Peace Corps Writers
Talking with Paul Theroux (page 4)
 Talking with Paul Theroux
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You encounter foreign aid workers throughout your journey yet the typical African lives you describe are plagued by what has become routine desperation. What has been the benefit of 40 years of foreign aid?
Not much — which is why the whole issue needs rethinking. My answer about begging [just below] has larger implications in the aid industry, which is a begging-and-donating mechanism. I would distinguish between emergency aid (flood in Mozambique, famine in Zambia, earthquake in Rwanda) and the routine dumping-food-in-the-trough that many agencies practice. Such agencies have taken over the care and welfare of people from governments. Malawi is an example. Foreign agencies run hospitals, schools, orphanages etc., while the politicians pretend to govern. I am in favor of making people responsible for their own problems. You have floods because you cut down all your trees. You have a famine because the minister sold the grain stocks and stole the money. Unprotected sex causes AIDS. Pointing out the obvious, perhaps, but not many people do it.
As a white man and an obvious traveler you were constantly approached — even harassed — by beggars. You write about the many times you fled them or turned a blind eye. What are your thoughts on begging?
   I am not intolerant of beggars, but maybe a little skeptical sometimes. Even here at home I say to panhandlers, “Why are you asking me for money for nothing? You want fifty cents? If you wash my car I will give you twenty dollars.” The offer of work usually drives them away. Obviously there are many deserving destitutes. But for many others, begging is a career. In all cases, handing money over is not a solution.
  When you were in Africa in the 1960s many countries, including Kenya and Mozambique, were forming their own governments after centuries of colonial rule. As a traveling observer, how do you think those countries have fared since the end of colonialism?
  They have fared badly because of poor leadership, lack of resources, the colonial hangover, the subversion of foreign institutions.
     In Malawi and Zimbabwe, Africans told me that when they tried to start a business — like a shop, or a farm, or a bar— they failed because at the first sign of success their relatives showed up and cadged from them, or implored them to pay their relatives’ school fees. That’s a common tale of woe.
     But I noticed something else, as well. In the past, people tried to make things work and struggled in hard times — in Asia, in Latin America, in Africa. In the past 15 years people have given up struggling at home and tried to emigrate. During my trip I heard many stories of emigration. People failing in rural Tanzania do not think of making a new life elsewhere in East Africa. They are headed for South Africa and the promise of work, or else seeking a visa to Britain or the United States. I met many people who wanted a ticket out — so economic failure could be tied to people disgusted with their prospects and wanting to leave. As a traveler in Africa my traveling companions were often Africans heading elsewhere. Often I said to them, “Why don’t you stay home and fix the problem?” They said: “Let someone else do it.” And I said: “It’s not going to be me.”
You mentioned crossing African borders and how necessary the “misery and splendor of the journey” is. How about the danger? Did you have any experience where you really thought your life was in danger?
I was certain my life was in danger when bandits fired at the cattle truck I was riding in from the Ethiopian border through the northern Kenyan desert. I was assured by a man ducking next to me, “They do not want your life, bwana. They want your shoes.” I also felt my life was in jeopardy in every “chicken bus” and old car I rode in — at great speed, on bad roads, with a young reckless driver at the wheel.
     Traveling in Africa, I had to learn patience, humility, survival skills, and to keep reminding myself that I was “prey” To most people I representing Money-on-Two-Legs. I am as risk averse as anyone else — also, aren’t I a wealthy, middle-aged, semi-well-known American writer who doesn’t need to put up with this crap? The answer is yes and no. I did need to put up with this crap or else there’s no insight and no book.
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