The Last Train to Zona Verde: Overland from Cape Town to Angola, by Paul Theroux
I’ve read a few books recently that I felt were not really worth reviewing in this blog, and sometimes I even wonder why certain books have been published in the first place. The Last Train to Zona Verde, by Paul Theroux is quite different. I couldn’t put it down, I enjoyed just about every paragraph and learned a lot from it. Theroux can be a masterful writer and I’ve written reviews of several of his books in this blog, always being positive about them. He’s been quite prolific, yet the quality of his work is always very high.
The Last Train to Zona Verde was published in 2013, when Theroux was seventy-two. Travelling in countries like Angola can take a lot out of you, especially when you’re alone, the only European in sight and also the only ‘tourist’ in town (very few tourists go to Angola), and it was not completely surprising to find that Theroux originally planned to go further north than Angola, but felt that enough was enough after a difficult period of time in Luanda and elsewhere in the country. Over the years Theroux has spent considerable time in Africa, firstly in Malawi in 1963 as a teacher, later in Uganda where he taught English, and on various travels and journeys. His knowledge of some parts of the continent is considerable and I always value his opinions.
Near the beginning of The Last Train to Zona Verde he describes some time spent in Cape Town, where he revisits a squatter camp he had seen ten years previously, and finds continued squalor and hardship, but also that a little progress had been made in the interim period to improve the lives of the inhabitants. There were now some shops, and a school, and public transport had been provided. He is mildly uplifted, but knows that shanty towns are constantly growing throughout the region, as more and more people move from the countryside to towns. Of course, being Theroux, he analyses why he has made such visits, and questions whether or not there are elements of ‘poverty porn’.
Next, he’s off north to Namibia, on the night bus. Namibia is twice the size of California, yet has a population of only 2.5 million, with most living in either the capital Windhoek, or the far north of the country. I am aiming to visit Namibia later in 2022 so was very interested in what Theroux would make of it.
He attends a boozy rugby party where the Namibians are cheering for the All Blacks and the whites for France, and writes, “The Namibians were not uniformly black, nor were the whites uniformly white. They were so mixed, from such obviously different racial groups, that they were unclassifiable, and because of such differences they could not make any racial assumptions. This made them easygoing, nonconfrontational, somewhat friendly, and mild-tempered.”
He finds much of Namibia generally very orderly, and in this respect unlike many other parts of Africa, but outside the incredibly well-maintained Swakopmund he goes to a bleak and poor black township called Mondesa, and then on to a slightly more upmarket colored township called Tamariskia. He then goes right across the country to Tsumkwe in the east near the border with Botswana, to speak at an “earnest, high-minded, well-funded, foreign-sponsored event – the sort I always either avoided or mocked…”
There, he is impressed with the local children who have been invited to attend, and discusses various aspects of the lives of the Ju/’hoansi (more widely known as Bushmen). He also watches some films made by John Marshall in the 1950s to the 1970s. These films (here’s an example) are important anthropological records, and Theroux is fascinated by the reactions of the young Ju/’hoansi to them. Naturally, he references Laurens van der Post (who wrote The Lost World of the Kalahari) and is at his most caustic when he explains that when the two had met in 1975, he found van der Post vain and humourless, with the imperious tone of a headmaster, and that he regarded him as a posturing fantasist and fake mystic.
After further interesting excursions, Theroux arrives at Ondangwa near the border with Angola. “Ondangwa was a blight of shacks, old cars, and empty shops, of skinny dogs chewing at heaps of trash, of crowds of people, some staring, some casually quarreling. The people had the air of temporariness you see in the desperate poor…There were no trees, it was a town without shade; its people dressed in castoff clothes; nothing worked…It was not a destination; it was a place to expire in, or leave quickly. And it was on the way to nowhere.” Theroux suffered an expensive credit card fraud during his trip, and he suspects that it happened in Ondangwa, though he only found out about it weeks later when his credit card was refused. Nevertheless, Ondangwa was nothing compaired to the chaos, mysery and abject poverty he saw in Angola.
Angola has a violent history. Many hundreds of thousands of slaves were taken from Angola to the Portuguese colony of Brazil. According to Wikipedia, “Portuguese rule remained characterized by deep-seated racism, mass forced labour, and an almost complete failure to modernize the country”. Soon after independence, a civil war started in 1975, and continued on and off (mostly on) until 2002. As well as having ideological and tribal elements, it was also a proxy war for the superpowers. The MPLA, who had been backed by Cuba and the Soviet Union, emerged as victors after the death of Savimba, the UNITA leader. Since then, due to its oil, diamond and gold exports, Angola should have become a prosperous nation, but it is riddled with corruption and bad government. Theroux finds the worst slums he has ever experienced in Angola, and an extremely unequal society, with a few very rich people and a mass of very poor people. The last 100 pages of The Last Train to Zona Verde cover his time there, until the point when he decides enough is enough.