The term failed states was thrown around regularly by politicians in the lead up to the Iraq War: the term generally applying to those states that the United States did not particularly like. Three countries fell into this category – Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, though the term ‘Rogue State’ would probably have been more adequate since these countries were openly antagonistic towards the United States. However there are a number of countries out there that could genuinely be considered failed states, and for a while (namely until I read this book) the only country that I could think of that could legitimately hold that title was Somalia. However, since travelling with Theroux on his trek across Africa I have come to realise that there are other countries that can, unfortunately, lay claim to that title – Kenya being one of them,
Mind you, if you jump onto Wikitravel and type in Nairobi
, they tell you that the place has been cleaned up substantially, but then again that is not surprising considering that anybody (including the government of Kenya) can jump onto that site and alter it, especially if it means attracting more tourist dollars. However, when I typed in Kenya
I got this big warning about how the northern region should be avoided at all costs due to a prevalence of terrorism and banditry (which suggests little has changed since Theroux travelled through here). Mind you, they also warned you against going to Mombassa, which I always considered to be one of those exotic places where Europeans can come for a cheap holiday (much like Australians going to Thailand or Bali).
No Man’s Land
Theroux describes the road between Addis Ababa and Nairobi as being the longest road in Africa. I personally won’t dispute that but I sometimes wonder how you can actually define a road. Having grown up in Australia I my understanding of a major road between two cities is one that is usually covered in bitumen and is regularly repaired by the government, however if you go to Europe or America, we are talking about a motorway. However this is not the case in Africa (though over the past ten years the flood of Chinese money could have changed that to an extent). In fact, according to Theroux these ‘main roads’ are little more than dirt tracks that are in sore need of repair, and if you happen to break down you are pretty much on your own.
In fact the further from the major city you get the less hospitable the land becomes. You don’t just take your own petrol (don’t expect to find a road-side service centre) but any equipment that might be required in a breakdown. In fact one of the trucks that Theroux was travelling on suffered a broken axle, which meant that they had to spend the night trying to fix so they could get the truck to the next major town (and this truck was being driven by a bunch of backpackers from Europe). Needless to say, Theroux decided to take his chances with the next truck that happened to pass buy; this one crowded full of locals and their cows.
Not only should you take your equipment, but you should also make sure you have enough provisions since water is scarce and food very, very unreliable. If you want canned meat you can forget it, and like the roadside service centre, don’t expect to find any 7-11s along the roadside as well. The other thing is that one is warned not to travel at dusk and especially at night because that is when all of the bandits come out of hiding to attack unwary travellers, and in the even more remote areas they will even attack during the day (as Theroux discovered much to his luck). There were villages and towns along the route, and he was even able to have a couple of beers, but these towns are little more than shanty towns, though they do provide protection, and you can even get supplies if that is what is needed (and if you are really lucky, you may even find a spare axle).
There was little to indicate that they had crossed the border from Ethiopia and into Kenya, with the exception that his lift in Ethiopia had pointed the border out to him. There was no border post, no fence, nothing to indicate that he had crossed from one country into another. This is the porous nature of the African landscape and the artificiality of the borders that were originally laid out by the European colonial powers. A border is little more than a line on the map that has no physical reality, with the exception of a sign welcoming you to the new land (or maybe even warning you of the dangers that you are about to face).
It is interesting how he mentioned the cattle trucks that were travelling along this road towards Nairobi. In fact the entire family would be packed into the truck along with the cattle, which would be the best of their stock. One sometimes wonders why they would take their best cattle to sell at the markets in Nairobi, but in a way it is not surprising because nobody wants to buy substandard stock, and the best cattle offer the best price. I remember when somebody once complained to me about how we exported the best of our produce, but that is not surprising because not only do the best get the top dollar, but you can sell your best – nobody wants to buy poor quality produce. However, the problem with exporting goods is that not every country wants them, because while they can get cheap cattle from Kenya, the local farmers would suffer, so they impose a tax on the imported goods, otherwise known as a tariff. Of course this hurts the poor Kenyan rancher, so a free trade movement arose which slowly stripped away all of these tariffs, which in turn hurts the local farmers. Thus to make them competitive, the goverment offer then subsidies. However, despite all of these attempts at market manipulations to assist farmers in poor countries survive in the end most of the mark ups go to the middle men, because in a place like Kenya the ranchers are competing with each other, which ends up driving the price of their cattle down (so while the farmer wants to get the best price, the purchasers want the cheapest, which means, in the end, the farmer gets screwed).
This is Northern Kenya, and while it might be surrounded by the Kenyan border on the map, in reality it is a land over which the government has little control. In this region there are no hospitals or schools – they simply cannot afford to pay anybody to work out here – and the places that aren’t ruled by the NGOs (non-government organisations – usually aid agencies) are ruled by the bandits. Sure, they have police stations, but the police aren’t here to keep the peace and uphold the law, but rather to rule their own little fiefdom. Murders aren’t investigated – there are just too many of them, and not enough resources, or even will, to bring justice to this wild region. Not even the villages are safe for the police really don’t care beyond their own comfort. No wonder Wikitravel issues travel warnings about this region, yet it does see its travellers, usually backpackers wanting to experience the real Africa, or hunters out to score a big kill.
Nairobi – Heart of Chaos
I probably shouldn’t be too harsh on Nairobi, especially since I am only going on the word of one man who was there fifteen years or so ago. Okay, I did have a friend from Nairobi and he didn’t seem to be too concerned about the place, however from his stories he did describe this place as a hive of corruption. His story was that once he was involved in a traffic accident and he went to do the right thing and report it to the police station. However the policeman really didn’t want to go to all the hassle of having to deal with it so took him out the back and pressured him for a bribe, something that my friend really didn’t want to do. My friend has now long left Australia, and is no doubt some warden at a game reserve (game wardens have an automatic shoot to kill policy when it comes to poachers), or arranging adventures for young tourists wanting to experience the romantic Africa.
