thing to help Africa would be for every foreign "agent of virtue" to pack up and take themselves and their funds back home. Some Africans that he talks with seem to back him, and some think they need more money.
Since I am now a would-be "agent of virtue", this is a very personal question. I think there is something to his argument, and the strongest evidence is perhaps the lack of results of the past three decades of donor aid. However, he never attempts to take stock of the interim confounders (most notably the advent of the AIDS pandemic), nor does he offer any solutions except a vague admonition to have Africans more involved, which I believe is actually happening more than he describes. It strikes me that just walking away is not the final solution, and what's more, such action may be quite a severe blow to the dwindling compassion of Western nations as well.
We agree on this: Dollars do not equal aid. Also, that thoughtful, and if possible African-led, attempts at aid should be the mandate. Perhaps more significantly, Theroux's questions lead me to consider the deep underlying causes behind African struggles, the mindset and the worldview. And strangely, this gives me hope about our plans, since our goals are more wholistic than some. I'll have a bit more to say in another post, but in my opinion, the antidote to Theroux's pessimism is hinted at here.

1 comment:

Ellen said...

I am actually hugely interested in this topic and related issue of post-colonial policies. I have a couple of books I've been meaning to read. One is written by a Christian researcher, David Livermore: "Serving with Eyes Wide Open" - it deals with short-term missions context but may have some good insights. I've heard him speak at a seminar and he addressed some of the same concerns Paul Theroux expressed. Another is more on post-colonialism issues, called "I didn't do it for you: how the world betrayed a small Afican nation" by Michela Wrong, who spent 6 year as a foreign correspondent in Africa. It's a case study on Eritrea but heard it raises good questions which are applicable to other nations in Africa.