Travel writer Paul Theroux on why his latest book, “The Lower River”, looks at the damage done by nongovernmental organizations in Africa.
Maria Streshinsky in Pacific Standard:
Question: You have said it is contemptible “to stay home and invent the exotic, as Saul Bellow did, conjuring up an Africa he had never seen.” Since a strong theme in your new book is the damage nongovernmental organizations have inflicted over the years, how often have you returned?
Answer: My novel is, among other things, an adventure story, a sort of descent by an unsuspecting American into the unknown, and into a trap. It’s an ordeal — my favorite kind of narrative, whether fiction or travel. I have been back to Africa and to Malawi many times. Teaching in Malawi was my first job, from 1963 to 1965, and then I spent four years in Uganda as a teacher. This seems a long time ago! Our mission was pretty simple: start schools, educate the students, and help create a system that would be self-sustaining. The students would become teachers and our role would be phased out. There were many students and enough aid to see them through. And the students were, on the whole, conscientious. But something changed. What was supposed to happen, didn’t happen.
On my repeated trips back, I saw the pattern I have described — foreign teachers, African students, and now, almost 50 years later, there are still not enough African teachers. The Peace Corps is still at it! It seems an endless cycle, and worse, a deteriorating educational system. So what happened — or, rather, what didn’t happen? I think that the foreign teachers, with the best of motives, unintentionally subverted the system. Malawians don’t want to be teachers — it’s an underpaid and underappreciated profession; and though there is now a medical school in Malawi, few graduates have stayed to be doctors in Malawi, where there is an average of two physicians for every 100,000 people.
Development seemed logical back in the 1960s, but did not take into account political tyranny, corruption, and the simple expedient of emigration. The main character in my book, for whom Africa was an Eden, has to confront this and much else.