Into Africa: Lost on the ANC Road to Soweto

In which the author, exclusively for CounterPunch, goes by train but also by ferry, bicycle, plane, and rental car from Nairobi, Kenya, to Pretoria and Johannesburg, South Africa. This is Part X, last in the series. To read part I, click here.


Capital Park Station, Pretoria

GPS Jill (“in 100 meters turn leftrecalculating…”) directed my rental car, without any difficulties, to the headquarters of Rovos Rail, which is located in a renovated station in Pretoria’s Capital Park suburb.

The station is now as handsome as an English country house, with lots of comfortable sofas, chintz patterns, and ready pots of tea, while beyond the platform are the workstations and roundhouses of Africa’s most successful private railroad, and one of Pretoria’s great local businesses.

I first came across Rovos Rail in 2007 at the World Travel Market in London, where the owner of the railway, Mr. Rohan Vos (hence the name of the company), was manning a booth at the trade show.

I collected some Rovos brochures and a rail map of southern Africa, and Mr. Vos and I chatted about the railroad, which had already renovated a number of retired South African coaches and sleepers into luxury rail cars, and added them to the growing fleet of what he calls The Pride of Africa.

Rovos Rail now operates luxury trains—the trips are referred to as safaris—across southern Africa. The most popular trips—to famous golf courses and national parks—take place in South Africa or across the border in Botswana. But there are runs to Zimbabwe, to take in Victoria Falls, and Rovos has a fifteen day epic from Cape Town to Dar es Salaam, which covers much of the track on which I had traveled (albeit in slightly reduced circumstances).

On this trip, when crossing Zambia, my Tazara train had passed a Rovos safari train waiting patiently on a siding. In awe I had looked through the windows at the Rovos staterooms (only two or four suites to a car), the formal dining cars elegantly set for dinner, the lounge cars with fully stocked bars, and an open observation platform off the back.

On my African train, which by then was almost three days late, I felt as though I was adrift at sea on a life raft while going past me was Cunard’s Queen Mary.

Knowing that I was coming to Pretoria, I had written a letter to Mr. Vos, asking if I could visit his Capital Park Station (he had described it when we met). As it turned out, he was away on the day that I was there, but he put me in touch with the company’s General Manager, Damian Sadie, who met me in the waiting room, where one of the station attendants severed mineral water and coffee (the best I had in Africa). As we spoke a peacock was wandering around the platform.

I liked Damian, who chatted freely about the railroad’s extensive reach across southern Africa. He said Rovos was in the process of acquiring and renovating its sixth train set (each train set consists of about twenty luxury cars and two diesel engines).

He told me that all the work on the cars, down to the carpeting and upholstery, was being done here in the Rovos Rail workshops. Later, I walked through the roundhouses and saw the assembly lines (all the work is done by hand) that can transform a rundown, rusting, forgotten South African Railways day coach into a Pride of Africa luxury sleeping car.

He said that the company paid about $5000 to buy the tired day coaches, and that when the renovation was done the cars would have an investment value close to $75,000. And Rovos has more than one hundred cars, and many engines, including some lovely old steam engines that glisten in the yards.

Damian explained the philosophy behind both the car renovations and the rail safaris. He said that the company seeks to detach its passengers from their online, hectic worlds. Hence none of the trains have wi-fi; nor do the elegant, Edwardian staterooms and suites have flat-screen televisions. They do have showers and claw-footed tubs.

Passengers (there are never more than 72 on any of the trains) are encouraged to talk with the others on the train, and Damian said the trips have led to many life-long friendships.

Some of the Rovos rail safaris can cost up to $10,000, if not more. For that money, passengers get gourmet cooking, an open bar, and select curated fine wines (from South Africa mostly, but also from France and Italy). They are also treated to game watching, first class golf, and antique shopping, depending on the theme of the journey, and the company arranges side trips around Africa, either before or after the train safari.

It would be easy to dismiss Rovos Rail as yet another cruise company—albeit one operating on land—that panders to the rich and famous, or as the equivalent of a retro colonial column, passing through Africa on sedan chairs.

But I choose to look at it in a different light, as a successful African start-up and local business, with a large African (local) workforce, that has managed to recycle rusting rail cars—in Zimbabwe, they are lying on their sides in the bush—and to turn them into positive cash flow.

