Paul Theroux’s new novel, The Lower River, is one of a series of books in which the longtime author and travel writer reimagines seminal events in his own life. Like his protagonist, Ellis Hock, Theroux was in the Peace Corps in Malawi in the early 1960s. In his 44 books — fiction and nonfiction — he has never shied from commenting on the possibilities and perils humans face in their quest for solutions. Here is his recent conversation with Pacific Standard Editor-in-Chief Maria Streshinsky:
Question: You have said it is contemptible “to stay home and invent the exotic, as Saul Bellow did, conjuring up an Africa he had never seen.” Since a strong theme in your new book is the damage nongovernmental organizations have inflicted over the years, how often have you returned?
Answer: My novel is, among other things, an adventure story, a sort of descent by an unsuspecting American into the unknown, and into a trap. It’s an ordeal — my favorite kind of narrative, whether fiction or travel. I have been back to Africa and to Malawi many times. Teaching in Malawi was my first job, from 1963 to 1965, and then I spent four years in Uganda as a teacher. This seems a long time ago! Our mission was pretty simple: start schools, educate the students, and help create a system that would be self-sustaining. The students would become teachers and our role would be phased out. There were many students and enough aid to see them through. And the students were, on the whole, conscientious. But something changed. What was supposed to happen, didn’t happen.
On my repeated trips back, I saw the pattern I have described — foreign teachers, African students, and now, almost 50 years later, there are still not enough African teachers. The Peace Corps is still at it! It seems an endless cycle, and worse, a deteriorating educational system. So what happened — or, rather, what didn’t happen? I think that the foreign teachers, with the best of motives, unintentionally subverted the system. Malawians don’t want to be teachers — it’s an underpaid and underappreciated profession; and though there is now a medical school in Malawi, few graduates have stayed to be doctors in Malawi, where there is an average of two physicians for every 100,000 people.
Development seemed logical back in the 1960s, but did not take into account political tyranny, corruption, and the simple expedient of emigration. The main character in my book, for whom Africa was an Eden, has to confront this and much else.
Writers such as Chinua Achebe and Adam Hochschild insist that too much has been made of the psychological aspects of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and not enough about the horrors of colonialism. Are you saying that a new colonialism has replaced the old?
I have witnessed everything in my book, to a greater or lesser extent. I mentioned in Tao of Travel that Conrad was in the Congo for a total of six months, less than a month on the Congo River. Eventually this river trip formed the basis of his brilliant and evocative novella, which he wrote eight years after returning from the Congo, describing it as “experience pushed a little (and only very little) beyond the actual facts of the case.”
I don’t think it’s necessary to spend years and years to know a place well enough to re-create it in fiction, but it helps. The African writers who criticize Conrad have a point: most of them object to the fact that Conrad’s Africans are mere shadows and stereotypes, which is true. But the book is still a very powerful glimpse into King Leopold’s Congo — which was not a Belgian colony but his personal possession.
As for the NGOs, there is a great deal written on the subject of the harm that aid can do, and has done. Dambisa Moyo, a Zambian economist, wrote a withering critique of Western aid in her book, Dead Aid. It is hard not to agree with her conclusions.
China is pouring money into Malawi, building hotels and possibly a university. Does China fit into the neocolonial picture?
China is robustly in Africa, bribing governments, exploiting resources, and resettling its people, much as the European countries did. I was recently in Namibia and Angola, traveling from south to north overland. The Chinese are everywhere — running restaurants, motels; farming; making cinder blocks; working in construction. Curiously, the first wave of Chinese in Angola about 10 years ago were criminals working off their sentences as forced laborers — an echo of the past, since Angola had been a penal colony for the Portuguese. Having served their sentences, [the Chinese] have stayed — and the successive waves have been emigrants. More recently, Chinese women have arrived, and more men — not criminals but just looking for a new life. I am writing about this now, a new chapter in African history. I think the Chinese adventure will end badly, but it’s unwise to make predictions. Africa taught me to be patient, cautious, a bystander and eavesdropper; not a high-profile philanthropist with big schemes but just a humble helper.
You use “Dante on the River Styx” as an epigraph. Do you feel much of Africa is destined to be stuck in hell?
Not much has gone as planned, but when does it anywhere? I think it’s a big mistake to impose solutions, and a bigger mistake to prop up corrupt governments. There are ministries of health in all African countries, but what I see, more and more, is a parallel health service — say, the Gates Foundation, providing services that the Ministry of Health should be providing. I say make the Malawi (or whatever) government answerable, unless of course it’s a humanitarian crisis, a famine, a drought, a plague. NGOs often depict a fairly common urgency as an extreme crisis in order to raise money. But look closely — lack of money is rarely the problem. Angola has billions in annual revenues and most people live in great squalor.
Pacific Standard is a research-driven magazine. Is there any research you’d like to see done in Africa?
Two sorts. The first would be about emigration — of course, Africans leave their countries looking for better opportunities. But does this mean that someone else will be endlessly taking up the slack? At what point does the donor say, “We have been providing teachers, doctors, nurses for 50 years — now it’s your turn”? I realize that Western countries tempt the nurses away to serve in their health services. South African nurses are recruited by the British National Health Service. But is this going to continue into the next decades? Consider all the foreign volunteers in Africa. Why does this not inspire Africans to match this volunteerism, even a little?
The next research would be as oral history projects. I wish I had made tape recordings of the old people I knew in the 1960s in Africa; many of them would have remembered amazing things from the turn of the century, from the First World War, which was also fought in Africa. People’s stories are the history of the world, and most are lost or ignored in favor of political portraits. History is the great march of Everyman and Everywoman. That’s also one of the driving forces of fiction — the intimate life of particular people in a specific place.
Can you tell us something about the young girl in your novel, Zizi? Should we take some courage from the way you end the book?
We don’t want to spoil the ending! But Zizi is recognizably a village girl — and there are many in Africa. How interesting that this traditional society endures while urban Africa sprawls, city dwellers losing their old skills and even their language in some places. Zizi is not an idealized figure and I don’t want to be sentimental about her. I was traveling in Malawi, in the swampy Lower River region in 1998, and at a market near the town of Nsanje I saw a skinny, bright-eyed girl that stayed in my mind as Zizi.
This article appeared in the May-June issue of Pacific Standard under the title “Into Africa.”