Wikitravel does say that Nairobi has cleaned up its act a lot in recent years, but that is only if you stay in the safe areas of the city. Tourists probably shouldn’t visit the slums (and there are some crazy ones out there that would like to see a real slum, though no doubt going their at their own risk). There is no order to the city, at least not on the fringes, and the government doesn’t particularly care. The tourists never see this side of the city, they only see the clean and santised areas, however crime in Nairobi is at epic proportions. In some places it is not a question of if you will get robbed, but when. After dark is the most dangerous, though once again it really depends on where you are, and the police don’t care – if you get yourself killed then you probably did something stupid to deserve it.
The government doesn’t care either, if one would consider the government of Kenya a functioning government. It is a government that survives on bribes and kick backs, and when they do receive aid money it isn’t for the benefit of the people at large but rather so that they can add an extension to their already humongous mansion. Mind you, when I say bribe, I don’t necessarily mean the lobbyist who takes you out to dinner, and plays a round of gold with you, before suggesting that their client will contribute to their re-election campaign if they vote on, or even introduce, a specific bill. No, this is not even the brown paper bag type of bribe. This is ‘here is $1000 so I can go and kill myself an elephant – just make sure the wardens have their back turned’ (though it might cost the big game hunter a lot more than just $1000).
Elections aren’t a question of who gets to rule, but rather who gets their hands on the kitty, not that there is all that much in the kitty since the country is burdened down with international debt, usually to the World Bank and the IMF, so any taxes that are collected end up being paid back in interest, not that there was anything to show for this money anyway because it had all been squandered by the government. There is no question of development, nor is their any question of funding for schools and healthcare since the money isn’t there, and even if it is it simply vanishes before it is even counted. Even the tax receipts are not even sufficient to pay the interest, let alone lift the country out of poverty, namely because there is no work, and those who do work don’t pay taxes because the infrastructure simply isn’t there. In a way it is little more than a feudal state that holds elections every few years to give a vague resemblance of a non-existent freedom.
This may all sound depressing, but unfortunately it is the reality of our world, and the reality of those who scrape through life living in the slums of the city. There is no council planning, no running water, no regular electricity, at least not outside of the city centre. Even then it is suggested that as soon as a community is planted it begins to act as a magnet for people and a once nice town quickly becomes surrounded by slums. It was suggested by Theroux that the United States once tried to help Kenya through a program to encourage industry in the country, however what ended up happening was that foreign countries would cycle goods through Kenya so they get could land up on American shelves.
Escape through the Rift
Theroux left Nairobi by bus to travel to Uganda, since that was the only transport available. The lack of infrastructure meant that the trains were not just not running, but not working, and the roads and tracks had deteriorated. It was on his journey out along this road, through the famous Rift Valley, that he saw these towns, and the deforested landscape, that blighted the country. Men would stand under trees, doing nothing because there was no work. In a way they were waiting for work to come to them rather than going out and looking for work themselves. This in a way is a contrast to others who do what they can to find work. Funnily the women weren’t doing that, namely because they were working, doing whatever work they could find.
Theroux says a lot about the Aid industry as he is travelling through this part of Kenya, namely because all of the aid agencies are prevalent in the towns and villages along this route. Don’t get me wrong, I am a big supporter of foreign aid, but I believe that it must be done in an intelligent manner. I have my charities that I support, namely TEAR
, Amnesty International
, and Mediecins Sans Frontiers
, and I also have friends who work overseas in India, Nepal, and Asia as medical professionals, however we do need to be aware of the realities behind this industry. The thing with foreign aid is that what many of these organisations are doing is selling a ‘feel good’ experience. You research the agency and are satisfied that their money is going to developing nations, you make your donation, get your tax deduction, and feel good that you have done something to make the world a better place. However there is a dark reality behind the industry of foreign aid, and it is something of which we do need to be aware.
The problem with foreign aid is the problems that socialist countries face: if you give something to somebody for nothing then there is no incentive for that person to actually work. You see this if you wander past the food vans in any major city where you see all of the poor and homeless crowding around the van for a cheap, or even free, feed. They pay their small amount of money, money that they have no doubt scavenged from begging on the street, eat their meal, and then go off and buy alcohol or drugs. What a generous society does, unfortunately, is that it encourages people to simply live off of the generosity of others. Don’t get me wrong, I am not telling people not to be generous, but we need to be intelligent with our generosity because there are people out there that are in genuine strife. For instance, when a disaster hits a developing country, that country does not necessarily have the resources to be able to deal with that disaster, so it needs assistance from outside. These are examples of when we should show our generosity, and it shouldn’t be something to make us feel good, we should do it because, but for the grace of God, there would be us.
However, I speak of intelligent giving, and that is the essence of aid. Aid should never simply be giving something to somebody for nothing, nor should it be sending educated Westerners over to developing countries to do all of the work for the locals. In a way the locals should be doing their own work, with the westerners helping them out with the intention that one day, sooner rather than later, they can leave the locals to be self-sufficient so that they can help another community. In a way they should be working with the community to help build that community up and lift them out of poverty. However, that is not necessarily how it is done because, well, aid is big business. As long as there is poverty there is need for aid, and as long as aid is required, people in the west will give money. That is why the aid industry loves disasters, because it is disasters that pull on people’s hearts, and make them open their pockets and give generously.
There is another thing about the aid industry and that is being an aid worker, something that is no doubt really attractive to young people. Once again, I am not attacking aid workers in particular because some of my good friends are aid workers – they have sacrificed high paying jobs in Australia to take their families overseas to live in developing countries so that they can provide services that are severely lacking (one of my friends is a nurse in Nepal, other is a psychologist in Asia, and another one worked with street kids in Addis Ababa, after being evacuated from the Congo due to a deteriorating situation). However what the aid industry offers young people is a cheap, all expenses paid, adventure in a foreign land. Theroux was one such person who had joined the Peace Corps and travelled to Africa to teach. The other thing about the aid worker is that the countries that they visit are no doubt dirt cheap, meaning that they can live like kings on very little. One does sometimes wonder how much of that ‘admin cost’ that you see on these agencies websites goes to supporting such a lifestyle?