I admire the fact that Rovos does a better job of managing sleeping cars than Amtrak, if not Europe’s Wagon-Lits. On Amtrak, compartments can cost more than $1000 per night, although they have the feel of prison holding cells. Plus the food is processed in a microwave.

With more than a hundred sleeping and lounge cars, the Rovos fleet—per capita by population—is much larger than Amtrak’s, and Rovos is a private company, owned by one man and his family.

If Rovos can develop a successful rail cruise business in such countries such as South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique, think of what an American Rovos Rail could do in the United States.

Rovos Rail and the Dreams of Lost Empires: From Ocean to Ocean

As Damian and I were talking in the Capital Park Station, with the peacock on the platform, he asked me why the United States has so few, if any, successful rail cruise companies? It was a question I brooded upon the rest of the day, especially when stuck in heavy traffic on my way back to the airport.

My feeling is that America lacks a railroad imagination, something Rohan Vos has exponentially. In 2017, when the car is king, few can imagine taking rail passengers to remote national parks, on a jazz tour to Memphis, St. Louis, or New Orleans, or on a ramble around minor league baseball stadiums.

Another problem is that railroad regulations in the United States have doomed many entrepreneurs who have dreamed of duplicating the Rovos success story in North America.

Amtrak, for example, has a near-monopoly franchise to haul passengers around the country, while it is the freight companies who own most of the underlying tracks. And neither Amtrak nor the freight companies want to hold up the coal and container trains so that an updated Twentieth Century Limited can glide into Pittsburgh or Albany.

It’s a shame, as, until the late 1960s, the United States was the preeminent railroad nation in the world—a distinction given now to countries such as China, Russia, India, and much of Europe.

Nor in my experience can many American passenger railroad men match Rohan Vos’s sense of adventure and new frontiers. A few years before my visit to Pretoria, he had hired an engine and a small crew, and he had explored the track along the Benguela Line, which, when operational, connects the coal regions of Congo’s Katanga and Zambia’s Copperbelt to the Angolan city of Benguela, a port on Africa’s Atlantic Coast. (In colonial times the line advertised “the fastest service from London to Rhodesia.”)

Now that Angola is no longer in a civil war, the rail line has been restored (yes, the Chinese did it) up to the border, although no one is quite sure about the condition of the track inside the Congo, to the city of Lubumbashi (formerly Elisabethville), which in 1961 was the capital of secessionist Katanga and not far from where Patrice Lumumba was assassinated.

Mr. Vos’s dream is to operate one of his Pride of Africa trains from ocean to ocean across Africa. The train would follow a route from Dar es Salaam to Mbeya, Kapiri Mposhi, Ndola, Lubumbashi, Luau, and finally to Benguela. It would be the first ever passenger crossing, I am sure, on one train, from the Indian to the Atlantic Ocean.

Marlow would understand. He says to his friends as they talk aboard the yawl Nellie on the River Thames: “The best way I can explain it to you is by saying that, for a second or two, I felt as though, instead of going to the center of a continent, I were about to set off for the center of the earth.” I would happily sign on as crew.

Lost on the Way to Soweto: The Fall of the African National Congress

Heading to the airport in the rental car, I thought about a detour to Soweto, where I had not been since 1984. I even went so far as to program its coordinates into GPS. But after an hour on the road, the traffic on the beltways around Johannesburg was overwhelming, and instead, I decided to ditch the rental and be done with the car world.

During the day I also longed to have a political discussion about the dismal state of the ANC and the country’s president, Jacob Zuma who has served eight years in office despite allegations against him of sexual assault, personal corruption, and cronyism. But politics was not one of the features on my GPS unit.

Had it been there, it might always be recalculating, as no Zuma outrage seems to make a dent in the standing of the ANC. Helen Suzman said in 2004: “I had hoped for something much better. . .[t]he poor in this country have not benefited at all from the ANC. This government spends ‘like a drunken sailor’. Instead of investing in projects to give people jobs, they spend millions buying weapons and private jets, and sending gifts to Haiti. . .”

At the airport, waiting for my flight home, instead of sitting on bar stools or watching lounge television, I combed through the selection at an airport bookstore and came away with The Fall of the ANC: What’s Next, which is written by two black political scientists, Prince Mashele and Mzukisi Qobo.

