Select one of the keywords
Dark Star Safari    by Paul Theroux order for
Dark Star Safari
by Paul Theroux
Order:  USA  Can
Houghton Mifflin, 2003 (2003)
* * *   Reviewed by G. Hall

Renowned travel writer Paul Theroux takes the reader on a darker journey than usual in his African travel memoir (and thirteenth book on travel), Dark Star Safari. A Peace Corps teacher in the 1960's in Uganda and Malawi, Theroux wanted to return to the place 'where for the first time, I got a glimpse of the pattern my life would take - that it would be dominated by writing and solitariness and risk'. He says 'travel makes one modest - you see what a tiny place you occupy in the world', and always liked Africa since 'there was nothing of home here. Being in Africa was like being on a dark star.' So the author decided to take a safari (Swahili for traveler) from Cairo all the way down the eastern spine to South Africa to see what has changed, and to see if Africa lives up to its reputation in much of the world - 'desperate, unspeakable, violent, plague-ridden, starving, hopeless, dying on its feet'.

To his dismay he finds much to despair of in Africa as he traverses a continent whose fortunes have greatly deteriorated since the 1960's. He finds Kenya 'one of the most corrupt and distressed and crime-ridden countries in Africa' and hears horrific tales of people imprisoned for years for opposing the government. Tanzania 'had reached a dead end on the socialist path and now lived off tourists and game parks'. And though years of sanctions in Zimbabwe (during its time as the white-ruled Republic of Rhodesia) made it more self-sufficient than other former colonies, now in the Mugabe era, the 'apparent peacefulness in the capital city of Harare is due to extreme tension' as black war veterans and others are 'reclaiming' land from the remaining white farmers and the economy is in tatters.

However, Theroux finds hope in 'sunny, threadbare but dignified' Ethiopia. When he re-connects with old Ugandan friends from his Peace Corps days, he finds that many urge their educated children to return from abroad and help re-build the country. He considers that rural Africa is in much better shape than the decaying cities, since 'there is self-sufficiency and sustainable agriculture. In towns and cities ... I felt the full weight of the broken promises and thwarted hopes and cynicism'. In the Sudan he stays in a small, poor village where a dwarf who is without family and too small and weak to do any useful work, is cared for by the other villagers. As an educated Sudanese man tells him 'the criterion is how you treat the weak, the measure of civilized behavior is compassion'. I wonder how we in the developed world measure up against this Sudanese village?

Theroux encounters many foreign aid workers on his travels, and finds a painful futility in most of their efforts. He makes thought-provoking comments: 'In my view, aid is a failure if in 40 years of charity, the only people still dishing up food and doling out the money are foreigners. The most imaginative solution Africans had to their plight was simply to leave'. Charity work is 'generally fueled by the best of motives, but its worst aspect was that it was non-inspirational. Aliens had been helping for so long and were so deeply entrenched that Africans lost interest - if indeed they ever had it - in doing the same sort of work themselves.'

Theroux can be both entertaining and aggravating. His inside look at an Africa, not seen in National Geographic or on a photographic safari, is well worth the read. But he can also be elitist and condescending to those travelers who have neither the time nor the financial resources to disappear for months off the beaten track in Africa. He also appears rather cavalier in comments about African women, when he mentions them at all. His most frequent contacts appear to be (though not as a customer) with young women from small villages attempting to find their fortunes as prostitutes. This is viewed as a reasonable career opportunity.

The author's feelings of escape on his trip will resonate with many who have wished to do, or done, the same thing. He 'surmised that the pace of Western countries was insane, that the speed of modern technology was accomplishing nothing, and that Africa was going its own way, at its own pace ... it was refuge and a resting place'. Dark Star Safari will remain in a reader's mind long after the book is finished, both enlightening and deeply disturbing. But then that is what makes Theroux a great writer.

Note: Opinions expressed in reviews and articles on this site are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of BookLoons.

Find more Travel books on our Shelves or in our book Reviews