Paul Theroux is a famous travel writer – meaning a writer who travels, and writes about what he discovers, not a writer who tells you to visit this city and eat at these restaurants – whose work never really crossed my awareness until last year, when a stranger I chatted with at an LA-area Starbucks recommended I check out his books, and I found right then that his 2013 book Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari was on sale for the Kindle. It’s not an easy read, and a huge change of pace from any other “western writer goes to non-white country” book or essay I’ve ever read, but the last third or so on the book, where Theroux goes to one of the most closed-off countries in the world, Angola, is edifying and unforgettable.
Theroux writes of Angola, “a country that is so hard to enter makes me curious to discover what is on the other side of the fence,” a sentiment I can certainly understand, but what he finds after a difficult border crossing from Namibia is as dysfunctional a state as you could imagine this side of Somalia, and perhaps worse. Whereas Somalia and Libya are simply failed states, outlines on the map that lack functioning central governments, Angola is an extreme kleptocracy. Despite $130 billion in annual GDP ($6500 per capita) and rapid growth due to oil revenues, there’s widespread poverty and malnutrition, lack of education or basic services, and minimal infrastructure. Seventy percent of Angolans live on $2 a day or less, and one in six children die before the age of five, the worst such rate in the world. But due to corruption – it’s ranked the fifth-most corrupt in the world, according to that link – the massive oil revenues don’t flow to the people; the President’s daughter is worth over $3 billion, and last year became head of the state-owned energy firm after the company’s board was sacked. Her father has been in power for 38 years, looting a country with oil reserves to match Mexico, and while it’s not a police state, it’s a repressive country where the fortunate few live in a world apart from the 25 million poor residents.
Theroux actually starts his journey in Cape Town, South Africa, and works his way up the west coast of Africa, stopping in Angola for practical reasons (crossing the Congo River would have required a long trip inland) and emotional (his conclusion that seeing more countries would not illuminate anything beyond what he learned in Angola). Each of the three countries he does visit provides its own education, or a sort of lesson, but at least the first two have some glimmers of hope. South Africa’s cities have grown to absorb some of the impoverished shantytowns that surround them, as services expand towards the slums and provide at least some level of mobility – not what we expect here, by any means, but at least a possibility out of extreme poverty, yet one always held back by the increasing numbers of squatters arriving to expand the slums that surround all South African cities.
Namibia is often considered one of the few African success stories, as it has followed a century of oppression (first by Germans, then by the Afrikaner government of South Africa) with 25 years of a stable, multi-party democracy. It’s sparsely populated, with a significant mining industry, but an increasing reliance on European tourists who come to visit certain beaches or indulge in safari and wildlife tourism of a sort Theroux experiences and disdains. He detours inland to speak at a small conference at an isolated town in northeastern Namibia, seeing how the colonial governments and now the Namibian federal government have both ignored the Ju/’hoansi people of the interior, and then crosses into Botswana’s Okavango Delta region to visit a luxury resort and elephant preserve, eating five-star meals and riding an elephant along with the tourists paying thousands of dollars a day to be there.
In the Namibian section of the book, Theroux comes off as a bit of a crosspatch, because while he’s identifying clear socioeconomic problems, Namibia is far from a hopeless case. There’s misused foreign aid here, as in all of Africa – he cites some of the research showing that foreign aid to developing countries often does little or no good for those populations – and certainly poverty beyond what we see here, but there is a functioning government and some economic activity that could provide the foundation for growth. There are not enough jobs, and there’s not enough education, but the raw materials are here.
Angola, however, is an absolute basket case, and this is where Theroux seems to lose his faith in Africa. The government’s elites are looting the country in as venal a way possible – most of the country’s oil actually comes from the exclave of Cabinda, which is the small section of Angola located on the north side of the Congo delta and thus separated from the rest of the country by the Democratic Republic of the Congo (ex-Zaire), itself a failed state looted by a series of dictators (including my friend Mobute Sese Seko) and essentially ungoverned in the way Angola is. The former Portuguese colony is flush with cash, but roads are unpaved, schools lack books, public servants might be paid once a year, and the people are starving. It is a country completely without hope, and Theroux talks to one local who believes it’s simmering towards a revolution – a population of desperate young people with nothing to lose, aware of the money made by the tiny elites and the handful of foreign nationals, including a growing number of Chinese expats. Angola was wrecked by a war for independence and then a quarter-century civil war that has still left the land full of mines, and could quickly devolve into Somalia-like anarchy if Theroux’s friend is correct. (That friend, however, was one of three men Theroux spent time with on his trip who died soon afterwards – one was killed by an elephant at the preserve, one was murdered in his home, and one died of a heart attack. The moral of this story is that if Paul Theroux visits your country and wants to hang out, don’t.)
It’s a depressing end to the story and, in Theroux’s case, to his lifetime of travel to and time spent in Africa. You can hear him washing his hands of the continent, not as a lost cause per se, but as a problem the West helped create but can’t solve. No one is stepping in to fix Angola now, because Angola is a stable country that sells oil. China is investing in the country, but sending its own undesirables (including criminals) to work there, not employing locals, and thus props up the kleptocracy the way we do in the Middle East. It’s a warning of sorts – this could be the African powder keg – but Theroux brings no hope that anyone, the Angolans or the West, is about to fix anything.
Next up: My favorite food writer, Michael Ruhlman, published a book of three novellas called In Short Measures a little over a year ago, and I’ve had it on my Kindle since February but never read it until now.