The Lower River by Paul Theroux

The Lower River by Paul TherouxI began reading Paul Theroux’s “The Lower River” while on the long 16-hour flight from the US to South Africa.  I no longer live in the US, but my family and I visit when we can, usually every 2 to 3 years.  We’d just spent almost four months there and were on our way back (eventually) to Madagascar.  But along the way we took a few weeks to stop in South Africa, see some great friends, and return to visit the village where my wife and I used to live and work as Peace Corps Volunteers.

It hadn’t even been two years since the last time we visited, but a lot had changed in our own lives: we’d begun living and working in rural Madagascar, learned the language there (entirely different from the language we spoke in South Africa), and our son was just about to turn 2.  Also, there were no longer any Peace Corps Volunteers or other Americans for us to visit in our old village there in South Africa – it’d just be us and our South African friends and former co-workers.  We were most excited to see some of our close friends there again, but we were also very curious to see if our years of hard work there had left any lasting impact, if people from the community remembered us much anymore, or if they even cared.

I picked up “The Lower River” by Paul Theroux because it had been recommended to me by another former Peace Corps Volunteer friend from South Africa, and because I loved reading Theroux’s excellent “The Mosquito Coast”.  I’d heard that “The Lower River” was semi-autobiographical, that Theroux had formerly been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi and that “The Lower River” was partially based on his experiences of revisiting his former village there decades later.  Without knowing much more about it than that, I thought it would be a great time to read it just before visiting our own former village in South Africa, to see how his experiences compared to the ones I was about to have.

The beginning of “The Lower River” is set in the US, where the main character, Ellis Hock, is turning 62.  Immediately I found familiarity in his musings on American life, his nostalgia for his home in Africa, and his sense of detachment and digression ever since he left his village of Malabo in Malawi.  I know those feelings very well, and they take hold of me every time, after only a couple of months away from my home in Africa.  Hock is smart enough to know that his experiences don’t and can’t represent the whole of Africa, but even the smallest reference to that continent brings his personal life in Malabo vividly back to him.

From the very beginning, Ellis Hock is set up to be a tragic character.  He’s a divided man: unable to live fully in his present, but unable to return to his past.  That, a changing economy that’s slowly killing his private business, and some poor choices have brought his personal life crashing down around him, even at the age where he should be retiring and enjoying what he’s spent his whole life achieving.  His wife divorces him, his ungrateful daughter pulls a “prodigal son” and asks for her share of the inheritance before he even dies, and his business closes its doors.  But in a way, Hock is grateful, even “liberated”.  With nothing left to lose, Hock takes the money he has left and sets off on a poorly-planned journey back to his village in Malawi.  He was going to get away from all that had hindered him and get back to where he belonged!

That’s also the point where all of my experiences in Africa diverged greatly from Hock’s.  For one thing, I brought my family with me.  Not only have they never “held me back” from returning to Africa or laughed at my dreams, but they’ve been with me in this adventure all along.  And for that I’m very grateful and that itself may have made the biggest difference.  Africa is a place of families, and for families.  Lone individuals are simply an anomaly that are not well understood to Africa’s residents nor are they always well received for the same reason, but often viewed with suspicion.

And though our skills at the Shangaan language have been replaced somewhat with the Malagasy language (unlike Hock, who’s apparently still excellent at the Sena language after 40 years away), we never fully lost contact with the people in our former village.  We arranged ahead of time when we’d be coming, who we’d be staying with, etc.  We had a plan, contacts, an approximate length of stay, everything we needed!  But Hock didn’t.  He decided to simply show up without anyone even knowing he was coming.  Unfortunately for him, all the people he’d known in his former village of Malabo had already passed on, and he was more of a legend to their grandchildren who were still living there, hardly even a real human figure.

I was initially pleased and hopeful for him as his transportation ended at a nearby village and he immediately settled into a conversation with the village’s elders, and they welcomed him with the normal amount of exceptional African hospitality.  They also sent some children to pass the word onto Malabo that he’d arrived.  And the next day, some people from Malabo came to pick up him and his belongings and gave him a place to stay.