Uganda – Hell’s Back Door
I remember watching a couple of videos around this time about how a number of communities that were heading to rack a ruin had suddenly changed and effectively become Christian communities based on the teachings of the Bible. At the time I was really impressed with these stories of community transformation and how the gospel had the power to lift whole communities, not just individuals, out of destitution. The reason that I raise this is because at the end of the second video there was a case study on Uganda: how it had gone from being a brutal dictatorship to a community of hope in which the incidences of AIDs among the population was actually dropping. In a way Uganda had gone from being your typical basket case African country to being a poster child for the Christian Right.
Theroux noticed a huge change when he crossed the border from Kenya into Uganda, suggesting that this is a country, unlike Kenya, that is on the rise. Infrastructure is much better, and there appears to be employment. However, a quick glance over Wikipedia suggests that the country is still plagued by corruption, it is still one of the most impoverished countries in the world, and fighting between the Ugandan armed forces and the Lord’s Resistance Army in the north continues unabated. Uganda is still, like many of the other African countries, an agrarian society where much of its economy is based upon what it grows. Most of the crops are considered ‘cash crops’, which means that they are basically grown for export. However, like most farming communities, only the crops that make money are the crops that are grown, meaning that if the price of one crop plummets, the farmer will replace them with crops that will bring in a higher income.
As Theroux was travelling from the Kenyan border to Kampala he noted here, as well as elsewhere, how many of the farmers were moving away from growing cash crops to growing crops, such as maize, for their own personal use. In a way it seems as if the farmer benefits much more from being able to feed their families than simply being able to earn an income through the sale of produce. Obviously, as farmers begin to switch crops, this means that this will push up the prices of the crops that are no longer grown, which can result in farmers moving back to those crops in an attempt to capture the higher prices. This is what I suspect is behind the rumours regarding the cocao shortages (though according the the rumour website Snopes, this is mostly false – there has always been shortages of Cocoa), namely that as the price of cocoa drops, the farmers shift to more profitable crops, or subsistence farming, which then pushes the price up – which inevitably means that the farmers will then go back to growing cocoa.
A Democratic Dictatorship
Theroux once worked in Uganda as a teacher, after being kicked out of Malawi (namely because he upset the ruling regime by assisting one of their political enemies), so a part of this journey was a homecoming. Obviously when you return to a place years after you left the first thing you notice are all of the changes. Theroux left just before Idi Amin seized power in a coup and launched an eight year reign of terror. However it is interesting how the debates on political reform occur in a land where the democratic institutions do not operate in the same way as ours. For years after the removal of Amin, political parties were outlawed, and to be elected to parliament, you could not be a member of a party. I have at times thought that political parties are the problem with our democracy, until you realise that the lack of parties could simply be another form of one party state.
Yet this is one of the things that Theroux encounters – the debate as to the usefulness of political parties. In a way people where actually talking about whether the country would function much better under a one party rule. To us in a modern democracy, the idea of a single party, or even no parties at all, would be anathema. My thoughts always rested on the idea that by removing parties the candidates would be more concerned with local issues as opposed to issues that effected the nation as a whole. However, if all members of parliament arrived to debate local issues, then nothing would likely get done, nor would there be any national unity. Another debate was along the line of what is actually a true democracy. Is it possible to have elections but not have a democracy? Well, this seems to be what people believe is the case in Uganda. Sure, they have elections, but in the end nothing changes. They cast their ballots at the box, wake up the next day only to discover that the same person who has been president for the last twenty years is still president. Sure, one may have an opposition, but the opposition has no power because the same guys always seem to be in charge.
During his time in Uganda, Theroux was a teacher at one of the universities (or I should probably say – the university). He seemed to drop an awful lot of names as he spent some time in Kampala, but that is probably not all that surprising because the people that studied at the university, or even travelled abroad to study, will end up becoming the leaders of tomorrow. This is not necessarily the case in our country, where many of our university students study simply to go and get a job. In countries like Uganda, a university education is not so much angling for a better job, but rather taking hold of the reigns of the country to be able to steer it in the right direction. Whether this has happened over the last fifteen years since Theroux returned is difficult to tell, especially since Uganda is still pretty much a state racked by poverty.
A discussion of the politics of Uganda is not complete without mentioning the brutal dictatorship of Idi Amin
. Amin came to power in a coup in 1971 after a rift developed between him and president Obote over control of the military (and Obote attempted to have him arrested on charges of corruption). Amin was able to do this due to strong ties that he had built within the military (which is not surprising when one is general), and pretty much seized the country while Obote was away at an international meeting. Sure, there was a lot of cheering the day Amin declared himself president (actually Commander in Chief) of Uganda, but the situation pretty much deteriorated after that into a chaotic free for all. His rule was ended in 1979 after a failed attempt to invade Tanzania.
The thing about dictators, especially those who seize power, is that they are always jumping at shadows. Shakespeare paints some beautiful pictures of the paranoia that dictators undergo in his plays Macbeth and Richard III. Both of these characters, like Amin, violently seize power, and once they are in charge of the kingdom, began to regularly look over their shoulders, just in case somebody is standing their with a knife ready to retire him. Such dictators do what they can to get rid of any form of opposition, but usually end up stepping over the line somewhere (and with Amin it was the invasion of Tanzania), which results in them being deposed. Mind you, just because one dictator has been deposed does not necessarily mean that the person that steps into replace them is any better, as was the case here. It seemed that people wanted to be rid of Obote, however the replacement was much much worse. In fact, with such people in power the rule of law breaks down and the country becomes a chaotic free for all. People from the time spoke of how you would never look anybody in the eye, but keep your head down, as to do so meant that you could be considered a threat and thus earn the wrath of the administration. Many of the people that Theroux spoke to said that they simply wanted to forget those days, however he disagreed, suggesting that it is the suffering that the people no doubt underwent that is the wellspring that creates a national identity (and also inspires great literature).
State of Decay
One of the problems with Africa is that while we Westerners seem to believe what is best for them, their their culture and ours does not necessarily interconnect. We Westerners generally live in established cities and towns and we look to progress to make our lives better. We are focused on time and are always looking forward to the future to see how we can better ourselves and our society. This is not necessarily the case with other cultures, especially cultures like those in Africa that still live with a hunter-gatherer and agrarian mindset. We send our aid money and workers into the country with the belief that by turning them into Westerners we can make their lives much better, however they may not necessarily see this as the case, yet our ideas have filtered into the continent so much that returning to the original mindset may not necessarily be possible.
