The Africanists

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Michael Holman

Out of Love with Africa

The Last Train to Zona Verde: Overland from Cape Town to Angola

By Paul Theroux

(Hamish Hamilton 353pp £20)

 

‘I am not an Afro-pessimist,’ writes Paul Theroux, looking back on a journey that has taken him from the slums of Cape Town to the musseques of Luanda. You could have fooled me. The Last Train to Zona Verde is imbued with a pessimism that verges on Afrophobia, peppered with sweeping, doom-laden conclusions about the state of Africa, triggered by a trip that takes in but a fraction of a vast continent.

 

Given the nature of most of the stops on Theroux’s journey, the gloomy tone is not surprising. It begins with Khayelitsha and Guguletu, the Cape’s two sinkholes of humanity; takes in northern Namibia, ‘a land of drunken men, idle boys and overworked women’; visits the Kalahari home of what an eminent anthropologist calls ‘the most victimized and brutalized people in the bloody history that is southern Africa’; and ends up in Angola, a country cursed by its huge oil wealth, which has been siphoned off to personal overseas accounts by members of a regime as corrupt as any in Africa.

 

If the destinations are depressing, the manner of travel seems intended to make things worse. Theroux relishes his discomfort, which he wears like a hair shirt, chronicling nights spent in seedy dosshouses; hour upon hour in miserable buses with shouting, jostling passengers, peeing children and dying chickens; and unpleasant encounters with aggressive border officials.

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