But the hopefulness didn’t last long.  The school that Hock had built (some 40 years before) was in shambles and there was no education happening at all in Malabo.  Other than legends of his presence, the only remaining tangible indication that he’d ever been there was the fact that several people in the village spoke some English, including the young chief.  Whether that was actually a result of the education Hock initiated, or if they’d learned their English elsewhere, was never quite revealed.

As Hock’s days in Malabo passed quite uneventfully, the young chief and the rest of the villagers came to depend on him more and more, especially for handouts of money.  For whatever reason, Hock came prepared for that, and doled out from his bundles of cash little by little.  Apparently he felt obligated to give financially and yet was very dissatisfied at the same time.

On a walk one day to a neighboring village, he finally met someone he remembered and who remembered him, but she only gave dire warnings and told him to “escape” immediately, for his own good.  Hock didn’t heed them though, as he still felt respected and needed in Malabo.  But he slowly started to realize that he was needed too much – that Malabo’s young chief had people watching his every movement, to be sure he didn’t venture too far away in the direction of the nearest town, to be sure he could never leave.  In the typical African way, this was never openly stated, but the reality of it was always visible.  Hock realized he was trapped and vainly sought ways to escape.

By this point in the story, I was growing increasingly alarmed at the turn of events, and was myself riding in the public transport from South Africa’s capital out to our village in the east of the country.  Was this even possible?  I’d only ever known gracious hospitality from my time in Africa so far.  Would they really ever hold someone captive – especially someone who knew their language and culture, someone who was a former resident of their village?  Sure, I’ve known some Africans to be petty and jealous, and plenty who will take advantage of a situation if they can, especially for financial gain.  But to actually trap someone and prevent them from leaving?  It sounded impossible to me!

The kids at the local school loved having our son visit them for the day!

The kids at the local school loved having our son visit them for the day!

Thankfully, our experiences in Africa continued to be vastly different from the protagonist in “The Lower River”.  We received a very warm welcome back to our village, everyone still remembered us, and even more (the children who were too young to spend much time with us before) remembered our son’s name and were so excited to see him!  While we expected some of our work as Peace Corps Volunteers to no longer be continuing (and some had indeed stopped), some of the work we began was not only still active but had progressed even further than we could’ve ever hoped!  It was very encouraging to see.  We were also ready and willing to pay something for the hospitality we received, but instead of accepting our money, different groups in our village and the neighboring village actually collected money to give to us!  They wanted to send us on our way with enough to eat and then some.  A group of our co-workers even promised to come visit us in Madagascar before long.  Though we’ll be surprised if that actually happens, the level of continued reciprocal relationship was refreshing, and a complete opposite of what Theroux’s character Hock experienced during his return to Africa.

I finished Paul Theroux’s “The Lower River” while still in our village in South Africa.  Without giving away the ending, I will say that Hock’s experiences during his return to Africa never truly improved.  Not only that, but he even experienced some greater horrors and more unimaginable shocks than I could’ve ever guessed.  For most of it, I continued to wonder if it could ever be possible.  Some of Theroux’s satirical descriptions of the nearby NGOs and “Aid” organizations were certainly believable enough (with one particularly funny description of a laughably horrible event that I’m sure was supposed to caricature Bono of U2).  You can’t live in an African community and participate in its life long-term without encountering the often paradoxical and sometimes simply confusing efforts of international aid groups.

But despite those few familiarities, I saw nothing in our experience of Africa to that point which would give rise to the main thrust and feeling of Theroux’s “The Lower River.”  I frequently thought about it and wondered which of Theroux’s experiences could’ve possibly led to a book like that, so foreign from my own wide experiences on the same continent.

However, about a month later, I found myself and my family in a small village in rural Tanzania, being hosted by a Tanzanian family there.  I knew no Swahili, nor any of the local tribal language.  Our hosts spoke great English though, so they were our principle means of communication there.  But we didn’t know anyone we were visiting there (including our hosts) and we only knew of them through professional contacts.  As in everywhere I’ve ever been in Africa, we were warmly received and shown an amazing amount of hospitality (given the means available), that is characteristically African.