One of the ideas that Theroux explores is that of decay. When we build something in the West we understand that nature of decay, and so we will continually return to what has been built with the intention of repairing and restoring it, or even rebuilding it so that it was better than before. This is not necessarily the case in Africa. In a land where for hundreds of thousands of years the people lived in makeshift huts and travelled along ever changing paths – building a road does not necessarily mean that they will maintain that road. Roads in Africa did not exist in the way that we understand them until the colonists arrived. The same is the case with buildings. Africans never built buildings the way that we built them – they were made from what they gathered, and if they were no longer used they would collapse to once again become a part of the land. Thus, when we Westerners arrived and began to build buildings, and then left, the locals did not see any need to maintain them, and as such returned to rack and ruin. Without the colonial hands, the African landscape no doubt would return to what it was like before.
In a way the Africans are very much like the Australian aboriginals. There is a connection to the land, and they lived in a world without the need of the past or any desire to record it. It was not the idea that every day was the same which resulted in a spiral of hopelessness – not like the Western World where every day seems to be a cycle of meaninglessness, but rather like an aboriginal dreamtime, where the world simply passes by and there is no past, no future, just the now. The clock is not required because their time is not divided in the way that our time has been divided – they eat when they are hungry, sleep when it becomes dark. They are not constrained by other people’s agendas, they just exist and go about their daily lives.
As we travel further south we leave the mainly Muslim states and enter into what is essentially a Christian heartland. Many of us see Christianity as a form of Western imperialism, however when we consider places like Ethiopia, we realise that Christianity has been on the continent long before the European settlers arrived. Christianity is not like Islam where you must pray at certain times, but rather it is a faith that can enter a culture and transform, and in a way be transformed, by that culture. It does not need buildings, it does not set out people’s days, or weeks, but rather just is. Unfortunately us Westerner’s have a particular view of how Christians should be Christians, and once again we go in to educate, to develop, and to attempt to turn this land into another European state.
Tanzania – The forgotten Land
After a lot of difficulties in trying to obtain passage across Lake Victoria, Theroux finally manages to obtain a berth on one of the ferries. In a way, to me, Lake Victoria is, and has always been, little more that a splotch of blue on the map of Africa. However, not only is it Africa’s largest inland lake it also feeds into what ends up becoming the Nile (and is probably one of the sources of the legend of the mysterious head of the Nile, despite it splitting to become the Albert Nile – which comes from Lake Albert, and the Victoria Nile, which comes from Lake Victoria). The lake itself was named after Queen Victoria of England, and the closeness of Lake Albert indicates the approximate time that it was discovered.
The image that Theroux paints of this ferry reminds me in part of the riverboat that Marlow travelled on in Heart of Darkness, and in part the African Queen. However we are well off the tourist track meaning that those travelling in this part of Africa are really only going to encounter the locals. The difficulties that Theroux faced even getting his hands on a ticket (he had to sign a liability waiver) shows how remote this section of the land really is. In a way Africa is not for the faint hearted, it has never been, whether it be the modern traveller who shuns the commercialisation of the tourist industry, or the original missionaries and the explorers who travelled into this land.
Theroux paints a picture of a lake that is not only a hive of activity, but also punctuated by islands and rocky outcroppings. In fact the islands form some refuge from the lands that surround the lakes, and the inhabitants travel out onto the waters, either to fish, or to conduct trade. The prevalence of the dhow indicates the Arabian influence into this part of Africa, and in fact the Arabs had penetrated this region long before the Europeans ever arrived. It was not until the Portuguese managed to wrest control of the Indian ocean from the Arab traders that this region was eventually cut off from the mainland. However, despite that the Arab influence on the region still remains. In a way I found it quite surprising that the Arabs had penetrated this far into Africa long before the Europeans. I had always thought that the Muslim influence pretty much ended in Sub-saharan Africa, however considering their mastery of the sea, and the ancient port at Zanzibar, this not not all that surprising.
The Ancient Slave Route
One of the things that I have noted in the Wikipedia entry for Tanzania
is that they say very little about the Arab influence on the country. Mind you if you go to the expanded articles concerning the History of Tanzania
and the History of Zanzibar
, you do find a lot more detail concerning the history of the region before the arrival of the Portuguese. However, I won’t go any further into that here as I wish to leave it to when we arrive at the coast and the port city of Dar es Salaam. Still, it is interesting to note the Arabic influence in this region of south-central Africa.
Theroux leaves the ferry at the lakeside port of Mwanza and then travels by train across Tanzania to the coast. Mind you this journey isn’t like the cool and comfortable high speed rail journeys that you get in Europe, but rather it is an old dilapidated train running on old dilapidated tracks. This line is the main route from the port of Dar es Salaam to Uganda, though the ferry at Mwanza links the two countries. The railway was originally built by the Germans when they had control of the region prior to World War I, though after the war the country reverted to the British. Like most development in Africa the railway system is been left rot and decay. While trains still run between Lake Victoria and the coast, as well as to Zambia, the route to Kenya has been closed for many years.
The route follows the ancient slaver route that the Arabs established long before European colonisation. In fact the Arabs, and other cultures, have been trading here for millennia. While Tanzania had a lot of exotic produce available, it was the slaves that were the most valuable resources. It is interesting how slavery in Africa has been evident long before the it arose in the Southern States of the US. In a way Africa appears to have long been a source of cheap labour and a haven for slavers, and in many ways it still is. Despite slavery being banned, it still exists in the dark shadows of the underworld. Mind you, I’m not talking about slavery in the sense of ‘I have to go to work every day and my boss is a pain in the neck’ – seriously, you aren’t a slave – you can walk away from that job anytime you want. I’m not even talking about ‘I owe all this money to the bank and I don’t know how to pay it off’ type of slavery either. No, I am talking about being kidnapped and locked in a dark cell and forced to work for a few scraps of food every day type of slavery. We don’t like to believe that it exists, but it does. Just in the same way that the British weren’t the first to raid the African coast for slaves – the Arabs have been doing that for a lot longer.
