August 21, 2004


I've been meaning to write about Dark Star Safari since I finished it, but I just haven't made the time yet. I'm making it now.

Beth recommended this book. Since I read The Power of One last year and went from zero knowledge of South African society to at least a passing level, I thought I'd give Dark Star Safari a try. I know that there's always a lot more to learn about foreign continents.

Beth's review of the book leaned towards the parallels with Iraq:

Reading the book has led me to ponder to comparisons, America and Africa, and Iraq and Africa. Theroux's book could/should serve as a stark warning of some major mistakes that could be made in trying to promote a democracy in Iraq. What it comes down to more than anything else is do the Iraqi's want a true democracy? And if they do, are they willing to go thru the struggle, take the responsibility, and resist those who would hinder the outcome?

That's an interesting parallel to make, one that I had forgotten Beth had made until I looked it up again now. Setting up the conditions for people to be free won't work if the people don't yearn for freedom. Similarly, setting up the conditions for progress won't work if people can't see the big picture.

When I was a French tutor at my college, I noticed an interesting phenomenon: students memorized formulas for putting together hypotheticals. I tried hard to teach them to think of the meaning attached to the hypothetical sentences. I encouraged them to think of what they wanted to say and then use the fitting tenses. They ignored me; the formulas were easier. My students invented intricate mnemonic devices to remember which tenses went together, completely abandoning meaning as a criterion. No matter how many times I tried to explain to them that they should view French as a language and not a math problem, they didn't want to listen. I always saw that chart in our book as the give-a-man-a-fish method: the students couldn't extrapolate from it or do anything that didn't plug neatly into the formula. But the students didn't want the teach-a-man-to-fish method because it was harder than mimicry.

I thought a lot about the giving vs teaching fish proverb while reading Dark Star Safari. Theroux is certainly an Afrophile, but all of his observations, no matter how much he tried to provide context, presented Africa in a horrifying light. Theroux does not sugarcoat the situation; he presents the good with the bad, which is admirable since I'm wont to smell agenda in everything I read. What he taught me is that Africa is a beautiful and mysterious continent that is completely screwed.

The problem Theroux lays out is that the Africans have been given so many fish that they'll never bother to learn to fish: they always know another handout is around the corner. All of the relief workers and foreign aid are killing the African initiative; Theroux relates countless stories of Africans who shrug off problems and say that aid workers will fix it. Foreigners move to Africa, start programs, get run out of town or move on when they get frustrated, and the whole program crumbles and dies. Theroux painted a dismal portrait of the endless cycle of foreign aid and dwindling African spirit. The Africans don't see the big picture of helping themselves, because in the short-run another aid worker will come and do it for them.

Kim du Toit has advocated letting Africa sink. The first time I read his essay, I thought it was too extreme. Now I'm not so sure. I'm not saying I advocate "a high wall around the whole continent, all the guns and bombs in the world for everyone inside" as Kim does, in typical Kim fashion. But I don't see a solution to Africa's deep-rooted problems anywhere on the horizon.

I thought Bill Gates was the height of magnanimity when he gave millions to AIDS in Africa; now it seems like fish-giving at its worst. Throwing money at the problem will not do anything to solve Africa's suffering. I sure can't offer a solution, but I know it ain't money.

Good book. Check it out if you're looking for a depressingly realistic read.


I forgot that Bunker wrote a similar post (complete with giving/teaching fish idea) back in July. I must've subconsciously plagiarized him...

Posted by: Sarah at 05:12 AM | Comments (4) | Add Comment
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1 A good friend of mine is from Kenya, and when her father visited he was amazed with the simple things in the US like reliable water and electricity, gasoline and grocery stores. He also commented on the scarcity of police presence. This was from a man who lives and works in the capital city of Kenya, not a small town or village. Individually, I've met many hardworking Africans. As a group, I'm afraid you might be right about the problems and culture. We'll never be able to just walk away, but maybe we should.

Posted by: Ted at August 21, 2004 07:42 AM (ZjSa7)

2 Excellent post! I guess for me it comes down to thinking the whole world shares America's work ethic. And while many countries do (and some even kick our butts in it) there are many that don't. I've never understood the mentality of those who shrug their soldiers and accept their miserable lot in life. Reading your post I was also thinking of the comparisons you could make between Africa and our public education system.

Posted by: Beth at August 21, 2004 12:54 PM (hzXG1)

3 I think that alot of places accept their lot in life because that is just how things are. If you live your whole life in a situation, it is normal to you, and not the bleak existence that we might be tempted to think it. Is Africa the result of world welfare? Are there other areas of the world with the same problems? How has this been overcome in the past, and what have been successful methods of reform?

Posted by: John at August 21, 2004 05:29 PM (+Ysxp)

4 John, It wasn't that long ago that the whole world was like Africa. Life anywhere was miserable, and that was the norm. Freedom as we know it did not exist; it was an idea that had to be created. But some places of the world got out of this rut and others did not. Why? Jared Diamond offers an environmental answer in Guns, Germs, and Steel but I think there is more to it than that. Individuals make decisions that affect others which in turn affect others. The positive chain of decisions that resulted in America originated in the West. But it could have occurred somewhere else. The ability to choose is genetic; the choice itself is not. As far as I can tell all the places in the world that rose up did so on their own. Japan did not become a world power through global welfare. Within less than a century, it had conquered a large fraction of the Earth - and that was *before* it was occupied and rebuilt! Japan modernized itself. One ex-colony that has done very well is South Korea. But it paid a terrible price: namely, imperial Japanese oppression. My view: Let everyone sink and do nothing unless they threaten us (four letters: I-R-A-N).

Posted by: Amritas at August 22, 2004 06:35 AM (vDqr8)

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