In Dark Star Safari, his extraordinary account of a trip he made by boat, bus, and train from Cairo to Cape Town, Paul Theroux returns to Malawi, a country in which he served in the Peace Corps in the 1960s. He finds the country, as he finds much of the eastern portion of Africa through which he travels, ill used by the passing decades. Throughout the course of the book, he develops a compelling condemnation of the developed nations’ treatment of Africa, which I won’t try to describe here. But in the portion of the book describing his travels in Malawi, he sketches the outlines of an odd theme: the persecution of the Indian immigrants to east Africa. He first touches on this theme when he travels through Karonga, the town he enters after crossing the border from Tanzania.
Indians had been officially hectored in the sixties. The first president, Hastings Banda, had come to Karonga in 1965 and singled them out, berated them, accusing Indian traders of taking advantage of Africans. “Africans should be running these businesses,” he howled. But many of the Indians stayed. In the 1970s the president returned to Karonga and denounced the Indians again. This time the Indians got the message: nearly all left, and those few that hesitated saw their shops burned down by Banda’s Israeli-trained Young Pioneers. Eventually, the remaining Indians either left Karonga for cities in the south or emigrated. Banda had gone to other rural towns and given the same speech, provoking the same result.
The shock to me was not that all the Indians were gone but that no one had come to take their place; that the shops were in ruins, still with the names of Ismailis and Gujaratis on them…
Reading that, I thought vaguely, “Kristallnacht…”
Later, after a thoroughly disheartening visit to the school at which he had taught, Theroux visits a friend from those days in Zomba. At a dinner party at that friend’s house, Theroux is asked about what he has seen during his visit by a former Malawi ambassador in Europe. He returns to the theme of the immigrant Indians and mentions the pointlessness of the abandoned shops in Karonga. The ambassador attempts to excuse the situation.
“We wanted Africans to be given a chance to run the shops. So that Africans could go into business. The shops were handed over. I bought one myself.”
“With what result?”
“Ha-ha! Not much! It didn’t work. They all got finished!”…
“Well, as you know, Indians are good at business,” he said. Then, laughing in dismay as if he had just dropped a slice of bread butter-side down, “What do we know about these things? We had no capital. The shops failed–almost all of them. Ha! They were abandoned, as you saw. And the rest were turned into chibuku bars.” Beer bars…
“[The Indians] sit there, you see, and they have these little pieces of paper, and have these columns of numbers.” He spoke pompously about the Indians as though describing demented obsessive children with broken toys. “And one Indian is running the calculator, and another is counting the sacks of flour and the tins of condensed milk. One two three. One two three.”…
I said, “But that’s how a shop is run. That’s normal business. You make a list of what you’ve sold, so you know what stuff to reorder.”
“Indians know no other life!” he said. “Just this rather secluded life–all numbers and money and goods on shelves. One two three.”
“Recordkeeping is the nature of small business, isn’t it?” I resented his belittling the shopkeeper, yet I kept calm so as to draw him out. “The profit margins are so small.”
“But we Africans are not raised in this way,” he said, nodding to the others for approval. “What do we care about shops and counting? We have a much freer existence. We have no interest in this–shops are not our strong point.”
“Why close the shops, then?”
Here I found myself thinking of The Merchant of Venice…
Later still in his southward progress through Malawi, Theroux travelled in a dugout canoe down the Shire River to the Zambezi River and Mozambique with two native guides, Karsten and Wilson, and the theme of the immigrant Indians in east Africa makes its final, most uncanny return.
I caught a few words of a story that Karsten was telling Wilson–”Indian” and “fish” and “money”–and as we paddled across the Zambezi, our dugout pulled sideways by the power of the stream, he told me the story.
Farther up the Zambezi, on the Zambian side, he said, lived Indian traders who made a practice of abducting very young African girls from villages. The Indians killed the girls and cut out their hearts. Using the fresh hearts of these African virgins as bait on large hooks, they were able to catch certain Zambezi fish that were stuffed full of diamonds.
“That is why the Indians have so much money,” Karsten said.
And so finally, we have tales reminiscent of anti-Semitic blood libel myths…
Though Theroux clearly lays out the ways in which the persecution of Indians in east Africa parallels the persecution of Jews in Europe, he never actually mentions it (unless the ironic detail that Banda’s Young Pioneers were trained in Israel is meant to be a hint). I find that puzzling. It seems impossible that he wouldn’t have recognized the parallel. Did he perhaps think it too obvious to warrant mentioning? But regardless of Theroux’s purposes, I find it surprising that the same idiosyncratic collection of slurs and calumnies directed at Jews in Europe were elsewhere attached to another ethnic group. Is there some universal subconscious cultural association between commerce and child sacrifice, and if so, why? Are still other ethnic groups thought of in this same way in other cultures?