I guess there is a major reason why the Africans were the targets of slavers and the like, and that is probably because they were easy pickings. In many cases they lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle with little in the way of technology. Their tools mainly consisted of what they could cobble together from the land. They had no skill in metallurgy, nor did they build fortresses, or even walls around their towns, and when they did, it was generally to fend off other tribes. As such more advanced people could easily come in and carry them off with little difficulty. Also the lack of a centralised government meant that the slavers could play one tribe off against another, offering incentives to one group for bringing them slaves. When it became clear that the outsiders who ventured into the hinterland had come for no good, they would become easy targets – it was so much easier to get the locals to do your dirty work for you.
Tanzania is sort of one of those places that people really don’t know all that much about. I suspect if you ask the average person where Tanzania is located – without looking at Google Maps – they will probably say ‘somewhere in Africa’. Ask them to be precise, they will probably shrug their shoulders. Ask them what the capital city is I wouldn’t be surprise if they said it didn’t have one (though that is me being cynical – it does and it is Dodoma, not that anybody actually knows it). It is not that tourists don’t come to Tanzania, they do in droves, but namely to go and visit the many game preserves that dot the country. It is here that you can find the famous Sarengetti, and go on Safari to see all sorts of native wildlife. However, like other parts of Africa, the tourist regions are usually separated from the real Tanzania. The tourists arrive in the gleaming airports, jump on the mini buses and travel out on Safari to see the santised, romantic Africa. Rarely to they see the reality of the corruption, the poverty, and the decay. The Africa they see is the Africa in the glossy brochures that adorn the walls of the travel agent, not the sickly scenes of hunger and pestilence that are hidden in the papers – no, that is another part of Africa, the bad part which they have no desire to experience, though will give money to an aid agency in the mistaken belief that they are actually helping.
As Theroux was getting closer to the coast of Tanzania, in particularly the city of Dar es Salaam, I was wondering if he was going to pay a visit to the ancient city of Zanzibar. As it turned out he did, however his visit simply took up a couple of paragraphs were he wrote about how some Africans were attempting to get money out of a very reluctant priest. In a way I was surprised since Zanzibar is one of those exotic locations that dates back hundreds of years. Stone Town, the old part of the city is one of the UNESCO world heritage sites, having been a major trading port while the rest of the region were little more than hunter-gatherer tribes.
The city itself was first established by traders from the Arabian Peninsula since it was an excellent harbour. The city was a centre from trade from the African Great Lakes region and would be a channel for commodities such as spices, ivory, and of course slaves. The Portuguese took control of the city during their incursions into the region (which dates the city to the fifteenth century, however since it was originally established by the Arabs, the original colony is much older), and then reverted back to the Arabs in around 1698. During Britain’s attempt to abolish the slave trade, the city then reverted to their rule and the transferred over to Tanzania during the 1960s.
It was quite surprising that Theroux simply skipped over this rather unique city, which in effect an outpost of civilisation in a region ruled by hunter-gatherer tribes. Obviously its location as a deep water harbour, and provided access to commodities not available in Europe and the Middle East, made it an important trading hub. However it is still a part of Africa, and I suspect that by the time Theroux had arrived he had simply become quite jaded in what he was experiencing in this land. In a way Zanzibar, despite its exotic local and ancient history, was little more than your typical African city with rampant unemployment and poverty, a lack of services, and beggars doing what they can to get money for food or whatever else they need.
On the mainland, connected to Zanzibar by a rather dilapidated ferry, is the city of Dar Es Salaam. This is Tanzania’s largest city (though not its capital). The city was first established by the Sultan of Zanzibar, and if the name sounds Arabic that is because it is. The name means ‘Residence of Peace’ though I suspect that these days the city is anything but peaceful. Okay, maybe it is not so much like Nairobi, but it is still an African city, where people simply migrate in the hope of finding jobs, but end up being relegated to the slums where the life simply continues as normal. In fact if there is one thing that Africans seem to want to do and that is to leave. As he travels through Africa Theroux hears time and time again how they with to leave and travel to America, as if travelling to the United States will make their life better – in many cases it won’t.
It is interesting to see his impressions as he travels through the towns and cities. There are no jobs, and there seems to be no incentive to work. The men simply sit under trees waiting for something, though is it unclear what they are waiting for – is it a job, because the jobs simply aren’t there. Sure, they could be given jobs, and even money for those jobs, if that is what the aid agencies are doing, but if all they are doing is driving around in landrovers handing out food, then that is not necessarily going to lift them out of poverty. Simply giving away food only creates a culture of dependance, and if they simply get money by asking for it, all it does is encourage them to ask for more money.
Tanzania, as Theroux suggests, was another failed attempt at Socialism. Obviously Marx’s original intention was for Socialism to arise from the advanced industrialised nations, however the lands where it ended up taking hold were far from advanced. Tanzania for instance is anything but an industrialised nation – it is an agraian nation that had no understanding of modern economic systems. For instance when the country underwent a revolution in 1963 they basically kicked out all of the foreigners (the Europeans, the Arabs, and the Indians) and handed the means of production back to the local population. They established collective farms, and with money from the Chinese, attempted to develop the nation. However that experiment failed. The people that were kicked out were those who actually knew how to run a country and how to farm, and those that took over had no experience whatsoever. For instance the experiment in collective farming failed simply because the managers of these farms were corrupt an took all of the money for themselves.
The Decaying Interior
It would be interesting to follow Theroux’s footsteps fifteen years later to see if much of Africa has changed, or whether it is still the decaying land where the people really do not understand, or appreciate, development. In a way it is not surprising because we see the same with the aboriginal population here in Australia. They are not so much a backward people that have been left behind as the white population of Australia progresses, but rather they are a people who live a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and have never seen the need to adapt to the European way of life. For all the talk about closing the gap and lifting the Aboriginals out of poverty, the truth is that all we are doing is turning them into dark skinned Europeans.