The house where we stayed at the village in Tanzania.

The house where we stayed at the village in Tanzania.

After a few days there, with increasingly less of an idea how we should be spending our time (much like Hock in “The Lower River”), each of us got a little bit sick.  It was nothing serious at that point and fairly typical of moving from one environment to another one.  But as I lay in my bed with a bit of malaise in the middle of the day, in the house provided to us next to our hosts’ home, I started thinking: I don’t have my own transport and I don’t even know how to leave this place on my own even if I wanted to, and I don’t know where I would go next.  Our cell phone doesn’t usually get a signal here, so we can’t very well call anyone if we need to.  I can’t communicate with anyone else in the community if I need their help for any reason.  I’d only met our hosts a few days before – do I really know their intentions for us?  I started to identify with Hock as he was stuck in Malabo and vainly sought to escape, with no useful resources at his disposal and with increasing despair as he ran out of options.

So I think I finally knew some of what led to the creation of “The Lower River”, and I think it could happen anywhere.  When a person is far out of their comfort zone, in a place remote and removed from the ease and options of Western existence, when they’re surrounded by strangers, when sickness or some other need arises and they realize they have no idea what to do about it – paranoia can set in.  Even the best of intentions aren’t adequate to remedy a problem when the person facing it is simply helpless and removed from all support networks.  Who can you trust when you don’t really know anyone and you don’t know their motivations?  Can you trust anyone?  Maybe you’re trapped.

In the end, again the opposite of Hock’s experience in “The Lower River”, our Tanzanian hosts actually went overboard trying to make sure we had all possible remedies and solutions to what was probably nothing more than a minor cold and they offered to help in more ways than I knew were possible.  Again, my overwhelmingly positive experience with the incredible hospitality of Africans in Africa was maintained, and my short-lived thoughts of paranoia were entirely baseless, or more likely just a natural result of having been infected by my recent reading of “The Lower River.”  But at least I finally found and briefly experienced some common ground with the main theme of “The Lower River”.

To wrap up all of these experiences, I had one final encounter with the subject matter of Theroux’s book.  A couple weeks after that time in Tanzania, I met a Malawian lady on a bus to the airport in Ethiopia.  She struck up the conversation and she was friendly and polite, as are almost all Africans you’ll likely ever meet.  When I learned she was from Malawi and on her way back there now, I told her I’d recently read a book set in Malawi, but that it wasn’t entirely positive.  She knew immediately which book I was referring to, without ever having said its title, and she said she herself was interested to read it sometime.  She said that it was very difficult to find in Malawi though, because although it isn’t quite banned there, yet it’s earned a bad reputation and is rarely stocked in Malawi’s bookstores.  The lady also told me that from what she’s heard of the details of “The Lower River”, that there are indeed a few bad areas of Malawi that people should avoid, but as a whole Malawi is a beautiful and pleasant country that anyone should enjoy visiting.  Our conversation continued on a couple of other topics before our bus reached the airport, but I was very happy to have met a Malawian and hear her take on her home country – certainly different than the narrow but detailed picture of Malawi painted by Theroux.

In summary: “The Lower River” by Paul Theroux is a fascinating book and should be intriguing to anyone who has spent much time in Africa and who has ever thought about going back.  At times it’s a gripping psychological adventure story and, similar to Theroux’s amazing book, “The Mosquito Coast”, has more than a few similarities with Joseph Conrad’s famous “The Heart of Darkness.”  There’s great (but occasional) social commentary about both the US and Africa, and satirical but frighteningly accurate descriptions of international aid and development efforts.  There’s a lot of symbolism and foretelling throughout the story and along with the excellent prose, it reveals Theroux for the author of great literature that he is.  While it’s not my favorite story of his, partially due to my significantly different experiences than the ones he wrote about, I think it’s definitely worth a read to those who enjoy thrilling adventure or travel stories.

Pages: 336   FOA: 19556

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