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Africa: Tragedy and Hope
Apr 30, 2004 (040430)
(Reposted from sources cited below)
"Africa eludes us; it is so clearly outlined on the map, and yet so
difficult to define. From afar, Westerners have long fancied it to
be divided into 'black' and 'white,' in the image of their own
societies, and yet observant visitors are more likely to be struck
by Africa's diversity, and by the absence of any sharp dividing
So Howard French, New York Times correspondent in Africa in the
late 1990s, opens his new book A Continent for the Taking: The
Tragedy and Hope of Africa, released last week. French, who lived
in West Africa before becoming a journalist, previously reported
for Africa News Service and other agencies before joining the New
York Times. He provides a reflective, personal, passionate, and
engagingly written account, focusing on the countries he covered
most intensely and knows the best. Liberia and Congo (Kinshasa)
best epitomize the tragedy; Mali represents hope rooted both in
history and in commitment to building democracy. He is scathingly
critical both of outsiders and of African leaders, while praising
the determination to survive and change he finds even in the most
This issue of AfricaFocus Bulletin contains brief excerpts from the
book. It also contains a short list of other books that, like
French's, go beyond stereotype to present the complexities of
Africa and its relationship to the rest of the world. Links for
more information and for ordering the books listed here can be
found in the on-line version of this bulletin, at:
For a review by Akwe Amosu, of allafrica.com, see
++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++++++++
A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of
Africa. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, April 2004. 304 pp.
[Brief excerpts below by permission of the author.]
Africa eludes us; it is so clearly outlined on the map, and yet so
difficult to define. It is both the great, primordial rain forests
at the heart of the continent and the immense deserts of the north
From afar, Westerners have long fancied it to be divided into
"black" and "white," in the image of their own societies, and yet
observant visitors are more likely to be struck by Africa's
diversity, and by the absence of any sharp dividing lines.
The continent is simply too large and too complex to be grasped
easily, and only rarely, in fact, have we ever tried. Instead, we
categorize and oversimplify, wily-nilly, ignoring that for the
continent's inhabitants themselves, the very notion of Africanness
is an utterly recent abstraction, born of Western subjugation, of
racism and exploitation.
Throughout my life, I have roamed and explored the cardinal points
of the Africa we see on the map, and a great many places in
between. But "my" Africa, the Africa I first discovered in 1976 as
a college student on summer vacation visiting my family in the
Ivory Coast, will forever be the musty, tumultuous world of the
continent's west and central regions. As I climbed down the
stairway from a jet onto Liberia's steamy, pungent soil for a brief
layover on the long flight from New York to Abidjan, where my
family then lived, it would be a trite understatement to say that
I could not have imagined how my personal discovery of this Africa
would change my life.
I would come to master languages and patois from the region. I
would marry one of its daughters and the first of my two sons would
be born there. The thrill of travel and discovery in this part of
Africa -- a civil war in Chad, a coup in Guinea, a stolen election
in Liberia -- would turn me away from an early, passing interest in
becoming a lawyer and propel me instead into a career in
My growing intimacy with the continent, where I discovered that
questions of identity were usually far more complex than the stark
black-white divide that I had grown up facing as an
African-American in Washington, D.C., in the 1960s, would subtly
but permanently change my notions of race.
Most important, as a privileged witness to a quarter century-sized
slice of history, my understanding of Africa would gradually
transform the way I saw the world. It awakened me as nothing else
before to the selfishness and shortsightedness of the rich and the
dignity of the poor in their suffering, and to the uses and abuses
As important as this transformation has been to me, this book aims
to be more than a memoir of Africa and of the impact it has had on
my own life. In a much broader sense, it is an extended meditation
on the consequences of another encounter, this one centuries old
and far more fateful, between Africa and the West.
The personal reportage contained in these pages ranges from my
earliest travels on the continent to the end of the century;
Cumulatively, I spent over a decade living in Ivory Coast, spread
out over two decades -- the early 1980s and the late 1990s -- and
from this country, once a prosperous oasis, and now, sadly, a wreck
like so much of the rest of the immediate subregion, I roamed far
The "action" here, as it were, takes place in my home regions of
West and Central Africa -- places like Nigeria, Africa's most
populous country; Liberia, the closest thing America has ever had
to an African colony; Mali, home to some of the continent's oldest
and most distinctive cultures; and Congo, formerly known as Zaire,
whose geographical position astride the equator, in the very center
of the continent, and turbulent history give it a strong claim to
being Africa's heart, literary clich‚s aside.
Although this book is full of personal experiences, some of them
harrowing, its object is not a mere rehashing of old war stories.
In some respects, the dates or details, as narrowly defined, are
less important than the broad patterns of treachery and betrayal of
Africa by a wealthy and powerful West, often aided and abetted by
the continent's own woeful leaders -- patterns that are being
repeated even now.
Africa is the stage of mankind's greatest tragedies, and yet we
remain largely inured to them, all but blind to the deprivation and
suffering of one ninth of humanity. We awaken to the place only in
fits of coarse self-interest and outright greed. Once upon a time,
these brief awakenings involved a need for rubber or cotton, gold
or diamonds, not to mention the millions of slaves, branded and
ferried like cattle across the Atlantic, whose contributions to the
wealth of Europe and its coveted New World are scarcely
Today, the pickings are "exotic" as ever, but have been updated to
meet the needs of our modern era. Africa interests us for its
offshore oil reserves, which are seen as an alternative to supplies
from an explosive and difficult-to-control Middle East, or for rare
minerals like coltan, which powers our cellular phones and
PlayStations. There is one new twist on our selfishness, however --
an interest in Africa driven by fear, of AIDS and Ebola and
This book is deeply critical of the Clinton administration's
behavior in Africa, which may strike some as unfair, given that
President Clinton arguably paid more attention to the continent
than any American president before him. But even a rare,
high-profile trip by a sitting president cannot obscure America's
role in downplaying the Rwandan genocide so as to escape direct
Nor does Washington's brief, but active engagement with the
continent after the 1994 genocide, which is explored in detail in
these pages, make up for extraordinarily misguided policies, driven
more by guilt than by genuine care, that resulted in the largely
unheralded deaths of at least 3.3 million Congolese the largest
toll in any conffict since World War II.
The Clinton administration, actually, is no more than a
representative sample, because the deplorable fact is that the
United States has never had a sound Africa policy, starting from
the height of the independence era, when the Central Intelligence
Agency helped engineer the overthrow of Patrice Luinuinba, the
Congo's first prime minister, in September 196o, after a mere two
months in office. The coup was the first of dozens that would
contribute to making Africa the worlds least stable and arguably
most corrupt continent.
... in Africa, where genuine scourges exist -- plagues of chronic
hunger and preventable disease -- America remains dumb to the
suffering, and indeed often makes things worse. While we push free
enterprise to the world, we close our markets to African textiles
and subsidize American farmers in ways that make it impossible for
the poor of Africa to compete. While preaching democracy; we have
nurtured African tyrants, quietly washing our hands of them, as
with Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire and his successor, Laurent Kabila --
whose stories are told here in some detail -- the moment they
In its own modest way, this book is intended to help remedy our
complaisant forgetfulness and our hypocrisy. My aim is to help
remind those who yearn to know and understand the continent better,
and indeed Africans themselves, of the continent's many cultural
strengths; my own discovery of them kept me going through otherwise
depressing times, injecting relief in a tableau of terrible
bleakness. Therein lays a genuine source of hope for Africa's 700
million people and for the Africans of the future.
Press Conference with Charles Taylor
The scene inside the large villa that Taylor had chosen as his
temporary residence was almost surreal. The thirty or so reporters
allowed in after a huge crush at the heavily armed entrance were
ushered into a large room where Taylor's top aides scurried back
and forth, brandishing victory grins and looking busy as they
prepared to receive us and to hold a banquet for Taylor immediately
Victoria Refell, a tall, domineering Americo-Liberian woman who
favored long shaggy wigs, spectacularly painted fingernails and
heavy makeup, gave the press a lecture about how we should address
"the honorable" Mr. Taylor, who she promised would be with us in a
minute. Most of the reporters were from Liberia's heavily bled
press corps, and they looked frightened and incredulous at finding
themselves inside the Boss Man's home. When Taylor finally walked
in, I had a second premonition about how this man would wield power
if he ever became president.
As a child, Taylor had been given the nickname "Bossy" by his
schoolmates, because of an already pronounced obsession with
authority. By now, no one who had watched him as a warlord could
believe in his transformation into a democratic leader. Indeed, his
every symbol and gesture -- from the gaudy motorcade, followed by
praise-singing supporters who ran for miles behind his vehicle, to
the Mobutu Sese Seko outfit -- presented him as a throwback to the
dinosaurs of an earlier era in Africa, the first-generation leaders
of the continent who had built powerful personality cults and clung
to power for decades. Liberians were still in rags, but here was a
man impeccably coiffed, manicured and groomed, and dressed in a
finely tailored two-piece African-style suit of the same kind of
Mao-cut jacket popularized by the illustrious Zairian despot.
With a visible air of haughty self-contentment, Taylor seated
himself in a high-backed rattan chair reminiscent of the famous
picture of the Black Panther leader Huey Newton. And in his hand he
held an elaborately carved wooden scepter. When he began to speak
it was, as usual, pure bombast. "We must take a moment to thank
God," he said, "for this popular, people's uprising was, in
reality, God's war."
This was the man who had revolutionized warfare in Africa by making
generalized use of child soldiers, binding them to him through
terror and drug addiction. This was the man who had pursued a war
in his own little country that had killed as many people as all the
wars in Yugoslavia.
He carried on for a while in the same vein, and when he finally
finished speaking Refell stepped forward to ask for questions from
the press. Many of the Liberian reporters were literally trembling.
Virtually every Liberian had lost relatives in Taylor's war. Almost
every Liberian had lost his livelihood. And I could not know if
their reaction was due to fear or to barely stifled outrage. To say
that lives had been shattered would be a trite understatement. For
all of the inequality under its Ainerico-Liberian apartheid, a half
generation ago Liberia had been one of Africa's most advanced
countries. Now people were living in abject poverty and
degradation, without a formal economy or even a government. For all
of this, the only thing Taylor saw fit to say about the destruction
he had wrought was that it had been God's plan.
An eerie and absolute silence lasted for two or three minutes.
Finally, Refell stepped forward and tried to get someone to ask a
question, and when no one did, I raised my hand and spoke. I have
seldom had trouble staying within the emotional confines that
American newspaper journalism calls for when conducting an
interview or writing a story; By convention, our work is about
studied neutrality, or at least a semblance of it. But when I
opened my mouth to speak, I began to feel the tremor I had seen in
my Liberian colleagues, and I found that I was unable to contain
the anger I sensed boiling in the room among my cowered peers.
"Isn't it really outrageous for someone who has drugged small boys,
given them guns and trained them to kill to call this God's war?"
I asked. Unaccustomed to being in the company of anyone but
sycophants or people terrified of him, Taylor averted his gaze.
Meanwhile, Refell and the other aides glowered at me. "How dare you
call the destruction of your country in this manner and the killing
of 200,000 people God's war?"
In truth it wasn't really a question, but Taylor knew that he
couldn't allow this to be the last word. "I just believe in the
destiny of man being controlled by God, and wars, whether man-made
or what, are directed by a force," he sputtered, momentarily
confused. "And so when I say it is God's war, God has his own way
of restoring the land, and he will restore it after this war."
The press conference was over, and Charles Taylor, despite a rare
moment's embarrassment, had achieved his objective. The snake was
finally inside the capital.
Press Conference with Madeleine Albright and Laurent Kabila, 1997
Madeleine Albright was coming to town, and I had to get to
I was immediately struck by the itinerary; which I fancied as the
"renaissance tour," because it included most of the gang the
Clinton administration was touting as Africa's new leaders. ...
It grated on me how thoroughly we had come full circle, renouncing
an old guard of "Big Men" only to embrace a brand-new crop of them.
The renaissance leaders Albright was visiting were Africa's new
soldier princes, men who bad come to power not through the ballot
box but at gunpoint. The Clinton administration was, in effect,
endorsing a supposedly enlightened authoritarianism as just what
Africa needed to close some of the yawning gap that separated it
from the rest of the world. ...
The press had been asked to assemble early, and we found ourselves
in a large marble hall, a clutch of American reporters who were
traveling in the plane with the secretary and me off to one side,
and several dozen Congolese and other African reporters across a
small divide of empty space. I had been told that there would be
time for only one or two questions each from the foreign and the
Congolese press, so I tried to work with some of the traveling
press on devising some questions that would get at the heart of the
human rights crisis in the country. ... I wanted to make sure that
Albright and Kabila faced a question about the arrest of opposition
leaders in the Congo ...
The traveling press was unaware of the arrest, beating and
detention without charge of Arthur Zahidi Ngoma a couple of weeks
earlier. This reflected a structural problem that afflicts any
traveling press corps. There is rarely time for much advance
preparation when they travel. They are moving about in lockstep
with the president or the secretary of state, and have little time
to report anything on the ground for themselves.
Working quickly, I filled in the reporter who seemed most intrigued
by the political situation in Congo, Roy Gutman, then of Newsday,
focusing on Ngoma's arrest. Gutman asked me if I was sure of my
facts, and I said I was, producing a printout of an article I had
written about it in the Times a few days before. Ngoma had ran
afoul of the Kabila government when his group, Forces of the
Future, organized a political forum at the Memling Hotel. ...
Kabila's secret police had ordered Ngoma to cancel the forum, but
a determined group of activists set up bunting downtown announcing
the meeting, and distributed flyers on street corners urging people
to come. On the second day of the meetings, security forces
cordoned off the area around the hotel and began arresting people.
Ngoma, who had not yet arrived, was tipped off and urged to stay
away. Bravely, he sent word back to his lieutenants that they
should invite the participants to his house, where the meeting
could continue in the privacy of his courtyard.
