Last March, the social-networking thickets caught fire, sparked by an online video called Kony 2012. Its creator, founder of the San Diego–based group Invisible Children, Inc., was hoping to broadcast the misdeeds of Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. His short film was viewed tens of millions of times in just several days.
Kony 2012 subsequently “started a conversation,” as intended, but the conversation was not about Joseph Kony as much as the ethics involved when a white man distorts ongoing violence in Africa and makes it the basis for a hip viral campaign, complete with red, Livestrong-like wristbands. It was a conversation about what the Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole called “the White Savior Industrial Complex.” The author Dinaw Mengetsu, an American born in Ethiopia, was one of many to add his voice to the dialogue. He wrote that Kony 2012
wants to tell us about Joseph Kony and his atrocities, but much more than that, it wants to convince us that there is a solution … That solution, however, only works in the myopic reality of the film, a reality that deliberately eschews depth and complexity, because of course the real star of Kony 2012 isn’t Joseph Kony, it’s us.
All the publicity, perhaps needless to say, did not bring down Joseph Kony. Still he lurks in the Ugandan bush—far, far away from globally conscious Americans and their MacBooks.
Kony 2012 was but the latest, major example of the West’s chronic misunderstanding of Africa, especially its presumption that remedies to the continent’s problems are not only relatively simple but also must be West-centric (“the real star … isn’t Joseph Kony, it’s us”). After hundreds of years of busting up the place, white people, in the 1960s, decided it was time to atone for the sins of colonialism by making Africa their project. Since then, awareness has been raised and the aid has flowed. But what good has it done?
Paul Theroux asks this question in The Lower River, a gripping novel set largely in southern Malawi, where Theroux worked as a Peace Corps teacher for four years in the early 1960s. The story begins in Medford, Massachusetts, where an aging man named Ellis Hock, the latest in a line of Hocks to own and oversee a downtown menswear shop, is undergoing a series of what are sometimes called “life traumas.” His wife is leaving him, his only child wants nothing to do with him, and the store he has run for decades is going out of business. His world is crumbling, and so Hock’s mind returns to another world, to a village named Malabo in the Lower River region of Malawi, where, in his 20s, he spent four years volunteering for the Peace Corps. It was, he says, the only time in his life when he was truly happy.
Hock determines to return to Malabo, to leave his life in Medford behind. And he does. But the place he returns to isn’t quite as he remembered it. In Blantyre, the city in southern Malawi from which Hock sets off on his expedition to the Lower River, he pops into the club abutting his hotel only to quickly retreat after being swarmed by prostitutes. The official at the U.S. consulate is unimpressed by Hock’s desire to buy and send school supplies to Malabo. “You’re doing a good thing,” he tells Hock. “But it’s a bottomless pit. Money, medicine, books, pens, even computers. Where does it all end up?” And as he drives out of Blantyre, the landscape strikes him:
None of what he saw from the car was lovely: the Africa of people, not of animals. And that was its oddity, because it looked chewed, bitten, burned, deforested, and dug up. A herd of elephants could eat an acre of trees in a day, leaving behind a mass of trampled and splintered limbs, yet that acre stayed green and grew back. But this human settlement was befouled, the greenery slashed and burned, or dragged away until only dirt and stones remained—a blight, a permanent disfigurement.
And then the car in which he’s riding gets a flat, the driver has no jack, and they are stranded for hours on the side of a poorly paved, vacant road, bracketed by impenetrable tall grass.
Hock eventually arrives at Malabo, but it, too, has changed. The school, the structure he worked so hard to build decades before, is ruined, inhabited by vegetation and snakes. The latrines are covered with lewd graffiti. When Hock attempts to begin resurrecting the place, the boys he recruits to help him leave when he’s not looking, and they make off with his tools.
The discomfort he almost immediately feels in Malabo is heightened by the obsequious village headman, Festus Manyenga, whose habit is drowning Hock in compliments just before asking him for money. Manyenga presents Hock a hut in which to stay and then, as the two stand before it, ostentatiously bemoans the state of the hut’s thatched roof: “But the roof must be replaced. I want to get an iron roof for you, but—eh! eh!” The next day, Hock agrees to hand over $200 in kwacha notes to buy iron sheets, even though he knows Manyenga will buy the sheets, keep the change, “and perhaps put aside the scraps to sell or trade.”
This becomes a trend—Manyenga and other villagers asking Hock for money, and Hock acceding. Part of him realizes he is being used; part of him doesn’t want to admit it. He loses track of time, forgets how long he has stayed in the hut in Malabo. Gradually he comes to understand that the villagers don’t want him to leave, and that they won’t let him.
What has happened, here on the Lower River? The idyll of Hock’s youth has become a savage, denuded land whose inhabitants are greedy, dishonest, scheming, and callous. Surely Malabo was never the paradise that absence and time created in Hock’s mind, but it couldn’t have been this aggressively corrupt and malicious.
What has happened, it seems, is that the people of the Lower River, over the past 50 years, learned it is easier to manipulate the ubiquitous do-gooders and aid organizations, to accept the white man’s handouts (and steal some more), than to do the hard work of building and maintaining a self-sufficient society. The people of the Lower River are like people anywhere; flooded with free food and money and goods they take them—and then they expect more.
There is a scene in The Lower River in which Hock finds himself in the midst of an aid drop. The helicopter descends on a clearing, rock music blasting, and a white man in sunglasses and cowboy hat (read: Bono) and a woman with full red lips and boots and a skintight outfit (read: Miss Jolie) begin tossing boxes and bags to the scrambling bodies below. It is a melee, children clawing and ripping at each other, trying to snatch food, or clamber into the helicopter. When the scene becomes too messy, the aid workers and their celebrity passengers lift up into the sky and fly away, leaving behind in their dust a vicious brawl. Men on motorcycles, waiting patiently in the woods just beyond the clearing, then drive into the scrum, scoop up the boxes, and speed off. Later, they will sell their loot.
It is a disaster. But the aid agency is long gone. It drops the bounty and leaves. Complexity, unintended consequences, long-term effects—these things are not its concern. The Lower River is a fast-paced, exciting adventure story, but it is also an indictment of all those who, literally or metaphorically, drop in on places they don’t know and don’t understand, do much damage, and then—float away.
The Lower River. By Paul Theroux. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 336 Pages. $25.00.
This review appeared in the October 8, 2012, edition of The Weekly Standard.