Open letter to Paul Theroux

Dear Paul,

It is doubtful you will ever come to hear of, let alone see, this letter; nonetheless my passion is so great that these words came to write themselves.

You are renowned for being pessimistic in your travel writing, something you have readily admitted to in the past. But even taking this natural pessimism into consideration – I am no optimist – I cannot relate what I read of your travels from Cape Town to Angola’s northern border in The Last Train to Zona Verde with my own experiences of southern and central Africa, and the very same roads and towns at a near identical point in the continent’s history.

I enjoy your writing. It is elegant and provocative prose. In this instance, it is also mean-spirited, spiteful; even arrogant. You seem intent on continuing the fallacy of Africa as failed state, while rounding on international NGOs for the same crime, not only in this but in previous works.

Scenarios you imply are routine are to my mind no such thing. No Angolan official ever treated me with anything but common decency, even when questioning my right to enter the country. Maybe I was lucky; perhaps I am less insightful. Your descriptions of towns – towns I also visited, rested in, and conversed in – I can only see as derogatory fictionalised accounts like those you condemn in works by Chatwin and Greene.

You give a view of black Africa as dark and dangerous, and black Africans as downtrodden, which I simply believe is no longer true. During my 13 months of travelling 25,000 miles around the continent – spanning the same period in which you travelled – there were at least 35 local, parliamentary, or presidential elections; mostly free, fair, and representative of the democratic mandate. GDP rose across the continent, as did almost every other indicator of development.

I do not pretend there are not problems. These problems are not African problems but issues faced by every community of people that come together. The Democratic Republic of Congo, where you ended your journey, had 13 university graduates on independence, for a country most often described as the size of Western Europe. That’s not even enough to fill a government, let alone a functioning civil service spread over thousands of miles before the advent of anything more modern than the telephone. Ghana, the first sub-Saharan nation to achieve independence, is less than 60 years old.

What was the United States, your birthplace, doing at a similar period after its declaration of independence but waging war on itself, side-lining the tribes that had ancestral claims to the land, suffering food and employment shortages, and destroying its natural habitats in the search for raw materials and a quick buck?

I believe this writing persuades armchair travellers not to experience Africa for themselves, but to avoid it at all costs, a failure of the genre if ever there was one.

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