Their argument is that the ANC is mired in oligarchic corruption, has betrayed the ideals of Nelson Mandela, and will come apart, perhaps during the next presidential election to replace Jacob Zuma, in 2019.

I began the book on the plane heading home and finished it a few days later. I liked some of the writing very much; other parts, however, I found preachy and repetitious, with too many excursions in political theory and not enough in-depth reporting on the alleged crimes of the ANC.

Nevertheless, the authors’ thesis is clear and compelling, which is that the governing party prefers to steal more than to govern, and that South Africa could well turn into a failed state, despite its mineral and agricultural wealth, and educated populace.

They compare Zuma’s South Africa to Boris Yeltsin’s kleptocracy in Russia, if not with the disintegrating state structure in Venezuela. “In fact,” they write, “it is under ANC rule that South Africa took over the inglorious mantle from Brazil as the most unequal country in the world.”

The authors credit F. W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela for guiding the peaceful transition from the apartheid National government to free elections and black rule, but they go on to make the point that many of the ANC’s destructive qualities were present in earlier days when it was banned and surviving on the margin of South African politics.

Even in exile, the ANC tolerated corruption, padded its elites, and had few blueprints for good governance. Mandela might have steered the country away from civil war—no small achievement—but his successors, notably President Zuma, are running a country that is often in the book described as a mafia state.

The president’s and his party’s economic crimes are, by now, legion. Like many other critics of the current government, the authors charge Zuma with having served as a front man for the all-powerful Gupta family (originally from Uttar Pradesh in India) who—in the manner of Russian oligarchs—have managed to spin their presidential friendship into a series of sweetheart deals and privatization contracts that have turned them (and perhaps Zuma?) into billionaires.

Mashele and Qobo write:

It has since emerged that, under Zuma, the Guptas literally took over the state. They appropriated to themselves the powers to appoint ministers and to allocate tenders in state-owned companies. As all this was happening, the ANC continued to defend Zuma, thus making it clear that it is not only Zuma who is corrupt: the entire party is rotten.

As I was reading these passages, my mind was remembering the industrial and residential belt that lies between Johannesburg and Pretoria, in what was once the Boer heartland. Now the rolling countryside is awash in industrial facilities, suburban gated communities, malls and shopping centers, and other outward symbols of wealth and a burgeoning economy.

Mashele and Qobo argue that under ANC governments the economic winners have been white South Africans (who were the shareholders in many businesses) and the beneficiaries of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), who turned out to be ANC political insiders. The losers were the Africans who longed for hope and progress with the coming to power in 1994 of the black African party.

“In truth,” Mashele and Qobo argue, “BEE has in our opinion been a redistribution scheme for ANC leaders and cronies; the word ‘black’ has been used to legitimize what in reality is a sordid money affair. To encourage them to co-operate in this dirty scheme, 17 million poor black were ‘bribed’ with social grants, grants that will never dig these poor black people out of their dark pit of poverty.”

Although South Africa has the highest standard of living in Africa, the authors put this in the context of other countries—Ghana, Congo, and Zimbabwe are three mentioned—that have suffered the consequences of the chasm that exists between the revolutionary rhetoric of economic and democratic progress and what happens, instead, when confidence men hijack the government and its ruling party.

When Zuma was elected president, he was facing some 700 criminal charges, including some for rape and corruption, that were dropped once he came to power.

Nor has he gotten around to paying back the treasury for having invested about $18 million in his Nkandla homestead. (Later a court dismissed these charges against Zuma personally.) In theory, the expenditures were for “enhanced security” at the private home, although that probably doesn’t explain the addition on the premises of a swimming pool, kraal and chicken run, amphitheater, helipad, or private clinic. No wonder Zuma’s goal in 2019, when his term expires, is to have his wife succeed him in the presidency.

I suspect the book, however well argued, will fall on deaf ears, as the ANC remains a sacred cow of international politics—the party of Nelson Mandela and the vanquisher of Afrikaner apartheid.

The authors write, correctly I believe, that: “To probe the ANC’s incompetence, post-apartheid, would be viewed by its leaders and supporters as an attack on ‘the people’, or as a ‘counter-revolutionary’ offensive.”

“When we hear the ANC today,” they conclude, “howling gigantic platitudes or mouthing empty campaigns against corruption, when we can all see clearly that there is a glaring gap between words and the deeds of some of its members, we must remember that we are dealing with a political party which has, over the years, perfected the art of making people chase shadows.”

