July 02, 2005

Dark Star Safari (bottom up)

I use Amazon's wish list feature not to wish but to remember. Its a viciously effective form of enhanced memory, any book you ever noticed can get entered into a corporate database and linger. I've long since forgotten why and how Paul Theroux's Dark Star Safari ended up in my wish list, but technology it seems occasionally works and I wound up walking out the library with a book I wanted but had no recollection why.

Theroux funnily enough wrote the book precisely to escape this sort technology. Overland from Cairo to Capetown is the subtitle and its a journey that purposely took Theroux some of the most forgotten and dangerous parts of Africa. Theroux wanted to disappear, to be unreachable, no phone, no email, just gone. He had been a Peace Corp worker in Malawi in the 60's, kicked out helping a political dissident escape the country. Now a successful travel writer and novelist this was his return journey.

The Africa Theroux finds is far worse for the wear, although its never 100% clear if this a function of him being a cranky aging asshole he makes a pretty good case. And fitting of the times (the book was published in 2003) what comes out is a 'bottom up' argument, although Theroux seems to prefer the term 'bare-assed'. Its an argument Theroux borrows from Graham Hancock and Michael Maren, authors of two anti aid books, and makes part of his character. Aid doesn't work is the line, the money goes into everyone's pockets except those that need the aid, and when aid does show up it just leads to dependency among the recipients.

Its a classic anti government argument, too corrupt and too slow the learn from mistakes. In Africa it may well be spot on, Theroux certainly is won over to the line. But half his argument seems to stem from the fact that the aid workers in white Land Cruisers never pick him up on the side of the road. The other half is interesting though, and fuels the stories that make this book quite an entertaining read. Only in the deep country, the bush mainly, does Theroux find the honest Africans he seeks, the cities in a classical theme are pits of corruption and thieves, the relief heavy countryside the same. That's a pretty blunt reading, but their is little subtlety to Theroux's opinion, he pushes to the back country to find what he wants, never it seems really pushing to find the urban upsides. It makes for a good set of adventure tales that way, dugout canoe down the rivers, "chicken bus" death trap rides, dodging "shifta" gunshots. "There are bad people out there".

All the adventure and gusto that launch the journey begin to twist turn and fade as Theroux gets deeper in and more disillusioned. By the end he's riding luxury South African railcars and describing his first class dinners. Like the corrupt politicians he rails against he's quite happy to leave African's "bare-assed". This is bottom up thinking at its lowest, "sink or swim". Theroux gets their by being burned, the school he taught at 30 odd years before is a decaying wreck, and the people suffering harder then his memories.

"Sink or swim" is also a favorite of a breed of conservatives, the pro business libertarians of America come to mind. One wonders what would happen if they where left in the midst of a dark star safari, would they see only corrupt governments, or would they realize just how much their prosperity depends on the stability of civic society? Are the tribal warfare and massacres that mar the worst of the news from Africa bottom up or top down? What could be more bottom up then baling out and letting people figure things out for themselves? Its exactly what Theroux advocates for Africa, but has it ever worked else where. Does running away make history disappear? Or does history just disappear when people's lifespans drop to African levels. The Africa of Theroux's 60's experience it seems is almost gone, but to get it back, and why for that matter remain unanswered.

Posted by Abe at July 2, 2005 12:28 PM


Another describes the same in Central America.

A Peace Corps worker in Guatemala in the 60's, he had started a thriving chicken cooperative in the high mountain village, using a small development aid grant. So he was thrilled on going back after twenty years to visit, to discover the chicken plant had been abandoned, now a rusty ruin, and some city locals selling Tyson drumsticks out of a freezer van at below the cost of production.

Seems Americans only like white meat, so Tyson basically gives away frozen dark meat for the return leg of the Mexican truck-produce imports. That meat ends up in Central American villages, below cost, gutting their hand-to-mouth economy, crushing farmers left with no cash market for their corn, destroying money base, and sending all the adult males north to work field labor in the Coachella Valley, USA, as illegal migras.

If US aid don't get you, the global agribiz will.

I've had a bit of a eureka moment about this sort of thing; the plight of the world and whether aid works or not. I think that we in the West forget ourselves, our history, where we have come from and how we progressed, truly progressed as a civilization.

Recently I've read two books on the Ancient World, one about the ancient Greeks and one on the Romans and the thing that struck me the most was the contrast between the ideal they represent as a touchstone for our culture and values today and the reality of their incredibly chaotic, violent and rude history. The selfish brutal nature of ancient rulers and oligarchs is breathtaking. And then I wondered. When did government stop being like this? When did the incessant intrigue, political murder and civil war that characterised Western government end. And the more I thought about it, the more I realised that it really didn't end until AFTER the European Enlightenment. And even then it took the First World War to discredit the practice of rule by aristocracy and the Second World War to fend off the facist reactionaries.

In short good govenment means limited LIBERAL government in the european enlightenment tradition and that idea has only been secured in the Western World since 1945.

So when we look at Africa we are looking at ancient man. We are looking at the human norm at what government has been to most people for most of human history; an entity that takes from the many to give to the priviledged few and will amorally exterminate anyone who gets in its way unless you kill those leaders and replace them.

If we want to bring hope to Africa we need to ask how do we bring Liberalism as a political philosophy, as a cultural trait, to Africans? I am just not sure it can be done by aid or by force. It is something that a group of leaders whithin an African country must choose for themselves and their countries future. For awhile it looked like Uganda was going to lead a liberal revolution for the continent, but it is falling back into a despotic form.