London Notes: The Tarzan Returns

Ramnik Shah

Ramnik Shah, born and educated in Mombasa and in England, practiced law first in Nairobi and then in London, where he now lives and writes in retirement




While teaching at Makerere in the mid-1960s, Paul Theroux wrote two memorable and highly controversial articles in Transition the leading intellectual and cultural organ of emergent African literati of the period (and possibly the putative model for this very journal) published out of Kampala. These were Tarzan is an Expatriate and Hating the Asians and drew a huge critical response which led him to defend himself in robust, if somewhat bad tempered language in a letter to the editor which appeared under the title of `Avuncular Advice` two issues later. Theroux maintained that racist attitudes lay at the root of relations between Europeans and Africans on the one hand, and between Africans and Asians on the other, as a colonial hangover.  All that is history and the relevant material can be easily accessed online.

Theroux of course is the renowned American writer whose genius is much under rated, but is deserving of a Nobel Prize for Literature. His impressive trajectory as an author began with those early stirrings in Uganda and has in the more than four decades morphed into a prolific collection of fiction, travel and critical writing about people and places he has encountered across the four corners of the world.

His portrayal of the post-imperial white man in Africa as the metaphorical Tarzan was, to people of my generation (he and I were born in the same year!), instantly recognisable.  No longer ruler of the watu he nevertheless stood towering over them:

There was no question of equality; the fact remained that [they] simply were not the same and could therefore never have the same rights.  Tarzan did not aggravate the situation; he asserted his authority over [them] very passively.  When there was trouble, [they] rallied round; they served Tarzan, grunted their bubble-messages and assisted him.  Except in a time of jungle crisis, Tarzan had little or nothing to do with them.  Distance was understood.

Theroux explored or touched on this theme subsequently in several of his books, most notably My Secret History (1989) and My Other Life (1996), both of which were fictional versions of his life and exploits, and much later in Dark Star Safari (2002) an account of his adventurous and at times hair raising journey from Cairo to the Cape.


Theroux first went to Africa in 1963 as a Peace Corps volunteerin Malawi, where he taught at a school under the headmastership of David Rubadiri.  In 1965, there was a plot to overthrow President Hastings Banda.  Rubadiri, by then the newly independent Malawi`s Ambassador to the USA, was implicated and so had to leave the country.  He sought refuge in Uganda and became a lecturer at Makerere, where he later wrote the much acclaimed novel No Bride Price. Malawian Authorities suspected Theroux of participation in Rubadiri`s escape and consequently expelled him from Malawi as a political undesirable.

On his return visit to Malawi in 2002, he discovered that one of his early books, Jungle Lovers, set in Malawi and critical of some aspects of life there, was still on the banned list, alongside the works of such luminaries as Graham Greene, Norman Mailer, D H Lawrence, James Baldwin,Vladimir Nabokov, George Orwell and Salman Rushdie!

Theroux left Uganda in 1967 and spent a few years as an academic in Singapore and then moved to London with his English wife whom he met and married in Africa.  By then he had become an established writer and later was to blossom to greater heights as he moved from continent to continent.  But all through his personal and professional life, he retained a fondness for Africa first nurtured during his expatriate years in the mid-1960s.  In Dark Star Theroux puts it this way:

School teaching was perfect for understanding how people lived and what they wanted for themselves.  Any my work justified my existence in Africa.  I had never wanted to be a tourist.  What I loved most about Africa was that it seemed unfinished and was still somewhat unknown and undiscovered, lying mute but imposing. What I liked then was what I still liked, village life and tenacious people, and saddlebank mountains of stone and flat plains where anthills were higher than any hut 

He describes his homecoming to the place he had lived and worked in 35 years ago. He writes about his disappointing encounters with a new generation who had no memory of or empathy with the Africa of his past.   It is this experience that forms the material for his latest book The Lower River (2012) published by Hamish Hamilton. The central character, Ellis Hock, gives up his materially comfortable but spiritually sterile lifein the Mystic River region of Boston, USA -leaving behind a divorced and uncaring wife, an estranged grown-up daughter; he disposes of a family business that he had inherited and run for four decades – to go back to the African village he had spent time in as a young volunteer teacher forty years ago.

In his reverie, Hock remembered the Lower River, the southernmost part of the southern province, the poorest part of a poor country, home of the Sena people … a neglected tribe, despised by those who didn`t know them … associated with squalor, cruelty and incompetence.  And his village, Malabo, was … small, just a cluster of huts, a tiny chapel and a primary school that he`d helped build. 

His posting was for two years but Hock stayed almost four … a record for any foreigner in the hot, miserable, bug-ridden, swampy Lower River, among the half-naked Sena people. The happiest years of his life.  He learned their language, made physical improvements and extensions to the school building, acted as a counsellor to the local people, seldom left the district, fell in love with a Sena woman, Gala, whom he wooed but who rejected his advances because she had been promised to a well-connected man from her village. He was the proverbial mzungu, who also earned the admiration of the locals because of his dexterity and fearlessness in handling all kinds of reptilian creatures found in the region, which also feature in the tale.

So forty years on, he goes on a quest to fulfil a dream that he had allowed to possess him, of returning to a lost paradise.  He arrives in Malawi, full of plans and good intentions.  He notices that the country had changed.  Even before he sets out on his hazardous journey into the interior, he is warned by an old English expat to expect nothing because all they want is money [and] trade goods and shiny beads, but he is not deterred.  Through a tortuous route, he gets to Malabo at last.  Word had already reached there about his coming.  They knew of the mzungu at Malabo, they said.  They had heard stories about him. 

The village people welcome him -treat him like a big man, a potential benefactor.  He stays, gets into a settled mode of life there.  They provide an adolescent woman to take care of him, to cook and clean and attend to his needs. They accord him the status of an honorary tribal elder, and observe all the social conventions at first.  He even meets his erstwhile object of desire, Gala, also as aged as himself, and begins to feel at ease, even though she too hints at trouble to come.

Then the expected quid pro quo begins to bite.  He is forever forking out bits of cash to all and sundry around him, for things they want to buy or say they need.  His health suffers.  There are all kinds of misunderstandings and mishaps.  Familiarity breeds contempt. The hunger of the people, the poverty of their bare existence, the nothingness of the place, the harsh and unyielding landscape and its isolation and, above all, their greed and general untrustworthiness -all these negativities mount and he feels trapped.  

He languishes in their captivity.  He who had come to do good found himself ensnared in their machinations and demands.  He makes an unsuccessful attempt to escape from their clutches, but it is cruelly thwarted.  In the process he encounters a dubious collection of a foreign aid agency`s operatives, apparently in league with the village headman who has turned against him.  He knows that he will last only until his money runs out, after which his fate is damned.  He has lost track of time and has no means of reaching the outside world. His only salvation lies in his being able somehow to send an SOS message to the American consul in Blantyre.  He longs to be rescued, to return to his mundane but safe abode back in Mystic River, thousands of miles away from the lowliness of the Lower River!

The plot is more complicated than this, as is the characterisation and the physical setting of the narrative. Theroux has threaded all this with his customary simplicity and directness of language.  And the moral?The returning post-colonial Tarzan is a much diminished figure, not to be feared or pampered nor to be obeyed or respected except as a giver of money and other handouts.  They latch on to him because he has ventured into their midst, their territory, and so has to abide by their terms.The tables have turned, and the natives have become his master!

Ramnik Shah © 2012