Leaving South Africa: The Usual Airport Carjacking Stories

In the end, I regretted the rental car, although I was pleased to make it to Rovos Rail and around so much of Afrikaner Pretoria, especially as my wife and I had missed it in 1984.

The problem with car rentals, at least for me, is that they put me in a morose mood. I hate worrying if I have scratched up the car (even though I took out the full, total-it-baby insurance), and I hate the monotony of driving, not to mention traffic. Deep down, I am only happy in motion when on my bicycle or on a train. Then I can think, compose sentences in my head, listen to podcasts, read my books, and think about my family and friends.

As a fitting end to the trip, as I had to return the car with the gas tank full, I clicked on the GPS link for the nearest gas station. Jill, in her haughty English voice, directed me to a long-term parking lot, where, to escape from her arrogant clutches, I had to drive into the garage and pay for a half-hour of parking. It turned out there was a gas station (South Africans call it petrol) at the airport, just not in long-term parking.

Hertz examined the body of the rental car as if dusting for fingerprints and presented me with a bill that was a masterpiece of hidden charges. It included tourist taxes, airport charges, ransom payments, etc., which I had no choice but to pay. Looking over the column of cooked numbers, I did think longingly about the day when something such as Uber or Lyft puts Hertz and Avis out of business.

Because I had missed lunch in between Rovos Rail and the Voortrekker Monument, I went through airport security and wandered around the modern terminal, in some shock over its duty-free affluence and with an eye out for a late lunch.

I settled on a counter-served sushi, where the woman sitting next to me—a South African who had emigrated to Australia—told me that her parents, who live outside Pretoria, had had two of their cars stolen from their driveway.

When I asked how the thieves had penetrated the gated community, she said: “They come in driving in a Mercedes and leave with what they want. At least no one got killed,” which I understood is often the end-game in carjackings.

The flight home on Iberia was much less taxing than my outbound journey on Saudia and my short night of rest on the prayer rugs of the Jeddah airport mosque. The seat next to me was vacant, and I sipped some wine, my first glass in three weeks, and read my books.

Sadly, however, the wine tasted like frat-party sangria, not the Rioja I thought I was ordering, and the in-flight meal (a choice between “beef or meat” according to the steward) was worse than the chicken-and-rice that had sustained me through the four days on the Fuck All Express to Zambia.

The selection of in-flight movies was extensive, but no matter what I thought might be interesting turned out to be more Hollywood drivel—in which either a marriage or drug bust was going bad.

Although I had spent most nights of the trip with my nose in a book, I decided to keep on reading, and I finished the account of Churchill’s Boer War escape, as I always do when reading books about him, undecided whether he created more messes (Ladysmith, Gallipoli, Gandhi, Singapore, and the Cold War) than he eventually solved to widespread admiration.

Millard writes of the end of the Boer War, quoting, in part, from Churchill’s dispatches:

“Our operations were at an end,” he wrote. “The war had become a guerrilla and promised to be shapeless and indefinite.” By now, even the most stalwart Britons were forced to admit that the war was far from over. Worse, it was quickly becoming clear that it would finally end not with pageantry, precision or gallantry but with cruelty of the most brutal and modern kind.

And no one had campaigned more loudly for the war than Winston.

Flying Home: Fellow Travelers

I spent a lot of the flight home, when bored with my books, studying the map on the video flight tracker, as the Iberia plane flew north across Botswana, Congo, the Sahara, Algeria, and into Spain.

Looking down at the road maps etched into the video monitor, I thought of all the buses and minivans that would have been involved in making such a journey overland. But not even Stanley or Livingstone themselves would have undertaken such a folly.

On this trip—from Nairobi to Johannesburg—I was sorry to have missed the Congo, despite its reputation for lawlessness and despair. I had thought of carrying on to Lubumbashi from Ndola (close to the border in Zambia), but when I downloaded the Congolese visa application, it looked like a tax form or graduate school application, and I decided to stick to the rails that were taking me toward South Africa.

For a next African trip, I did think of starting in Senegal or Ghana—both in West Africa—and working my south toward Kinshasa, although the only possible train on such a journey would be an overnight express (so to speak) between Pointe Noire, in the Republic of Congo, to its capital, Brazzaville, which is across the river from Kinshasa. Why? As Conrad wrote: “. . . to hear about one of Marlow’s inconclusive experiences. . .”

