"Last Train to the Zona Verde,” by Paul Theroux, 2013
Theroux confirms that Africa is the home to the most ghettoized cities in the world. Vast conglomerations of shantytowns in each country surround the centers, with isolated pockets of wealth behind gates. Rural areas of poverty where villagers eke out a living, as hunter-gatherer lifestyles are dead. Theroux taught for 6 years as a teacher in Malawi, then took a famous trip from Cairo to Capetown in his book of 10 years ago – “Dark Star Safari.” He now attempts to complete the circle by going from Capetown to Timbuktu in sub-Saharan Africa, up the west coast of Africa. At 70 years-old this lone and intrepid white traveller wants to find out what has happened in Africa since his last trip.
It’s not good. He quits. Travel books are supposed to be triumphant stories of new information and the overcoming of obstacles. They are not supposed to end in frustration and misery. Theroux travels from a luxury hotel in Capetown to the chaos and poverty of Luanda, Angola. Three of the people he meets along the way die. The “Bushman” of the Kalahari put on a show for him, pretending to be hunting in native regalia, then don their regular torn t-shirts afterwards. Lying ahead of him if he leaves Angola is the Congo of no roads and warlords. Above that is the Nigeria of Boko Harum and violence. Above that is the Islamist rebellion in Mali. He quits by answering the question, “Why am I here?”
Theroux is not really political but he is an honest observer. But all ‘honest observers’ also harbour inbred thoughts. He is dour about the Cuban intervention in Angola against South Africa and UNITA. He somewhat resents the landless blacks of Zimbabwe. He labels as ‘racism’ many anti-white feelings. His view of the Chinese work in Africa is more negative than the work of the ‘good whites’ of helpful liberalism. Yet he also pitilessly sees the crookness of so many African governments, which are mostly kleptocracies. Angola makes millions a day on oil and diamonds, and sits in a vast fertile country – yet almost none of the money trickles down from the international firms and the permanent government bureaucrats to the people, who live in squalor. He also is aware of the ‘hooked’ value of international capitalist aid, which is sometimes used properly, but more often than not is a neo-liberal placebo and useless, or simply stolen. He makes fun of Western ‘conferences’ that are supposed to ‘help Africa’ or fake emissaries of hope like Bono and Angelina Jolie. He hates seeing animals controlled or penned up in zoos, and prefers what few remain to run wild. Almost none are left in Angola – all killed for food or in the wars.
Theroux is not a fan of cities and values the natural wonders of Africa, including its wildlife, vegetation and its village life. This is the ‘old’ Africa, which is dying as the cities grow, and climate change brings drought, or capital brings large expropriating farms and dams. (see review of “The New Colonialism,” below. Use search box in upper left.) In one contradictory chapter, he visits a friend who runs a safari 'elephant riding' camp for very rich Westerners. They sit on the verandas sipping tea while watching the elephants in the bush - who are then hobbled and forced to shoulder these wealthy fleas. Theroux admires his friend who runs the camp, yet can't accept the chaining of the elephants for the tourists.
Theroux visits the squatter townships around Capetown, and except for one township, concludes that conditions have gotten worse since the end of apartheid for the people that are flooding into the camps. He discourses on poverty tourism, where Western tourists in South Africa are taken on bus rides to observe the misery in the townships, containing ‘museums’ of labour squalor that resemble the conditions outside. Apartheid was a vast labour control system, after all. He travels to Namibia and, except for the Germanic and Dutch cleanliness of Windhoek town, above the ‘red line’ bisecting the country lies a realm of rural isolation and depression. Everyone there is afraid of Angola, which lived through 30 years of bloody war against South Africa and then the warlord Jonas Saivimbi. This war included one battle at Cuito Cuanavale in which 50,000 Angolans, Cubans and South Africans died – the ‘Stalingrad of Angola.’ Rusted tanks still litter the countryside and mines explode, maiming and killing hundreds a year.
Theroux takes the broken down cars, the rickety buses, eats the fly-covered food, puts up with insults, shoving and menace, the theft of his credit card (although who uses a credit card in these conditions...) the noise, ignorance and death of this trip, and decides to quit before he too lies moribund in some shanty alley – a dystopian reality that overwhelms him. As he alleges, he is not a chronicler of the end of time.
Present Africa is a result of the impact of world capitalism. It has become the ‘ghetto’ of the world. It is a bleeding ‘zona verde’ from which capital extracts oil, minerals, food and cheap labour like a syringe, while leaving the remainder – not so different for now than the colonialisms of old.
July 2, 2014