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 the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. The 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 Mengestu, 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. He still 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 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 two 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, so Hock’s mind returns to another world, to a village named Malabo in the Lower River region of Malawi, where, like Theroux, he had volunteered with the Peace Corps in his twenties. 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 American 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 tire, 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 in 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 make off with his tools.