I did think that, on my next ramble in Africa, I might give up on the idea of travel and settle in one or two places with bottled water and a stack of books. I like the idea of a waterfront guest house in Dakar or a highlands lodge in the Congo more than the prospect of more border crossings into such countries as the Ivory Coast, Benin, Nigeria, or Gabon. Alas, the trains in Africa were only set up to drag out copper and cobalt, and it will be a while before I am game for more ten-hour bus rides.

Since I was a small boy and had a lampshade on my bedside table that showed global map of the British Empire, I have wondered about such places as Tanganyika, Zanzibar, and Northern Rhodesia. Were they covered with jungle or rolling plains? Now at least I know that between Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe there is a vast, at times rolling, savanna and that, in general, the Big Five don’t tend to linger near the tracks. On this trip at least I had managed to fill in the gaps in my imagination.

Politically, it felt as though my entire trip—except for Botswana—had been along the trails of a dark continent. Everywhere I looked, I got the feeling that government was best understood as a leveraged buyout undertaken by local bagmen.

Men like Julius Nyerere in Tanzania and Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia had waved revolutionary banners about independence and self-sufficiency, but then they had consigned their constituents to a lifetime of selling Pepsi at bus stations.

Zimbabwe had the feel of a banana republic, in which the wife of the president was busy buying a Rolls Royce in South Africa while 80 percent of the populace is without work and the country’s cash machines are as empty as its expropriated farms.

I didn’t stay long enough in South Africa to know whether the ANC has the capacity to turn the once wealthy republic into a failed state. Certainly, between Johannesburg and Pretoria, there are industrial assets on a European scale, and in many corners around the capital South Africa has the look—for better and for worse—of an American suburb, with malls, gated communities, pizza joints, office complexes, motels, muffler supply shops, and department stores.

But never in its recent history has South Africa known a political tradition other than colonialism or kleptocracy. At least those Americans wandering malls with bags of fast food are heirs to Lincoln and Jefferson, as opposed to Paul Kruger and Jacob Zuma.

The Great African Reading Safari

What I liked most of all about my travels in Africa were all the books that I collected and read on the way. Their authors were my travel companions, and they gave me hope. I enjoyed their company.

Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa might be an entirely romanticized view of Kenya, colonialism, and love—after all, her husband, Baron Blixen, bequeathed her a bad case of syphilis—but her writing is among the first in English that treats Africans as individuals, not part of some tribal herd.

Paul Theroux explained to me life how life works on the road—at least those that accommodate “big buses” and minivans. I admired his dedication to the truth in describing all that he saw and heard on his way south to Cape Town. And after reading Dark Star Safari I never had any qualms about staying in bus-station hotels or on overnight trains, as I had already encountered, in his prose, a continent’s worth of $15 single beds.

Theroux had little time for what he described as the white Land Rover crowd, those saving African souls on Western expense accounts who, whenever he asked them for a ride, even in remote parts of Sudan or Malawi, turned him down cold, as if he were a hitchhiking Boston Strangler.

Little did they know that they leaving behind one of the most accomplished American writers, so that perhaps, in their air-conditioned comfort, they could listen to an Eagles soundtrack.

I also found Theroux accurate in his writing about African politics—the waste and the corruption—and he is not wrong to speculate that foreign aid, very often, ends up in some minister’s safe deposit box.

I appreciated having Alexandra Fuller and Peter Godwin as my guides across Zambia and Zimbabwe, where both of them had lived while growing up. Much of Fuller’s memoir reads as if the streetcar named Desire was trundling along those uneven tracks between Harare and Bulawayo. (She writes of her mother: “The sun is full and heavy over the hills that describe the Zambia—Zaire border. Have a drink with me, Bobo,’ she offers. She tries to pat the chair next to hers, misses, and feebly slaps the air, her arm like a broken wing.”) Rhodesian politics broke apart Fuller’s family, much as they did the country.

Godwin’s history is relentless, and in his anger over Mugabe’s repression, torture, and dictatorship, he never hesitates to visit a hospital or prison and to write about the victims of the political dictatorship.

The only passages that relieve the government-administered beatings are his descriptions of family life in the 1960s and 70s, when his parents were in the midst of their productive careers, and the country—despite its civil war—had aspirations for progress.

