Saturday, May 8, 2010

What Paul Theroux thinks of Africa

He looks back on his time in the Peace Corps:

It would be easy, but misleading, to list all the things my students and their families didn't have. This is what celebrities do when they visit villages in Africa: Out of a guilty, grotesque, almost boasting self-consciousness, these wealthy visitors enumerate the insufficiencies. That's because they don't stay very long. If they stayed longer, perhaps a few years, they would see what I saw in Africa: the resiliency of the people. Africans knew neglect, drought, flood, bad harvests, hunger, disease, and—more insidious than any of these—tyrannical government; and yet in the face of these adversities they had developed survival skills, and prevailed. For more than forty years I've heard outsiders lamenting the plight of Africans—and, given AIDS and Darfur and Zimbabwe, sometimes justly; but I seldom hear, except from someone who has lived closely among them, how Africans, ignored by the world, have managed to save themselves, often in the bitterest of circumstances.

My teaching had its uses for them, but what I taught was negligible compared to what I learned. Yes, after two years my students spoke and wrote English well, and some of them went on to college. But today, despite forty years of volunteer efforts, Malawi is probably worse off than it was back in 1963.

... Like many people who have been affected by such an experience in a distant land, I did not come all the way home; nor did I leave that experience behind. It stayed in my mind, it informed my decisions, it made me strong. To all of this, there are people who will say, "What's the point?" But those are the same people who'll say what's the point of writing a poem, or learning a language, or going for a hike, or lingering on a wooded path to watch a bird flash onto a branch.

No comments: