New Criterion Reprints Article on Waugh’s African Writings

The New Criterion has reprinted a 2003 article by James Panero about Waugh’s writings on Africa, making the point that Waugh got most things right. This is entitled “Reading Africa in Waugh.” Panero’s family had business in Africa; his grandfather ran a hotel in Somalia from which he was bloodily evicted in the 1970s, barely but thankfully escaping with his life. Panero himself had visited that continent.

The article opens with an excerpt from a letter Waugh wrote to Henry Yorke from Addis Ababa in 1930:

Life here is inconceivable—quite enough to cure anyone of that English feeling that there is something attractive & amusing about disorder. . . . Public castration which is the usual punishment for most infringements of law has been stopped until the departure of the distinguished visitors. I have rarely seen anything so hysterical as the British legation all this last week. . . . I go to very stiff diplomatic parties where I am approached by colonial governors who invariably begin ‘I say Waugh I hope you aren’t going to say anything about that muddle this morning.’

Several quotes from Black Mischief and Scoop make the point that Waugh foresaw the mischief that would befall that area if the colonial powers were driven out. And Waugh also recognized the chaos that would result if  the”tribalism”, held in check by colonial administrators, were let loose. This is from a letter he wrote his wife from Tanganyika in 1959:

I spent one day with the Masai. . . They all carry spears & shields & clubs & live in mud bird-nests and are only waiting for the declaration of independence to massacre their neighbours. They had a lovely time during the Mau Mau rising. They were enlisted & told to bring in all the Kikuyus’ arms & back they proudly came with baskets of severed limbs. 

Panero goes on to describe how the political correctness of today’s politicians. noting especially Jimmy Carter, has contributed to the problem by denying that it exists. Waugh, on the other hand, wrote about Africa with no such reservations, and Panero finds that refreshing.

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