Writer Paul Theroux Reflects on His Time in Southeastern Africa — the Place That Sparked a Lifetime of Exploration
Much of the world seemed unknown to me in 1963, when I first set out. It was the era before the Internet; before maps could catch up with the names of recently independent countries; before cell phones or e-mail or mass tourism. I was to discover that the unknown is a special place. Mine was a southern African territory called Nyasaland, soon to become the nation of Malawi. Traveling there, living and working in a rural school for two years, in relative solitude, I was transformed.
I was 22 years old at the time and knew nothing of Africa, and not much of the world. Moving to Nyasaland was not a deliberate choice, just the dumb luck of my entering the Peace Corps lottery and then receiving a letter saying I had been selected to teach in this British protectorate. It took me a while to find the place on a map: it was small, narrow, and long, clinging to green Lake Nyasa like a caterpillar on a leaf.
When I received the letter, I was teaching English in Urbino, a hill town in central Italy. Over lunch, I mentioned my new job to my Italian friends. One said, "Africa comincia a Napoli!" — "Africa begins in Naples!" — and everyone laughed. Urbino was, and is, a smug and splendid place, well-known, with a ducal palace and magnificent views and great cuisine. Africa, like Naples, was then little-known and disparaged.
Nyasaland appeared in only one book I could find: Venture to the Interior, by Laurens van der Post, which had been published 12 years earlier, a weirdly portentous account of the author's treks on the Nyika Plateau and up Mount Mulanje (with "bearers") — not helpful to a prospective schoolteacher. The other available information was sketchy: population around 4 million, few paved roads, a handful of medical doctors and college graduates, and an economy based on agriculture, mainly tobacco, tea, and cotton. The usual descriptor was: "one of the poorest countries in Africa."
David Livingstone had tramped all over it in the 19th century, surveying and sometimes evangelizing, and later, the largest town, Blantyre, was named after his birthplace in Scotland. Great Britain colonized the area as the British Central Africa Protectorate in 1889, then renamed it Nyasaland in 1907.
In preparation for our two-year assignment, our group of about 40 teachers was trained at Syracuse University to speak Chichewa, the predominant language. But when we asked a specific question about the country, we usually received vague answers or baffled smiles or "I guess you'll find out when you get there."
Getting there took a week, and those days of laborious travel emphasized how far away we were from home: flying from New York to Rome, where we stayed for a night; then a refueling stop in Benghazi, Libya; two nights in Nairobi, Kenya; two in Salisbury, Rhodesia (now Harare, Zimbabwe); and finally the aerodrome outside Blantyre, our puddle jumper coming in low, mud structures with thatched roofs beneath us.
Speaking the language was the golden key — and being young helped. I made friends quickly and as a consequence lost all anxiety about being in such a remote place. I'd envisioned living in a mud hut, but I was given a small house — a simple house, but my own. My school was situated at the foot of a hill, a short walk away. Even with a modest stipend I was able to hire a cook, a Yao Muslim named Jika, who lived with his family in a house nearby. Jika had been a cook with the King's African Rifles and had traveled with them to East Africa. I spoke to him in Chichewa, and he taught me Swahili.
Meat was scarce. We kept chickens for eggs, but raised pigeons for meat. They lived in a loft on the roof and constantly circled the house. On some days, a two-pigeon curry was on the menu. My students were barefoot — they played soccer without shoes. Their copybooks smelled of the kerosene from the lamps that burned while they did their homework. They were diligent and hopeful, because six months into my teaching stint Nyasaland became independent Malawi. "Kwacha!" was the cry. "Dawn!"
I would travel by bicycle through the Kanjedza Forest to the town of Limbe to buy supplies and occasionally a new Penguin paperback at the Nyasaland Trading Co. My responsibilities at my school kept me busy during the week, but I had great freedom, too. Some weekends I spent roistering at the Coconut Grove Bar in Limbe. I hiked the hills and visited nearby villages to speak to old men and women, some of whom had been born in the 1890s and shared memories of seeing their first mzungu (white man) and of World War I. They related customs, explained why women were forbidden to eat eggs ("it makes them sterile"), and taught me proverbs, such as Ukaipa nkhope, dziwa nyimbo — If your face is ugly, learn to sing.
Apart from a few bouts of malaria, I didn't experience any serious hardship. I often read by the sputtering light of a Tilley lamp. Some June and July days were clammy cold, with a damp, sweeping wind called chiperoni. October, on the other hand, was so hot it was known as "the suicide month." The British settlers seemed to regard us young volunteers the way that Marlow was viewed by Belgian old-timers in Heart of Darkness: "You are of the new gang — the gang of virtue." But ministerial infighting and the attempted coup that followed independence taught me more than any textbook about the volatility of the political process. I witnessed acts of mob violence, tribal strife, and the sort of hardship that caused Malawians to lose hope and feel overlooked.
Life seems random when you're young, the wish to travel the result of impulse or curiosity. Meandering is not the exception but the rule. But when you're older you begin to see that a lifetime has a distinct plot. After leaving Malawi I worked as a teacher for four years in Uganda and kept traveling for almost 60 years — always staying in touch with Africa, revisiting, writing about it. But Malawi was my point of departure.
I say I was transformed there. I knew the elation of being independent, more watchful and worldly, in a magnificent landscape, a place I loved, with many friends. But I also became wiser to the destructive impact of the pursuit of power and the foreign meddling that can drag a nation backward. Malawi, considered a political failure, overlooked and left behind, still survives through the spirit of its people. It is my measure of the vitality of the world that there is always opposition; that no matter how bad things are, the human impulse to struggle is always alive.
A version of this story first appeared in the August 2021 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline Where the Journey Began.