I recently finished Paul Theroux’s most recent novel, and I’ve just finished his second-to-last nonfiction book The Last Train to Zona Verde, in which Theroux makes a journey along the western side of Africa starting from Cape Town, the continent’s southernmost city. It’s an ambitious trip, Theroux’s last in Africa, that would have seen him travel up the continent along the western coast. But Theroux does not complete it. Dispirited, beaten down and weary, he calls it quits almost midway in Angola.
He starts off from Cape Town, first touring its vast township slums, then goes to Namibia by bus, travels around the country and attends a conference in the deep east, takes a detour to visit an elephant safari camp in Botswana, then goes into Angola, where he gets stuck in a remote area near a village for days when his minibus breaks down, which ironically is one of his better experiences.
Having been struck by the vast poverty-filled townships on the outskirts of Cape Town and Windhoek, Namibia, he sees worse in Angola and is utterly disgusted. Angola is a country that is one of the world’s biggest oil producers, but also one of the poorest. Having been ravaged by a 30-year civil war that lasted into the 1990s, the people have been neglected by a corrupt, oligarchic government. Theroux sees desperation and poverty everywhere in Angola, from the capital Luanga, where growing slums encircle the city, to smaller towns like Benguela and Lubango.
Theroux holds nothing back in his final chapters where he explains how and why he got to his breaking point, despairing over the squalor and the “broken, unspeakable” and “huge, unsustainable” cities: “No poverty on earth could match the poverty in an African shantytown.” Theroux believes that continuing on the journey would only mean going into more cities and hence, the same sight and disappointment over and over. Then there is also the danger. Timbuktu was Theroux’s intended endpoint but by then, Mali had been engulfed in civil war and the fabled city was in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists. Nigeria was also on the itinerary but Boko Haram was, and is still, ravaging a large part of the north.
There are a few bright spots such as isolated Angolan village where Theroux hears native ceremonies every night and see people living a traditional life, and a visit to a remote Bushman (Ju/’hoansi) community in Namibia. The book veers into an anthropological tone about these people, who may be the oldest living people in the world, but even then, there is disappointment when Theroux realizes everything is not as it appears.
The bluntness of Theroux’s despair is a little shocking to me, despite having read a couple of Theroux’s other books, as it can make one wonder if there is any hope for Africa.
There is, of course, though perhaps not in places Theroux visited such as Angola in particular. I have been to South Africa and visited townships in Cape Town and Johannesburg, so I know Theroux isn’t exaggerating the physical size and extent of poverty there though there is also progress (he does mention this as well). Theroux contends that any improvement in the slums results in more people coming and hence the poverty remains constant while the slums get larger.
While one could wonder whether Theroux should have bothered publishing this book if he felt so hopeless about those countries, the truth is there are very few books or articles, at least in the English language, about Namibia and Angola, and his writing is still a worthy if not pleasant contribution to literature on those countries.