If you travel out to the Aboriginal settlements in central Australia you will basically see decaying houses and abject poverty. The aboriginals have been moved into settlements, and their traditional lifestyle has been destroyed by the Europeans’ insistence that they must live a settled existence. Even now there is criticism about their choice to live out in remote Australia relying upon support by the government. As Tony Abbott famously said, there is no reason why Australians should subsides these communities who chose this lifestyle choice. In a way he is correct when looking from a European mindset, but what he is effectively suggesting is that there is no room in modern Australia for the traditional Aboriginal hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and in fact with the establishment of farms, and the fencing off of traditional hunting grounds, all they have now are a collection of decaying houses in the middle of the desert. Supplies are locked up in canteens, and they are then given small amounts of money to purchase what is in effect their means of sustenance, something that they used to get off of the land.
You also see this with their housing in that the Europeans go in and build them houses, and then leave expecting them to maintain these houses. However we are talking about people who for centuries, even millenia, never needed to live in an established house, and would simply wander around the outback following the game, and engaging in subsistence farming. They had no concept of a settled existence. If they needed shelter, they would build it from what was available, and when they moved on they would leave the settlement to return to the natural land. However the Europeans arrive with this concept of settlement, this concept of fencing off land and calling it ‘mine’. This is something the traditional aboriginals simply do not understand. It is only those who have transitioned from the traditional lifestyle to the European lifestyle, that have come to accept the concept of settlement. However this is the problem – we seem to think that by giving Aboriginal University degrees and good jobs, is helping to lift them out of poverty – it is not, it is simply turning them into dark skinned Europeans. Maybe there is just no room for the hunter-gatherer lifestyle in the modern economy.
Out of the Metropolis
Referring to Dar Es Salaam as a metropolis is probably a misnomer because I generally think of such places as huge industrial cities and financial hubs such as New York and London. However considering the size of some African cities, and especially since Dar Es Salaam is considered the largest city on the east cost of Africa, it is probably an apt name. Also it is a major transport hub with a huge harbour and also where the three main lines of the Tanzanian Railway converge. It is not the capital of Tanzania, that is located much further inland, but it still is the major economic hub of the country.
Anyway, the main reason that Theroux jumped on the ferry to Zanzibar is because he had to wait for the train to arrive. In a way that is one of the things about living, or even travelling, in Africa, and that is that you have to wait. You spend a lot of time waiting in Africa, especially if you are taking the journey that Theroux is taking. I suspect that if you are a tourist travelling to Africa for the safari experience, then maybe you don’t have to experience the waiting, but then again many of these safaris have been arranged by Western tour companies and are designed with the western lifestyle in mind.
However, when you step off the tourist track you discover that the thing about Africa is that you spend a lot of time waiting. That is not surprising because many of the locals seem to simply wait – they are patient. What are they waiting for? Maybe they are waiting for life to get better, or for somebody to arrive to change things around. There does not seem to be that mindset of actually getting up and doing something, but that is probably because for most of the modern era everybody else has been doing things for them. It is not a question of going out and earning money, or doing things to make life better, because that is not what they have learnt. Rather, others have come to do things for them, and they have learnt to accept that.
So, Theroux jumps onto the train to travel to Malawi. The problem is that the train doesn’t go to Malawi, so he has to get off at another stop and then make his way to the border independently. Unfortunately the tracks are dilapidated, like much of the infrastructure in the region, so when they arrive at a station there is more waiting. Mind you, trains in Africa tend to spend a lot of time sitting at railway stations. They are not like trains in the west where they arrive at a station, hang around for a couple of minutes while everybody boards, and then heads off to their next destination. Sure, they might have timetables, but they are not strict – they can’t be because there are so many problems with the infrastructure that there are always going to be delays.
Even when he arrived at his destination there were more delays simply because there is no reliable transport from Mbaya (where the railway station is) to the Malawi border. However, since Theroux once worked in Malawi it was his intention to make what every effort he could to get there. He had a problem with buying a worthless ticket, but when he did manage to get to the closest town the only option was to hire a cab, only to discover that when he arrived at the border the cab drivers decided to shake him down for more money. Mind you, he just got up and walked across the border which put paid to their scheme. However, he was probably very lucky that he managed to do this because, being a white man, he simply stood out among the crowd and the situation could have turned quite violent. In the heart of Africa a white man is royalty – it doesn’t matter how much money they have because if you are white, and you are in Africa, people automatically see you as being wealthy.
Malawi – The Homecoming
I would say that Malawi is famous for its lake
, a body of water that stretches along its eastern border, however I had never heard of the place until I went to a church here in Melbourne who had sent a group over to the country to assist in building a church and providing assistance for a number of ministries. The country was also the focus of the Evangelical Environment Network
for a while due to the impact that climate change was having upon this landlocked and poverty ridden country. Since attending my local church my understanding of this country have grown quite a lot, though in many cases it is no different to many of the other countries that Theroux had visited.
Theroux has a special attachment to Malawi though, since he worked here for two years as a teacher with the peace corps, and in a way he was hoping to return to see how it had changed. He had also sent notice to the US Embassy that he had arrived and was willing to spend some time providing lectures at the university. The problem was, as it turned out, nobody seemed to care. The country had changed, but not for the better. In a way the country had drifted much further down hill than he remembered, though this does not necessarily seem to be the case when you look at some of the pictures on the internet. However, no doubt the government is trying to promote the country as a tourist destination for people wanting to stay at some cheap, lakeside resorts.
The Rocky Road South
The sign saying potholes next 9600 kilometres may have been a joke that had floated around by email for a while, but in Africa that seems to be the case all to often. Once again this is the nature of the decay in the interior. There is no need, or even will, to try to repair these roads. They were built and at one time they were brand new, but due to the lack of will, they have been left to decay, which means that the inevitable potholes arise. Travelling by road in Africa is not the safest of ways to travel. Theroux tells us of how the buses are overcrowded and people hang on any possible protrusion imaginable. However it is true because I have spoken to people who live and worked in the African bush, and the roads are dangerous, not just because of the potholes, but because of the drivers as well. It is not uncommon to see overloaded buses careering all over the road endangering not just the passengers, but those around them. One friend of mine told me how they feared for their lives when an out of control bus hurtled towards them one day.
