Peace Corps Writers
Talking with Paul Theroux (page 3)
 Talking with Paul Theroux
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How did you come to write “The Lepers of Moyo”? Did you work with lepers as a secondary project when you were in the Peace Corps?
On school vacations in Malawi we teachers were supposed to do something useful. I found a leprosarium by the shore of Lake Malawi and worked there — it was called Mua, at Ntakataka. 1,500 people — families of sufferers. It was in many respects a very happy place, though all the people were outcasts.
     Leprosy (Hansen's Disease) has been more or less cured in Malawi, though when it was beset by AIDS I wrote the story, as a reminder of this earlier scourge. The story is based on fact, the setting is actual, but the narrative is fiction.
You taught in Africa in the early 1960s. Why did you decide to return after almost 40 years?
Since leaving Africa in October 1968 I thought of the places I had worked, the people I had known, and the hope we all had. I constantly thought: What happened? I longed to return, and I thought I would do it in the year I turned 60. Dark Star Safari represents one man’s road. Another person could take the same trip and would have different experiences. That’s a truism, of course. This trip was special to me — because the road was in part Memory Lane — and because I loved the challenges. There is nothing in the world more vitalizing to me that traveling in the African bush.
     It is wonderful for a teacher to meet a former student and see that he or she is gainfully employed — perhaps as a teacher; and is a responsible parent and homeowner. This happened to me in Malawi and Uganda — wonderful memories. My old friend Apolo Nsibambi — we used to drink and argue in the 1960s — is now Prime Minister of Uganda. I loved seeing him after 30 years. The passage of time is more dramatic in Africa — amazing to witness its effects, for I first set foot there in 1963, which was another age altogether.
  You traveled from Cairo to Cape Town by train, bus, taxi, kayak, and often by foot. Why didn’t you fly?
  Flying from one capital city to another is not travel to me. Travel, especially in Africa, must be overland and must involve the crossing of borders — negotiating on land, usually on foot, the national frontier. That experience teaches a great deal about the state of the country. Of course, it’s sometimes dangerous and always time-consuming.
     Anyone who has traveled in Africa and not crossed a national frontier has truly missed the necessary misery and splendor of the journey. Crossing an African frontier alone suggests why any sort of development is so difficult. I do not recommend this to the faint of heart — even traveling by road from South Africa to Mozambique is no picnic; but from Ethiopia to Kenya, Kenya to Uganda, Tanzania to Malawi, and Malawi into Mozambique (customs post under a mango tree on the Shire River) you learn a great deal.
     Also, I don’t fit in. I am a traveler, a stranger, an eavesdropper. I have no status and do not want any. I have an aversion to being an official visitor. I had to borrow a necktie in order to see the US Ambassador in Kampala. I hate official visits — being an honored guest at factories and schools. I often feel like the king or prince in an Elizabethan drama, who puts on a cloak and wanders anonymously in the marketplaces of his kingdom to find out what people really think.
Kenya was in a horrible state when you visited, with widespread government corruption under Daniel Arap Moi and a dejected populace affected by years of corruption and terror. Do you see hope for Kenya after their free elections in December 2002 and the defeat of Kenyatta, Moi’s handpicked successor?
Kenya’s government has been deeply corrupt. Moi’s government tortured friends of mine. Everyone knew it was horribly governed.
     I heard the other day that a man in Moi’s government had stolen “hundreds of millions of dollars.” Imagine that amount of money and the thief who took it. So, now that Mwai Kibaki has won the election and is in power do we say, “Well, all that money was stolen and squirreled away — looks like we’ll have to give you some more.” I don’t think so. My solution would be to forgive the debts of these countries and then after a suitable period of time, make them account for every penny they are given.
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