Well, I have already written three blogposts worth of thoughts on this really interesting book, however I will simply touch on a few more important points for those of you who don't have the time (or the inclination) to read through what I have written elsewhere (and the links to those posts are below). Anyway, this is the diary of a journey that the author took from Cairo, across the African continent, to Cape Town. His original intention was to travel entirely by land, however since the Sudanese border was closed (and the fact that he wanted to travel legitimately, meaning no sneaking over the border, and no bribing officials) a couple of legs were by plane.
Anyway, Theroux had been in Africa in the 60s, first as a teacher in Malawi and then as a university lecturer in Uganda. However due to the deteriorating situation in Uganda at the time he, and his wife decided to leave and ended up settling in England. Years later Theroux decided that he wanted to go back to Africa and visit some of these places to see what had changed, but to also simply escape and wander across the continent completely cut off from the modern world. The story of his journey, while not necessarily eye-opening, is interesting to say the least.
The first theme that comes up regularly in the book is that of the modern tourist industry, an industry that Theroux really does not particularly like. In a way the industry is simply another form of entertainment where tourists go and see a sanitised version of the continent, whether it be to the ruins of Ancient Egypt, the big game parks of central and southern Africa, or the cheap coastal resorts. Okay, I must admit that I quite enjoy travelling myself, however I have also experienced this modern industry where travel agents do their best to book you into some of the most expensive hotels simply to jack up their commissions, and where you are shielded from the worst excesses of some of these countries. In places like Tanzania the tourist enters via a shiny new airport and is whisked away by minibus on sealed road to the game parks. What they do not see is the grinding poverty and the decaying infrastructure off of the main route.
Decay is another thing that is repeated throughout the book. Africa in many cases is a land that is in decay, and in a way it is simply because the locals do not have the mindset that those of us in the developed west have. While we may be regularity repairing our homes and maintaining our roads, the Africans have never really done that in the past and the only reason much of this infrastructure was built was thanks to the European settlers. As the wave of independence spread across the continent many of the colonial governments were expelled to be replaced by governments consisting of the local people, people who had no experience in running a modern state and people who too easily succumb to corruption. While western countries may give aid to the government, or provide assistance with trade, much of this money never makes it to the community level and instead disappears as soon as it hits the minister's desk.
Theroux seems to be very critical with regards to the aid industry, and while I am only going by his word, in a way I am not surprised. The question that is raised is why is it that many of these countries are still living in abject poverty despite all of this money and all of the agencies working here tirelessly for decades. Theroux suggests that a part of it is because aid is big business, and if these countries were lifted out of poverty then there would no longer be any work for them. Another suggestion is that these organisations don't educate the local population, but rather do everything for them. For instance they dig wells and the build schools, and then they leave, and while the community may have this brand spanking new building, they don't really know how to keep it in good condition, and as such it begins to decay. Another thing is that these countries are really cheap and this provides young aid workers an adventure that doesn't cost all that much. Thus they can sit in their resorts sipping margaritas by the pool, and then go out performing some project that in the end will do nothing for the community. I guess it all comes down to the old axiom – give a man a fish and feed him for a day, but teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime.
Don't get me wrong, I believe aid agencies do a lot of good for many of the communities that they help. Sure, Theroux suggested that these agencies love disasters because it brings them money in the form of donations, but famines are even better because while a natural disaster may occupy the minds of the western world for a couple of weeks, a famine can last a lot longer. It is with disasters that these agencies really begin to shine because many of these countries do not have the infrastructure, or even the resources, to be able to deal with the consequences of a disaster, which means that these agencies can get feet on the ground to supply food and medical aid quickly, which helps prevent the spread of diseases. While the disaster may have an immediately effect, if help does not come quickly, disease can quickly take hold and end up leaving a much, much greater death toll.
Yet these is also the problem with the fact that if you simply give things to people then these people become to expect these gifts. Some may scoff at the idea that giving a beggar money only works to encourage them, but the sad truth is that in many cases it does. I have even heard stories that here in Australia backpackers will pose as beggars to top up their travelling allowance. Granted, there are people out there that are genuinely in dire straights – in particular the mentally ill that simply cannot take care of themselves. Rent increases are increasingly marginalising people and pushing them out onto the streets, and when somebody hits the street, it is very hard for them to turn their life back around. However there is some truth to the fact that simply by giving money to people doesn't necessarily help them, it simply rewards them for in effect doing nothing. This is also why I have concerns about giving houses to the homeless. Don't get me wrong, I believe that everybody should have a roof over their head, but then there are many of us who work really hard to maintain that roof over our head while others are misusing their funds and regularly getting bailed out by the government, and it is not just the undeserving poor, it is the corporate world as well.
Anyway, I'll finish off there, though this is sounding like I have suddenly drifted far over to the right. This is not the case because not everybody has the skills or the ability to sell themselves that others have. However everybody should be entitled to receiving a far rewards for the work that they put in, but some people just find it really hard to find work. This is where I believe assistance needs to be provided, not by simply giving people money, but by providing meaningful work that pays a decent wage so that they might also participate in society – oh and also getting rid of the advertising industry that uses psychological manipulation to enslave the masses into a debt that they cannot ever pay back.
Part one of my post can be found here.
Part two of my post can be found here.
Part three of my post can be found here.