Entering Malawi was not easy for Theroux because he discovered the true nature of African corruption. At the border it was discovered that his vaccination certificate was out of date, and it wasn’t a question of when he was going to get it sorted out – people die of all sorts of diseases in Africa, it was a question of how much Theroux was going to pay the border guard to simply turn a blind eye. Theroux clearly didn’t want to encourage corruption, but sometimes there is little choice. Fortunately for him he could speak the language, and when the guard’s superior heard him, he managed to escape that rather sticky situation.
Language is interesting in Africa because there seems to be two major languages in the region – English and Swahili. Okay, they also have their local tribal languages, but it seems that most people understand English, and also understand Swahili. Swahili seems to be the lingua franca of the African continent, at least south of the Sahara. I guess that is not surprising, especially since the original local tribes have slowly dispersed in favour of settled communities and the slums in the cities. Still, even in a tribal society there needed to be a language that enabled people from different tribes to communicate, and in Africa that language is Swahili.
The other interesting thing that Theroux has regularly noted throughout the book are the number of Indian shops that he encounters. These Indians hadn’t recently arrived in Africa but had come over during the colonial era and establish their businesses. In a way it seems that the only people in these parts of Africa that ran established businesses were the Indians. Mind you, they weren’t all that wealthy because none of the locals had any money to spend. However during the independence movement many of the Indians were kicked out of the country in the mistaken belief that they were taking all of the jobs from the local population (despite the fact that they themselves were locals). However when they left the shops ended up becoming empty, disused, and decaying. In a way there was no entrepreneurial spirit in the region to take up when the Indians left. It is the nature of the culture in that people lived in a subsistence manner and there was no real need for money. In was only when the foreigners were brought in that there was any resemblance of a modern economy. Once they left they took their culture and their ideas with them, and all that was left was the local culture that had no will to re-establish the businesses.
Missionary Crisis of Livingstonia
Livingstonia is basically a missionary outpost in Malawi. Dr Livingstone was a famous explorer and missionary that travelled the region establishing churches, however these missionaries were not only attempting to establish Christianity in the region, but also European Culture. Theroux tells a story of a missionary couple that he knew in Malawi (okay, they weren’t actually missionaries, rather they were school teachers working in Malawi on their retirement). He decided to pay them a visit only to discover that they had passed away a couple of years earlier. What he discovered was that despite all of their hard work, after they left their legacy appeared to be negligible. Even their graves were covered in weeds and decaying just like the rest of the community.
Theroux also met the wife of a missionary from Livingstonia whose husband was a medical practitioner. Unlike the aid workers in the area, they weren’t rich. She had to travel four days just to spend a week back in England, before spending another four days to get back to Livingstonia. They were supported by their church, which meant that money wasn’t all that easy to raise. They did not have the huge budgets, or the flash landrovers, that many of the other aid agencies had, they just had the contributions provided to them by their supporters back in England. It does make me wonder at times about the missionaries that I know in various parts of the world. The other thing that was evident was the lack of medical professionals in the country. These missionaries were there because they knew that there was a need for medical assistance, however her husband was the only doctor serving the entire north of the country, and by working there he was sacrificing a much higher paid job elsewhere.
The thing about the medical profession is that there is a severe skills shortage in the profession. It takes years, and a lot of money, to become a fully qualified doctor, and even in the developed countries there is a lack of skilled professionals. To become a doctor is an incredibly stressful process, and a lot of them simply do not make it out of their internship. Due to the lack medical professionals they are able to command high prices for their services, which means that in countries such as Malawi, where they cannot even afford money to spend on infrastructure, working as a doctor simply will not make ends meet. As such most medical professionals shun these places to work in regions where they can command much higher wages. This simply leaves places such as Malawi with waiting lists that make Australian hospitals look efficient. As I mentioned I personally know a couple of missionaries who are medical practitioners, and once again they simply do not have the skills that are required to provide the medical treatment that is needed (two of them are nurses, one of them a psychologist, and another is an allied health professional – none of them are GPs, or even surgeons).
A city divided
All cities have their rich areas and their poor areas, however in Africa this contrast seems to be much more noticeable. There are certain parts of the city that have simply been left to rot and ruin, and those who land up there have great difficulties escaping. Mind you, this is the case with most cities around the world, and I certainly have noticed this even here in Australia. Mind you, some governments solve this simply by sending in the bulldozers, however that generally doesn’t solve all that much because shanty towns tend to have that habit of being able to spring again up pretty quickly.
Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, is certainly one of those cities, where you have the areas containing the mansions of the politicians and the diplomats, and the slums where the rest of the community live. Crime is pretty high, but Theroux has suggested that this has always been the case. However, when he was here previously the violence was all political, being instituted by the state, however these days the violence is simply due to crime arising in the poverty stricken regions.
While I have already mentioned this, Theroux also comments on how Malawi is also trying to attract the tourist dollar by building five star resorts on the shores of Lake Malawi. Sure, while it may be a landlocked country, being on the shores of quite a large lake gives companies incentives to build luxury resorts, and since the economy is so bad, it makes a holiday here quite cheap. Once again this is the corporate world creating further divides within the African continent where the tourists are attracted, but are kept sheltered from the reality of the situation on the ground. As such, he decided to shun the corporate hotels and seek accommodation at one of the regular hotels, only to discover that there is a fee structure – there is one price for the Africans and there is another price for the foreigners, a price that tends to be substantially more. This he blames on the aid agencies and other corporate employees.
Theroux’s visit in Lilongwe took him to the American Embassy, if only to follow up on his previous request. However he discovered another complete disconnect with the reality on the ground. The embassy staff simply seemed to believe that the country is progressing nonetheless, especially with the provision of corps to assist the farmers in earning an income. The problem is twofold since the two cash crops available – tobacco and coffee, do not generate all that much money. However donor companies also provide stable crops, such as maize, however these plants have been genetically engineered to produce a greater yield. The problem with genetically engineered crops is that they are sterile. Sure, they may produce a greater yield, however the result is that these crops cannot produce seeds that will enable a farmer to plant the crop for the next harvest. As such they must return, cap in hand, to the donor companies for more. The cycle of aid thus continues.
