September 2, 2008

Not a Dark Star by Far

Home to D.C. Well, not really home. Traveling these days is a sojourn of displacement, with no true permanence of place. And that is as it should be. I leave for my mother and father's house in a few days, then on to Zurich, Switzerland where I connect on a flight to Dubai, and then take a bus to Muscat to get settled and begin Arabic classes.

And what of my time in Africa? A part of me, perhaps the part obsessed with bringing closure to each event in my life, needs to write a 'sum-up', a massing, collecting, and labeling of what I have experienced and what I have learned from it.

At one time, I fancied myself something of a travel writer, with the ambition to travel anywhere and everywhere, preferably under the most difficult circumstances, and as an ordinary person, not a tourist. Apparently this is a sentiment I share with the world-renowned travel writer Paul Theroux, whose interesting and vexing Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Capetown I have just finished. (Hey it was only $3 in Lamu).

I have many criticisms of the book, the least of which are the occasional linguistic errors in Swahili. But first, much respect to Theroux for eschewing the triumphal safari writing of innumerable travel books about Africa. He seems much more interested in the people than the animals, and he has some interesting (though not particularly new) insights. His prose is bitterly hilarious and compelling, an absolute joy to read. The work is shot through with amazing stories of struggle and triumph and Theroux can humanize his characters when he wants to.

But for all its virtues, Theroux's model of Africa as a 'dark star', a separate planet, relies too heavily on nineteenth century European tropes about Africa as an unknown wasteland, in Hegel's words, "the land of children and midnight." Theroux is well aware of this voluminous literature (he even cites some of it), yet he is content with this tired metaphor of the alien continent.

Africa is still an object for Theroux's desire to 'get away' and be unreachable and unconnected. He wants to be Huck Finn striking out for the territory. He courts Africa's danger, its 'primitiveness' for his own ends. Yet here is the curious part: even as Theroux embraces this aspect, he is angry at it. He seems embittered that Africa has not 'progressed' enough and that foreign aid, corruption, and rising urbanization contribute to Africa's difficulties. There are two contradictory visions of Africa described by Theroux--one a idyllic vision of rural survival, of changeless humanity, and secondly, a mass of pathological human beings and utter lawlessness and backwardness whose attempts to progress have only ended in chaos.

In this respect, Theroux is not far from Conrad's own view of Africa in Heart of Darkness, which illuminatingly, Theroux reveals he read thirteen times during his trip. As a lens through which to interpret Africa, Conrad's limitations as an author have been amply discussed. Why is there no discussion by Theroux of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart as a counterpoint to the distorted view of African humanity offered by Conrad?

Having done a bit of the travelling on some of the routes and destinations Theroux undertakes in his book (especially via bus) I can say that the displacement, the disgust, and the raw anger that overtakes Theroux at the inefficency and danger of Africa are part of a peculiar and quite common Western attitude towards Africa, not some feature inhering in the landscape or the personalities of the people. Its not that Theroux is wrong on many counts; the roads are in many places as horrible as he describes and there is small or big time venality. For example, I lost my bus ticket to Nairobi and was forced to pay off the clerk to write 'lost ticket' on a piece of paper and stamp it with the proper mark. This despite the fact that he had written my ticket in triplicate, and he still possessed the two receipts in his notebook!

No my problem is with Theroux's inflated sense of his own self-importance, his rage that he is basically treated as an ATM by begging Africans, and his outrage that he is given the honorific 'mzee.' His feelings underscore how his attempts at objective reporting are still colored by an invisible sense of turf, that he knows how the world 'ought' to work. I can imagine Theroux visiting Tippu Tip's house in Zanzibar and being outraged at the drunk squatter living at the top floor angrily demanding money for the privilege of seeing the house. I can almost hear Theroux saying, "Why isn't the government doing something about this?" The subtext to his outrage: "This would never happen in America!"

This is power at work, and whether or not you would like to call it white skin privilege or simply the arrogance of money and Western education, Dark Star Safari provides a quite interesting look at a very subtle instance of the attitude that treats Africa as a place of pathology and absurdity, not as a potential reservoir for practices of how to be human, how to survive and thrive. As a species, we learned virtually every survival skill (including social habits) in Africa, especially along the route Theroux traveled--home to the oldest civilization (Sudan and Egypt) and the oldest human bone specimens (Ethiopia and Kenya). Theroux even touches on this, but the grouchy-Westerner-observing-the-intractable-problems-of-Africa is the dominant narrative of his book.

As for me, my safari was an adventure, a test, a research expedition, and a time to reflect. It was indeed a head-clearing experience. Somehow, maybe not even consciously, I came closer to being authentically 'myself' above and beyond any external definitions. And I began to confront some difficult and painful personal issues relating to my desire to please others at any expense. Inshallah, I will be back, and soon.


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