The metaphor in The Fear is the empty settler farm, seized by a Mugabe crony and left to rot. One of the many farms in ruin that he describes could well that on which Fuller lived when she was also growing up in the Rhodesia of the 1970s.

Joseph Conrad was my companion on the overnight train to Bulawayo, and I found it a comfort that my motivations for travel were similar to Marlow’s, who told his assembled friends:

Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look that) I would put my finger on it and say, ‘When I grow up I will go there.’

But never in my travels did I feel, as Marlow did in his, that I entered another, almost primordial world. Conrad writes: “The prehistoric man was cursing us, praying to us, welcoming us—who could tell? We were cut off from the comprehension of our surroundings; we glided past like phantoms, wondering and secretly appalled, as sane men would be before an enthusiastic outbreak in a madhouse.”

Perhaps because I was connected to the outside world by wi-fi in the hotels, I always felt in touch with my own world. Only in a few dark moments—the two days in Mlimba sitting next to the stalled train?—could I relate to this passage, which reads: “It was like a weary pilgrimage amongst hints for nightmares.”

But not even curled up on that Congolese bus at the Zambian border did I find myself agreeing with Conrad, who wrote of his journey: “The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself—that comes too late—a crop of unextinguishable regrets.”

Back to Africa: Boyhood Dreams

I cannot say I left Africa optimistic about its future. I saw too much traffic in places such as Nairobi, Dar es Salaam, and Johannesburg to think that good things will happen as more Africans migrate from the bush into the cities.

In moving around the continent, I spent countless hours trying to figure out how not to fall victim of a crime or mugging. Nor did I come across a government in my travels—perhaps Botswana is the exception—that has not duplicated colonial greed for those in power.

That said, in the end I made all of my train and bus connections, got to the Dag Hammarskjöld Memorial in Ndola, and left the continent at least with a general impression of what the roads and rails look like between Nairobi and Pretoria.

From the club car on the Chinese train to Mombasa, I even saw a few elephants in the distance, and without trying very hard I had moved along some of the fault lines that now divide Christianity from Islam in East Africa, one of which moved the tectonic plates under the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.

Depending on my mood—and whether I am telling the stories while crunched against the window of a Congolese bus or in the bar of the Bulawayo Club—I can describe Africa as a work-in-progress or as yet another archipelago of concentration camps left over from colonial or tribal wars.

As much as I admire the contributions of aid workers, I can’t see the sanitation wells in Zambia or the wellness clinics in Zanzibar doing much, in the long term, for Africa’s welfare, as what it mostly needs are political systems that go easy on the stealing. (Marlow concludes: “I felt an intolerable weight oppressing my breast, the smell of the damp earth, the unseen presence of victorious corruption, the darkness of an impenetrable night. . .”)

Nor do I see the redcoats of the American empire—all those special forces in camouflage uniforms lurking in places such as Somalia or Niger—doing much to redress the balance of power between the forces of terror and light.

The audience for these remote sound-and-light shows are the voters in American elections, not the forces of good government in Africa, most of whom find themselves at the wrong end of military big-game hunts.

On future trips, I would like to understand better the Congolese links between the ghosts of King Leopold and those of Mobutu. Or the extent to which Dag Hammarskjöld, if not the United Nations as an ideal, was a casualty of the cold wars in Katanga.

Maybe someday I might ride Rovos or other rails from the Indian to the Atlantic Ocean. To me such a connection—even if it is just to serve the copper trade in Congo—would go a long way toward letting light shine on corners of the continent that for too long have lived with their curtains drawn. I am a believer in transparency and the bonds of the road, although I can well understand it if my presence, on the rails of East Africa, was just an update on Marlow’s journey up the river.

Conrad was clear in arguing that the trade on the River Thames in London differed little from that on the upper reaches of the Congo, where Kurtz went mad in his outpost of civilization. He writes: “What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! . . . The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.”

That said, the continuing story of African independence—maybe because it began when I was a small boy, studying that map on my bedside lamp—is one that still interests me. And I am still enough of a child to put my finger on my many maps and say (as did Marlow when he was a boy): “When I grow up, I will go there.” 

Up next: At least for now on Africa roads and rails, this is the last in the series. Click here to read some earlier chapters.


Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.