Peace Corps Writers
Talking with Paul Theroux (page 5)
 Talking with Paul Theroux
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You describe cities in South Africa and even Harare, Zimbabwe, as relatively orderly with reliable public transportation and a working class. Why is there such a big difference between the cities in the south and the sub-Saharan cities further north like Addis Ababa, Nairobi, Kampala, and Mbeya?
All African cities I have seen are a horror. I tried to avoid them, by traveling in the bush.
Africa is a separate place. Traveling in it, I seemed to be on another planet. I liked this feeling — because the world has shrunk and you often meet people in South America and Asia who regard themselves as living in a suburb or satellite city of the United States.
     By having been largely ignored and neglected, Africa has remained itself. Who would want to visit China now that it is an overheated economy of consumer goods and greedy materialists? Pacific islands have remained culturally interesting by being so far away and neglected. Whatever was hoped for Africa in the 1960s — that it would become materially better off, better educated, and healthier — has not come about. But whose hopes were these?
     What impresses me about the many African countries that I traveled through from Cairo to Cape Town was how people have survived tyrannical governments, food shortages, disease and poor or no infrastructure — bad roads, no phones, etc. Of course, the governments need the people to be poor and to look distressed in order to get donor money. Malawi is a great example of that. Nothing positive has happened to Malawi since I left there in 1965. Yet in the villages and by the lakeshore and in the bush people go on.
What part of your trip filled you with the greatest hope for Africa’s future?
    Go to
for some quotes by Paul
The knowledge that African friends of mine who were educated — with good jobs in education or health — were encouraging their children (in some cases American educated) to remain in Uganda, Kenya, or Malawi to work “to be part of the process” as one mother said to me — without relying on the Peace Corps or USAID or other foreign donors.
  Was there a pivotal moment when you felt utter despair for the African situation?
  I don’t feel despair. But it sometimes seems that Africa exists in a sort of shadow cast by the outer world. But Africa is not darker or crueler or harder than other places. Prisoners are tortured by the Israeli government. China interferes with people’s private lives. Women are treated like a separate and inferior species in Saudi Arabia. There is starvation in North Korea. Brazil’s slums are worse than anything in the world. Until recently you could not buy condoms or get a divorce or an abortion in Ireland: maybe still true? There are plenty of barbarities in the world that make Africa seem serene and civilized.
One last question about Africa. Do you think there is still a place in Africa for Peace Corps Volunteers?
Definitely. But it seems to me that every African country should match the program by pairing a local volunteer with a PCV.
Have you thought of a book about traveling in the U.S.?
The hardest place to write about is one’s own country. A man from my home town of Medford, a forgotten writer named Nathaniel Bishop wrote two wonderful books about the US — in one he paddled a canoe from NY to New Orleans, in the second he rowed a small boat. I like solo travel under my own steam. Maybe I will write Travels with Charly after all.
Finally. What about vacation for yourself. With all of your travels is a vacation just impossible for you?
I go for vacations with my wife or kids to such lovely places as the Maine coast or to Madrid to look at the Prado. Last year I went on a cruise. Vacations are usually enjoyable, which translates as “nothing to write home about.”
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