When Ngoma's compound began to fill with activists, journalists and
curious passersby, Kabila's police smashed the iron gate and began
firing off live rounds and saturating the air with tear gas. Nearly
everyone present was arrested. Once in detention, activists and
journalists alike were stripped and beaten, one by one, some
receiving as many as forty lashes.
my colleague from Newsday [asked] "Madam Secretary, since you said
that you favor freedom of association of the political opposition,
some of the political leaders you might have wanted to meet here
are all in jail -- they have been jailed in the past couple of
weeks. Have you asked President Kabila to release anybody who is in
jail now for political association? Has he given you any assurances
there will be general freedom of political association? Is there
any link between U.S. aid to Congo and the freedom of political
He had asked a tightly constructed series of questions, and had
left Albright almost no wiggle room. "Yes, President Kabila and I
had a lengthy discussion about the importance and effectiveness of
elections and the importance of dealing with numerous different
political groups," she answered, shifting her body in a way that
seemed to express self-righteousness or annoyance. "And in fact, I
think I can say that the bulk of our discussion was about the
importance of building a civil society, freedom of association and,
generally, the importance of building democratic institutions in a
country that had been run in a dictatorial way and full of
corruption for several years, and let me say that during the course
of these discussions with President Kabila, we established what I
believe to be an excellent relationship and I decided that we will
give each other telephone numbers so that we could discuss problems
that may come up."
Kabila looked as if he was going to rupture a blood vessel while he
waited with visible anger for Albright's long, errant answer to
finally wind down. "With the permission of the U.S. secretary of
state, I would like the journalist who asked the last question to
mention the names of the politicians who were arrested for their
political affiliations," he said, with an air of challenge. My
colleague shot a glance downward at his little note, and then
pronounced the name Zahidi Ngoma.
"He is not a politician," Kabila said, stabbing his finger in the
air and nearly shouting. "He was writing pamphlets and calling on
the people to take to the streets and kill people. How can someone
who divides the people be a politician? Is this the work of a
politician? He was writing pamphlets. ...Do you call this person a
politician? Are such people not arrested in your countries? Are
they left free? Ngoma is not a politician. I am sure he [referring
to the correspondent] has seen the leaflets drafted by this
notorious Ngoma. Well, there will be many of them to go to prison
if they incite the people to resort to violence. Long live
Contemporary African Journeys in Print
I have selected these nonfiction books because in my view the
authors all succeed, like Howard French in A Continent for the
Taking, in providing the reader with insight into African realities
in a continental and global context. The journeys -- into, out of,
and around Africa -- are different, and the views vary. But each
author meets a demanding set of criteria. These books are personal
without being pretentious or self-centered, reflective without
being academic and inaccessible, sober but neither despairing nor
cynical. They are neither Afro-Pessimist nor Afro-Optimist. Both
cosmopolitan and rooted, all are critical of Africans and
non-Africans alike, and hopeful that the human spirit will
The annotations below do not describe the books, but simply list
the principal stops on each journey. Readers of AfricaFocus
Bulletin are invited to send additional suggestions of books that
meet these criteria, and are not limited to a focus on a single
country only, to
firstname.lastname@example.org. These may be added to this
list in the web version of this Bulletin.
Note: Click the links below for more information or
to order these books from Powells, an independent unionized on-line bookstore.
For books that are not available at Powells, you can search for available copies at
on-line bookstores in both the U.S. and UK, with shipping available around the world, at http://www.addall.com.
A Passage to Africa.
London: Time Warner, 2001. 292
Sri Lanka, Ghana, Liberia, Somalia, Rwanda, Congo (Kinshasa),
Uganda, Zimbabwe, South Africa.
The Graves are not yet Full: Race, Tribe and Power
in the Heart of Africa.
New York: Basic Books, 2001. 309 pp.
Liberia, Congo (Kinshasa), South Africa, Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda.
In Search of Africa.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard
University Press, 1998. 288 pp.
We Won't Budge: An African Exile in the World.
New York: Basic Civitas,
2003. 288 pp.
Guinea (Conakry), Mali, France, USA.
Yesterday, Tomorrow: Voices from the Somali
London: Cassell, 2000. 198 pp.
Somalia, Kenya, Italy,
Nigeria, Britain, Switzerland, Sweden.
Into the House of the Ancestors: Inside the New Africa.
New York: John Wiley, 1998. 278 pp.
Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Ghana, South
Africa, Mozambique, Mali, Angola, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Congo
Ellen Ndeshi Namhila,
The Price of Freedom.
Windhoek: New Namibia
Books, 1997. 200 pp.
Namibia, Zambia, Angola, Gambia, Finland.
Dreams from my Father: A Story of Race and
New York: Random House, 1995. 404 pp.
Chicago, Cambridge), Indonesia, Kenya.
Kinship: A Family's Journey in Africa and America.
New York: Penguin Putnam, 1999. 384 pp.
USA, Tanzania, Congo
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