Thursday, September 05, 2013

"The Last Train to Zona Verde" - Paul Theroux

"The Last Train to Zona Verde" is Paul Theroux's account of his solitary, backpacking trip from Cape Town through Namibia, Angola and all points north to Timbuktu. In the event, his luck and spirits run out in Angola and he decides enough is enough - time to return home. The following excerpt from the full review at American Renaissance captures his reasons
"Angola’s problem, Mr. Theroux decides, is not a lack of money or development aid, but too much of both. The government is a “thieving tyranny” that keeps virtually all the money it earns from foreign oil and mining companies. The difference between it and other African kleptocracies is only one of degree. In Africa, “only foreigners seem to care about the welfare of Africans.” He means whites, since the only other non-whites are the Chinese, and they are there only to make money. They care nothing about and do nothing for the black population—no Western sentimentality for them. It’s the same with the Western corporations looting the place of its natural wealth. The foreign aid workers and development specialists think they care, but Mr. Theroux considers them self-absorbed fools, whose officious meddling only makes things worse, and further entrenches tyranny.

Angola has great potential. The country is rich in natural resources, especially oil, diamonds, and gold. It also has the “hilly, cool, and fertile” Planalto, or high plains, much of it over a mile above sea level. Yet, there is little or no farming. Village people are moving to the cities. Those with any education, Mr. Theroux finds, want to leave for the United States. There seems to be little hope for a continent whose best-educated people all want to flee.

Mr. Theroux does find one Angolan who is optimistic about the country and wants to stay: a white man of Portuguese descent named Rui da Camara e Sousa. His grandfather was governor of the colony early in the last century. Mr. Sousa is a developer who is profiting from the building boom in Luanda, the capital. Mr. Theroux finds his optimism hard to fathom. Even with the new construction, “everything looked crooked or improvisational, with a vibration of doomsday looming.” The slums were a horror, and “the government was corrupt, predatory, tyrannical, unjust, and utterly uninterested in its people.”

Mr. Sousa lived on the salubrious Restinga peninsula, near the coastal city of Lobito. I use the past tense because a few months after Theroux visited him, Mr. Sousa was murdered by intruders who stole “a computer, a television, and a mobile phone.”

Mr. Theroux is an intrepid and resourceful traveler, who has completed, or nearly completed, all of his previous trips. Not this time. As he approached the northern border of Angola, formed by the Congo River, Mr. Theroux finally decided to abort his journey. First, his credit card had stopped working, and he was running out of cash. He learned later that someone had printed his name and credit card number on a duplicate card, and had run up $48,000 in charges.

Second, he realized that he would see only a variation on what he had already seen: a nightmare world of poisoned and ruined landscapes; impoverished, starving villages; and “cities that were indistinguishable from one another in their squalor and decrepitude.” Traveling any further, “meant traveling into madness.”

Third, he decided that he had pushed his luck far enough. As a 70-year-old white man alone in Africa, he was a natural target for thieves and hustlers. There was simply no reason to tempt fate by going on.

He also kept remembering the words of another white Angolan. As they contemplated the reeking, swarming slums of Luanda, this man said, “This is what the world will look like when it ends.” With that doomsday vision seeming all too real, Mr. Theroux decided to head home."
Paul Theroux

Mr Theroux's personality can be read off the pages of his book: he is somewhat detached and introverted yet keenly curious about the people he meets and their stories. He is naturally optimistic and improvisational, and is more concerned with values than intellectual analysis. In short, he's an INFP.

Theroux is too experienced a writer to dwell over-long on the hardships of his journey. We sit alongside him as he accepts a scrawny chicken leg in the bush, covered with flies - he desperately burns the stringy limb in a fire to sterilise the fly-droppings. We don't hear so much about the lack of sanitary facilities, the intimidation and personal thefts. Only in the last chapter does his pent up fury about the state of Africa finally burst onto the page.

His thesis is that in the last analysis, the African elites, the kleptocracies - hand in glove with foreign companies, governments and aid agencies - do not care in the slightest for the millions living in squalid shanty towns surrounding their tiny oases of western excess. Since they don't care, there can be no hope of progress.

This doesn't prevent foreign companies making plenty of money behind their own security cordons - and this is what you hear about in The Times and The Economist when they write about 'Africa rising economically'.

Paul Theroux's book is a journey from his initial naivety and hopefulness to his final recognition of the grim and hopeless reality for the African masses. He notes that in these places he is truly a lone observer: everyone else is too scared, too bought-off or too determined not to acknowledge the facts on the ground.