There is also the thing about the roads. Sure, the government did built some good roads, however there are only three people who actually use the roads – politicians, foreign diplomats, and children playing ball games. The thing is that while they may have good roads, the average African does not have a car – they walk (or catch a bus). As such these roads, while providing good travel for the politicians and the foreigners, have no purpose for the locals. Then there are the landslides. Once again aid has not assisted, and in fact forced them to go backwards. Normally if there was a landslide that cut off a road, the locals would clear the road by hand. However, bring in the bulldozers and suddenly it is much quicker, and easier, to clear the road. The problem is that the bulldozers don’t do the same job as the locals would do – namely the drains wouldn’t be cleared, and when the rains come again, there is no easy way for the water to escape, and thus it would take out the entire road. Sometimes doing something manually is so much easier as it prevents further disasters down the track.
Back to School
Due to the horrendous experience that Theroux had travelling by bus and truck from the north of the country (there are no trains in Malawi) Theroux decided to take it easy for a while and hire a car to drive to his old haunts. Mind you, he was only there for a couple of years before he got into trouble with the government by smuggling a dissident out of the country, and then was kicked out of the Peace Corps for interfering in the politics of the country (and apparently bringing disrepute to the organisation). However, these events ended up turning out quite well for Theroux as he went from being a teacher at a school to a lecturer at a university in Uganda (where he also met his first wife). Mind you, while he was in Malawi, he decided to pay a visit to the Bureau of Censorship to discover that his book Jungle Lovers was still on the banned list (or at least it was back in 1991, which was the latest list that they had available, though he decided not to push any further just in case he landed up in even more trouble).
Anyway, he goes and visits his friend, and also his old school to discover that things had seriously degenerated. Okay, his old friend was still the same, but in many cases it seems as if he had become to accept what life in Africa was like. The school though had not been looked after – windows were broken, and many of the books in the library had been stolen. It seemed as if there was no desire to educate the people of Malawi, and even then they had so little resources that in many cases the schools seemed to be little more than day care centres. Sure, the aid agencies go out and establish these schools, and even provide materials and teachers, however like so much of Africa, they are not looked after – the materials go missing and the buildings simply collapse into decay.
Personally I cannot say that there is much better schooling here in Australia. Like Africa, if you are wealthy then you can afford to send your children to the best schools and universities. Sure, the private school system does support the public education system by taking some of the strain, however for those who cannot afford a private school and don’t live in a suburb where there are good schools, the ability to become educated is much more difficult. I have heard of schools here in Australia as being little more than day care centres, which are at times woefully underfunded. In a way it does not matter how smart you are if you do not have the good fortune of going to a decent school you are always going to be left behind.
There was a scene where Theroux was sitting with some of his old friends, and many of them were speaking of how the Indians were kicked out of the country so that the locals could then run the businesses. However that never happened because they simply were not able run a business the way the Indians did. They laughed at how the Indians would spend all of their time tapping away on calculators and counting stock – yet this is an essential part of running a good business. In many ways we see this attitude here in Australia, were a smart child will be mocked and derided by showing intelligence and ambition. In many cases these people do not like to see people get ahead, and even if they do get ahead, they find it difficult being around friends who simply have no motivation.
In a way Theroux paints Africa as a nation of excuses – a common saying being ‘you see the problem is …’ This was very much the case in Tanzania. In a way they were seeing problems and simply believing that it cannot be done, as opposed to seeing a problem and then looking for a solution. We see this here in Australia, and I have known may people who hide behind excuses ‘I can’t’, ‘it’s too hard’, ‘they are not interested’. We even see this with these educated people who tell us how when somebody succeeds, suddenly all of their family swarms in through the door wanting a piece of the action. As Theroux was spending his last days in Malawi he had pretty much had enough, especially when an African came up to him asking him for money: why are you asking me for money, ask me for work! The African did not want to ask for work, he just wanted money.
Look, Theroux suggests that maybe aid is the problem, and I would suspect that there is a side of it that creates dependency. Look, I am very much a socialist that believes that there are services that the government should provide. Not everybody is lucky enough to be able to afford the basic essentials, however I am also well aware of the culture of dependency. If you hand out money for free them people begin to expect to get this money for free. I believe in the necessity of taxes, and also believe that everybody should pay their fare share. However it is not just the poor that develop a culture of dependency, but also the rich and the powerful. Corporations that receive subsidies begin to rely upon those subsidies, and they begin to factor them into their balance sheets, so that when they are removed they suddenly need to restructure their operations. It is not just the poor who become dependant, but the rich as well.
However there are times when aid is very important, such as during war, famine, and natural disasters. If crops fail then not every country is able to weather the storm the way that advanced countries are. Despite there being a drought in Australia over a number of years, we all still had food on our tables. This is not the case in a country like Malawi that not only has to contend with pests eating away the food that has been stored, but also when the rains don’t come at the right time the entire crop is destroyed, which results in famine. War is a no brainer, and with regards to natural disasters, the response time is critical to prevent the spread of disease and malnutrition. Look, disease is also critical, especially where a country lacks medical services, however sometimes disease can be preventable, and it is up to the individuals to live in a hygienic manner to prevent diseases.
Anyway, I’m going to bring this post to an end here simply because Theroux’s next destination is Mozambique and a journey by canoe down the Zambize. However that will be the subject of my final post on this book, namely the Southern Reaches.
Cash Crops source: Bjorn Christian Torrisen used with permission under creative commons attribution share=alike 3.0 unported
Ugandan Woman source: Dylan Waters used with permission under creative commons attribution share-alike 2.0 generic
Idi Amin source: New Zealand Archives used with permission under creative commons attribution 2.0 generic
African Tribe source: Aimee Tyrell used with permission under creative commons attributon 2.5 generic
Dhow source: Muhammed Mahdi Kamin used with permission under the GNU public license.
Tananzia Railways source: