July 1995

The late Shiva Naipaul, who died in 1985, was an Asian Hindu writer from Trinidad. In the 1970s he got to wondering what terms like "liberation," "revolution" and "socialism" actually meant to black Africans, and wanted to find out, first hand. His idea was to travel in East Africa for five or six months, and visit Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia. If his experiences were interesting enough, he would then write a book about them, but it wouldn't be a "straightforward travel book," nor a "current affairs" book. He would, instead, focus on the rhetoric of liberation and its actual manifestations, and to do this, he would have to experience the "heat and dust" of the aforementioned countries.

He wrote to his English publisher with an outline of his plans, and received a go-ahead. His book, North Of South, was first published in Great Britain in 1978. He apparently had no original intention on doing a put-down on blacks, but after his journey commenced, his experiences with negro ineptitude and savagery were eye-opening; also he witnessed the sad devolution of the whites living under black rule. So his book turned into pretty much of a put-down, after all.

Naipaul got a ticket in Brussels on the Congolese national airline. Anxiety must have shown upon his face, because the travel agent told him they had good planes – Boeings – flown by white pilots. Upon landing in Kenya his luggage did not come off the plane. He was told that he might as well forget all about it, but he filled out a claim form anyway. A week later the luggage did turn up, but his transistor radio was missing, along with some other items.

In Kenya, he found out that in the "New Africa," the old form of tribalism – which had offered at least some slight constraint to greed – was fading away, and a type of society was forming which lacked definition and solidity. The new African society is being disfigured by lust and greed. Naipaul discussed this with a Dutch fertilizer expert and his wife.

"My God!" the Dutchman said, "you have to experience it to believe it. These people are extraordinarily greedy. I've never seen anything like it. They say West Africa is even worse. But I find it hard to imagine how anything could be worse then this. The corruption is incredible."

His wife then chimed in: "It's a disease."

"That's right," her husband confirmed, "it is a disease, an illness. You know, I go to meetings all the time. I try to talk about technical problems. They couldn't give a damn about those. Not a damn. They fall asleep! I could sell them tinned sunshine if I wanted to. They only wake up when you mention money. The only thing they care about is their cut."

In Nairobi, the beggars have their own dearly demarcated territories, but when they get too numerous, they are apparently rounded up and taken off somewhere, away from sensitive tourist eyes, and maybe "culled," as are the numerous prostitutes. The shantytowns are periodically razed, but always come back again, as do the beggars and prostitutes.

To see how European farmers were now doing under black rule, Naipaul traveled out to meet the Palmers, who had about three hundred acres planted to tea. They used black labor, and said the natives had rather work for them than their own people, who often treated them like slaves; not paying them properly, offering them no medical facilities, and housing them in deplorable conditions.

But the negroes were prone to pilfer and the Palmers had to keep everything under lock and key. Their hired hands would even steal things they couldn't possibly have any use for. And the Palmers especially tried to keep liquor out of their hands. There was, they said, an old saying among the Europeans in Kenya that to give a native alcohol was like putting a loaded gun into the hands of a child.

Mr. Palmer remarked on one peculiarity of black thinking: "One of my pet theories is that Africans lack what I call a storage sense. The same thing occurs with my headman. Time and again I tell him to order more pesticides when stocks fall below a certain point. He never does. I must have told him a thousand times. But he waits until the last drop runs out and then comes running to me wringing his hands."

His wife added: "They never think about the future. It has no meaning for them as far as I can see. Only today matters. Now. Of course, that's how it was in the old days. If their crops were good, they feasted day and night, fattening themselves up. If the rains didn't come on time, they starved. Never a thought for the morrow."

The Palmer's place was well kept, but across the way was a formerly white-owned farm that had been taken over and divided up among blacks. The original idea was to turn it into a cooperative, but everything had gone to the dogs. "I hate looking at it now," Mr. Palmer said, "I believe the treasurer ran away with the money. In this country, treasurers are very fleet of foot."

One notable adventure that happened to Naipaul in the Highland country was a long, overland taxi trip. Having experienced enough African "service industries" by this time to be leery of them, he was nevertheless assured that his taxi for this trip would be the best because it had been ordered by the D.C. (District Commissioner) himself, and Naipaul would be treated like a king.

The taxi was over a half-hour late, and what greeted his eye was an ancient Peugeot station wagon. Raucous music blared from the dashboard. The driver drove to the bus station and picked up more passengers, one of them a man in yellow trousers carrying an enormous transistor radio, which he started playing, its noise merging with that of the cassette player in the dashboard.

More people kept boarding, one of them a girl with a baby, and there was also live poultry, pumpkins, and bags of grain. A mattress was placed partly on the roof and partly behind the rear seat. But even after the number of riders exceeded the legal limit by two, the driver continued to seek more passengers. A boy came in, and without even asking, plopped himself down on Naipaul's lap. This made thirteen people, or fourteen, if the baby was included.

To get out of town they drove through a maze of what might have been called "dirt alleys," but which looked like (and almost certainly were) people's backyards, scattering chickens, goats and children.

Arriving in Tanzania, the same mishmash of general incompetence was found. An American woman who had lived in upstate New York was complaining about the general indolence of the locals who did service work. "The other day I had some painters in. They took one week to do a job that a New York painter would have done in one day. One whole week! Just having to sit here and watch them nearly drove me crazy."

She also remarked on how barren the shelves were in the local stores. Arusha was like a ghost-town. "I tell you, it's driving me crazy. If I stay here another three months, I'll go out of my mind. I know it."

Visiting a clinic staffed with Caucasian volunteers, Naipaul found an elementary building with cubicles for rooms. They had bare concrete floors and a bed in one corner. There were no curtains, tables or chairs.

Outside, women with their babies and children waited. Flies swarmed everywhere, including around the eyes of the mothers and children, who made no attempt to brush them away. They fed greedily on sores, which of course spread the infections which the clinics tried to deal with.

One Swedish volunteer said: "One of the strangest things is that we cannot get well-off and educated Tanzanians to come and help us out. I know many middle-class women who sit home all day with nothing to do nothing to do but polish their nails and read foreign magazines they buy from Kenya. If all we expatriates had to leave the country tomorrow, this clinic would probably have to be closed down. They just don't seem to care. They sit back and let us do everything. How do you account for that? Why should I care when they don't? Why do I bother to come here? That is a question I ask myself all the time."

Under negro rule in Africa, more land is turning into desert. Naipaul described one such area he traveled through, inhabited by the Masai. "We were crossing a treeless plain. The withered grass had been cropped so close that it could hardly be said to exist... Here, within living memory, there had been trees. But the trees had all been cut down for firewood and the land was slowly turning into desert. Fire-blackened hillsides were spiked with the leafless, twisted skeletons of a dying secondary vegetation. The Masai periodically roamed these plains with their herds of cattle, squeezing what little sustenance they could from the desolation. Masai cattle were particularly damaging to the land over which they passed, more damaging even than goats: they had a tendency to pluck out the grass by its roots. In a short time even the Masai would be driven from these plains. The ruined land was austerely beautiful."

Unable to get into the last country he planned to visit – Zambia – by train, plane or bus (all booked up for weeks), Naipaul managed to hitch a ride with a party of campers who were headed for South Africa. He would ride with them as far as Lusaka, in Zambia. The first night in the country they pitched their tents below an embankment of a railroad built by the Chinese.

Arriving in Lusaka, he took a train to Kapiri Mposhi. He was able to see a recently built railroad station, and observed how it, along with everything else under negro influence, had started going down the drain: "The railroad had been in operation for only a few months, but decay had already begun to set in. A row of brightly painted children's cots was arrayed on a platform that ran the length of one wall. A thoughtful touch – but not one of the cots was being used. Babies slept on sheets spread on the floor or crawled about in puddles of urine. I had been unable to slake my thirst: the drinking fountains were waterless; the handles of one or two were broken, reduced to jagged stumps of metal. The telephones were not working. The toilets were locked. The clock was wrong by hour. What must the Chinese think?

It is obvious that Shiva Naipaul left the Dark Continent with a low opinion of black Africans, nor did he think much of the guilt-ridden whites, so full of self-abasement, who chose to live among them as equals, with the object of "uplifting" them. He felt that they corrupted each other, and "deserved each other. Neither was worth the shedding of a single tear, both were rotten to the core. Each had been destroyed by contact with the other – though each had been destroyed in his own way."

Just before dosing his book, he took a parting shot, or did a summing up, of the new black Africa: "Only lies flourished here. Africa was swaddled in lies – the lies of an aborted European civilization; the lies of liberation. Nothing but lies."