Monday, September 01, 2008

Dark Star Safari: A book review

Paul Theroux, Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003), 485 pages.

The book I read was like the cover to the right. Rather stark! I included a second cover because I liked it better!

I’m not sure why it took me so long to get around to reading this book. I’ve had it for a couple of years and it has mostly sat on my nightstand. I’d occasionally pick it up in order to dust. I decided it was time to read it, so I committed myself to use it as one of my books for Joy’s Summer Non-fiction Reading Challenge and then took it with me to the Quetico. After a week in the wilds, the book will go on my shelf looking well used!

Dark Star Safari isn’t your typical African travelogue. Theroux isn’t interested in following Hemingway’s footsteps. In fact, Theroux despises Hemingway’s African safari stories that have little connection to the people of the continent (311). This is a book about Theroux’s journey and the people he meets along the way.

The word Safari, as Theroux notes in the opening pages, is Swahili for “journey.” It has nothing to do with exotic animals; in Theroux’s opinion safari is an escape for the modern world of cell phones and computers. So, with his sixtieth birthday on the horizon, he sets off into the Dark Continent.

Theroux begins his journey in Egypt, heading south along the Nile, seeing the great sights built by Pharaoh’s. After successful running the bureaucratic huddles for an American to get a visa into the Sudan, he continues on down the Nile. In the Sudan, he learns about the country’s past while traveling with a local driver on the road built by Osama Ben Laden. They explore ancient temples and sleep on sand dunes. In the Sudan, he encounters mostly men. One man, learning he was an American, calls both Bush and Clinton Satan (they have an equal hatred of them as Clinton bombed the Sudan), and then in the next sentence asks how he could move to America so he could make money (80).

Theroux’s next country is Ethiopia, a proud nation of poor people, or as Theroux describes them, “a race of aristocrats who had pawed the family silver” (92). Theroux takes the train from the capital, Addis Ababa, to Dira Dawa and then up into the mountains to the ancient city of Harar, where the hyenas that roam at night. Leaving Ethiopia, he travels the “longest road in Africa, heading south to Kenya. The border between Kenya and Ethiopia is lawless and Theroux, who bums rides and hires a variety of drivers, finds himself in broken down vehicles and even being shot at by the shifta (bandits) as he makes his way to Nairobi. In this region, he notes, “there were few roads and there were many shifta.” (149)

Hating Nairobi (Theroux hates all African cities), he heads to Uganda where 34 years earlier he had been happy and full of hope. At the time he was teaching in a university, had his first book published, and became a husband and father. (198-204) That idyllic life ended with the rise of Idi Amin and Theroux fled the country. Throughout his journey, Theroux is surprised at the absence of older and even middle aged people. AIDS and wars have ravaged the continent and he would have been considered an old man. However, in Uganda, he found a few of his former colleagues who had survived Amin and the turmoil and now held respectful positions in the government.

Theroux leaves Uganda on a steamship, taking it southward across Lake Victoria and into Tanzania, then a train across the country to the coast along the Indian Ocean. He crisscrosses back across Tanzania on the Kilimanjaro Express (which has nothing to do with the mountain). This was a train built by the Chinese for the people of Tanzania. Arriving in Mbeya, he heads south into Malawi, where in the early sixties he spent two years working with the Peace Corps, teaching school. At that time the country was known as Nyasaland. Like Uganda, his departure from Malawi had also been quick. He had befriended a fellow teacher who was recruited for a government position. When this friend became involved in an attempted coup against the reigning dictator, Theroux assisted his friend in his exodus from the country. For this, Theroux was drummed out of the Peace Corp as a disgrace and his friend, who’d gone to Uganda, got Theroux a teaching position in a university there. (307)

Leaving Malawi, Theroux hires a local man with a boat to paddle him down the Shire River into Mozambique, through some of the most remote sections of East Africa. From Mozambique, he heads to Zimbabwe, where the talk is about squatters taking over farms owned by the former white rulers of Rhodesia. Most of the farms that have been “invaded” were no longer productive and many of the invaders blamed the former tenants for not plowing their ground or giving them seeds. He found that most of the whites who remain were making plans to immigrant to Australia.

From Zimbabwe, Theroux heads to South Africa, where he crisscrosses on the nation’s extensive railroads. His trip officially ends when on the Cape of Good Hope, but he spends time traveling around the country and visits Mala Mala, a private game reserve near Kruger National Park. The reserve had ended hunting. The man in charge of it had no problem with hunting as long as the weaker animals were taking, citing the history of big game hunting in Africa as problematic, for the hunters only wanted the best male species, which had damaged the animal gene pool. (413) Of course, hunters weren’t interested in harvesting the weaker animals.

Throughout this journey, Theroux visits various authors from Africa (most of whom he knew already) as well as old friends. He also makes many new acquaintances, from nuns working in the Sudan to three prostitutes that hang out near his hotel in Uganda. Theroux feels that prostitution has increased because of the aid coming into Africa. (202) He has few kind words for tourist in the country, especially those who come just to see the wildlife. He’s also cynical of the work the relief agencies (government, NGOs and religious), referring them often as “agents of virtue in white Land Rovers.” He’s especially critical most of these relief workers are all “short timers” and will soon go home and the problems will continue. (330) His one great hope is that subsistent farming seems to be on the rise, but then he bemoans the fact that relief sent to Africa includes hybrid seeds that do not reproduce. (331) He compares aid given to Africa to Christmas presents that stop running when the batteries die or the thing breaks and no one can fix it. (205) He’s not only critical of those who tries to help, he’s also critical of Africans, where there is no sense of volunteerism (293) and everyone is fatalistic.

