I’m not a big reader of travel writing, per se. Most of the books that I’ve read that are sold in such a section in bookstores are more like outsider or insider accounts of a given country or place rather than accounts of a specific trip through a specific geographic space. Books like Giles Tremlett’s Ghosts of Spain, and Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul are two of my favorite “travel” books, but both of those authors actually live in the respective places about which they write. I mention those two examples because they write with a particular sense of understanding and empathy that marks the best travel writing — both books grab the reader and inspire an emotional connection to the place about which they write, warts and all.

When it comes to modern travel writing Paul Theroux is probably the biggest name by far. He travels all over the world, maybe just by train, maybe just by boat, and tells readers about literary and political luminaries wherever he lays down his head. My friend Alex gifted me his copy of Dark Star Safari, Theroux’s account of traveling through Africa earlier this decade. I was interested to get to this, as I had studied a number of accounts written by early Western explorers in Africa in Professor Timothy Burke‘s class called “Image of Africa.”

In Safari, Theroux meanders from Cairo to Cape Town, including stops in Sudan (pre-genocide), Ethiopia, Uganda, Malawi, and Mozambique. To many readers’ eyes, given Theroux’s narrative here, this trek is just a series of godforsaken hellholes. Corrupt government, dependent locals, and useless foreign aid workers are the characters that populate much of this text. While it is clearly no academic document, Theroux occasionally makes wry observations about foreign aid, but too often poisons it with his ubiquitous arrogance and lack of empathy. Beyond dispute is Theroux’s contention that foreign aid workers don’t necessarily help those in need to help themselves. Still, foreign aid workers have noble intentions, brave treacherous circumstances, and, at the end of the day, usually bring much needed aid (i.e. help). It seems — as some older South African relative who I may just be imagining might say — a little rich for Theroux to take on foreign aid workers while he goes across Africa writing an erotic novella and reading and rereading Heart of Darkness for inspiration.

For Theroux, Africa is a soapbox that he should realize has rather shaky foundations for the methods he uses to draw his conclusions. He notes not one positive cultural experience throughout the entire trip. No music. No African writers (beyond the South African Nobel-winning novelist Nadine Gordimer). I don’t necessarily blame him for his frustrations. Travel in any developing country is difficult, and there is no disputing that most African countries are in bad economic, and even societal straights. Still, to condemn these people to their destitution without a ray of hope in sight requires a more worthwhile approach to purely anecdotal observation.

Theroux suffers the fate of many a Western observer who aims for the crucible of Africa (like his beloved Conrad) — a loss of the capacity for empathy, and ultimate disgust. I picked up a free copy of Tim Butcher’s new book Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart at WHYY. It might be hard for Butcher to avoid a similar sense of disgust, as Congo is once again in the news as one of the most messed up places on earth. Maybe he managed to catch a little soukous?

Does anyone know of a travelogue of anywhere in Africa that somehow avoids these pitfalls? Please let me know.