This book doesn’t give the reader a lot of hope, but it is an interesting look into the continent. Theroux writing includes great descriptions and often his cynicism seems appropriate. It must be disheartening for in the decades since he’s lived on the continent, the suffering has increased. Throughout the book, Theroux speaks about the books he’s reading and I have now added several titles to my “wish list.” Although this isn’t the easiest book to read, I recommend it, even though I would have liked it to have had better maps.

For Sage's review of Theroux's Riding the Iron Rooster, click here.
For other book reviews by Sage, click here.
For Semicolon's Saturday's list of book reviews in blogs, click here.


  1. LOL Sorry, but my first thought after reading your first paragraph was . . . at least he dusts! :) BTW - I like the second cover better, too.

  2. I prefer the first over! Stark but interesting. I can just about about imagine those people are talking an thinking about!

    I have been reading books on Africa lately. Maybe this too should be added to my never ening TBR pile..

    BTW, I only read 1 book in whole of August!

  3. Ever since I read your review "Riding the Iron Rooster," Theroux's been on my list of authors to check out. I think I will have to move him from my mental list to the virtual one so I don't forget again.

  4. I have always wanted to go to Africa (specifically Egypt) but the rest of it as well. I should read this.

  5. How I missed this book is not clear to me. Off to Amazon I go!


  6. Joy, I didn't say how often I dust! But I will assure you, it was at least a couple of times over a 2 year period

    Gautami, do you have a fever? Only one book? I think the reason I like the second cover has to do with the train and the lighting

    Ed, I think you'll enjoy reading him.

    Kenju, he sees parts of Africa that most folks don't see and that makes it even more interesting to me

    Sherman, enjoy!

  7. I think it's time you read some fluff, Sage.

  8. Why, Murf, 'cause I keep having to get stronger glasses?

  9. Oh no. Nothing wrong with guys in glasses. In that case, keep reading this stuff.

  10. It sounds like a book that teach one quite a bit about the world.

  11. There is so much to learn about his travels. I can see you writing a book like this someday, and possibly even making it to Miami to meet one of your favorite authors. Hiaasen, is it? ;)

  12. I'm with you... give me the train cover every time! I understand your hesitancy in reading another Theroux book. He was curmudgeonly at 20... I can't imagine his attitude has improved at 60. He's still a dang good writer.

  13. I'll like that type of book, the more cynical it gets, the better it is. I've seen many religious groups operate in the many parts of Asia and some are truly bad, on the edge of exploitation in fact. (If I remember correctly) I think it was John Perkins that condemned those NGOs operated in South America in his Economic Hitman (or the subsequent book). When I read it, I thought, wow, how similar to the NGOs in Asia.

    Anyway, I just got the Pascal Khoo Thwe book from the library. Will start reading tonight.

  14. Safari means Journey?!
    Such an exotic word means something so boring?
    lol :)

  15. Murf, I hate glasses (on me) and now that I have to have them to read, I wear them with a granny chain so I can take them off when I'm not reading and don't need them, but not lose them.

    Tim, there's lots of info in this book!

    Scarlet, I could take the train down there? Wait, I've already done that!

    Kiva, you're right about Theroux. as the reviewer for the NYT wrote in the essay linked by ING, he's never been "over burdened with modesty"

    Mother Hen, the book Theroux often cited was Michael Maren, "The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity. I don't think of journey as boring, it's what makes life worth living!

    Ing, I'd heard he had another one coming. The reviewer is right, Theroux is narcissistic (I look down right humbled next to him!) But, as I like reading about trains and travel, I'll probably read it, but probably not for at least 2 years, I need that much time to pass before I read about someone so important to himself.

  16. Just finished your bear story. You sure have seen a lot of them :) so, I saw a black bear even if it was brown?

    I gotta tell ya Sage, Chapter 1 of the Green Ghost reminds me so much of my great grandparents, who went to the missionary schools, catholics, and they obeyed the Queen (I'm rolling my eyes here) even they were born and breed in Southeast Asia. Yet they still held the "traditional" belief system, confucianism, taoism, the entire package. I myself, carry the same package too, but just a little one.

  17. Sounds very interesting, but kinda depressing?

  18. p.s. I think you should next read a happy Africa book. I recommend The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.

  19. Mother Hen, I'm pretty sure it also goes for Oregon that the black bears tend to be more chocolate and brownish. I don't think there are many brown bears left outside of Alaska--there use to be grizzlies in California, but they've been gone nearly a year.

    Diane, yes, somewhat depressive, but also informative. What does the #1 Ladies Detective Agency have to do with Africa? That sounds like a chic-lit mystery, am I wrong?

  20. yes, you are wrong! The books are about Botswana and the simple life there, as related through a Botswanan woman who opens a detective agency. The series of books are generally rightly described as life affirming, and might be good books to share with your daughter.

  21. Diane, after I wrote that yesterday, I googled the #1 Detective Agency and learned that yes, I am wrong. Do you think the books would be good for a 5th grader who reads at least on a middle school level? I'll buy a copy and check it out.

  22. Do check it out! The books are low key, but big on life lessons and life's simple pleasures. I think your daughter might enjoy them.

  23. That IS quite a journey, Sage. I have a friend who worked for one year in Kenya as a Health Care Volunteer. Very interesting post!

  24. I found this book deeply depressing, but I couldn't stop reading it. Great review.

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