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January 09, 2009

What hope for Africa? Rather more than many think, argues Richard D. North: Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles - Richard Dowden

Posted by Richard D. North

Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles
by Richard Dowden
Pp. 576. London: Portobello, 2008
Hardback, £25

Richard Dowden believes in Africa. But then, he also loves Africa, and has done since he lobbed up in Uganda as a more or less radical young teacher in the early 1970s. He says people are "cracked open" by Africa and it's a fair point.

How interesting is Africa?
At The Times, the Independent and the Economist, and now at the Royal African Society, Dowden has been the voice of Africa for thirty years. There is the occasional hint in this book that his editors were not always thrilled to see him bowling down the newsroom with yet another reason to pack a bag and visit his bailiwick. One can imagine the scene. Another small war, another coup? Who needs it? Oh alright - if it's a real genocide, or lots of people really are threatened with starvation, maybe the reader will insist we cover it.

But are we, the readers, very interested? It's obvious that Africa suffers and is in lots of ways ghastly. Isn't the unbidden thought worse than that? Isn't Africa mostly third-rate? Isn't it really quite a serious problem that Africa nurtures so little of note? Dowden tells us that 70 percent of African intellectual aren't there. No wonder it is the only continent on earth whose animals command more attention than its humans. Most people lose interest in Africa's frequent accidents because its normal - and even its best - have not much intrigued them anyway. World Music and a few novels don't cut it.

This is a hard book to read. Dowden is unsparing. Several hundred of his 500-odd pages are devoted to blow-by-blow accounts of the dozens of bloody struggles for power he has witnessed in Africa, let alone the more or less unsavoury dealings which have passed for politics there. Always vivid and well-paced and serious, this is matchless writing which it is nonetheless sometimes a chore to read. Dowden is at pains to tell us how various Africa is - more so than Europe. But its 50-odd countries and three-quarters of a billion inhabitants seem to put on much the same sad parade.

The continent of hope - kind of
We meet hardly anybody powerful who is likeable or amusing. That said, you could read whole libraries'-worth before encountering a character to match Dowden's one-legged seven-foot friend Peter Adwok who seems to have gamely suffered even more at the hands of the Sudanese movement he sought to help than from those who sought to kill him.

So occasionally a character emerges who is not only brave (courage is normal in Africa) but who is brave in a way we can recognise as motivated by the public interest. Actually, we meet very few achievers.

So what's to like? Richard Dowden is brilliant on what is exciting and attractive about Africa. Amidst the whoring, sexism and superstition he also finds warmth, generosity and humour - and the music. He notes that there isn't much loneliness, depression or ennui to be found. Fathers may be inclined to disappear, but children don't often get abandoned, physically or emotionally. (Pressed into militias, maybe.) There are moving accounts of the micro-successes Africa's women often pull off against - even because of - incredible odds not least as their families are abandoned with AIDS. Dowden notes,

Africa always has hope. I find more hopelessness in Highbury where I live in north London than in the whole of Africa.
Surprisingly, perhaps, Bob Geldof's earlier more gorgeous, bouncier, less serious book, Geldof In Africa, contains some of these messages of African glamour, kindness and vigour. But Richard Dowden not only gives us more history than Geldof does. He tries to explain things. He is allergic to lecturing Africa, but he does offer some leads. He recognises the dangers of the African capacity for survival: patience, passivity and forbearance can all be snares. They are - Dowden does not stress enough - deeply unprogressive.

Spiritual but not organised
Richard Dowden is either religious or sympathetic to religion, and notes that in Africa one meets very, very few people who have no faith. Christianity has a strong grip where Islam doesn't, and gets mixed up with animism and whatever in a way which doesn't worry Dowden even if it worries authorities in Lambeth or Rome. It feels as though Richard Dowden believes that Africa has preserved a certain spirituality which is valuable even if it has not encouraged development.

Is Africa development-proof? One trouble is, Dowden repeatedly says: Africans don't trust each other and don't like organisatIon. Indeed, as a Nigerian editor told Dowden, there's a twist:

Nigeria is chaos. But the chaos is created, organised by the government. Chaos allows it to stay in power.
People do vigorously manage. I have heard it said, plausibly, that Africa doesn't do much poverty of an Asian nastiness. But even that comparison is tricky. As Dowden says, much of Asia has suffered many of Africa's curses, but got over them better.

One passage especially resonated with me. At one point he describes Africa's retreat from development (a phenomenon noted by Tim Butcher in the Congo). Perhaps things are a bit better now but Dowden has experienced something that I remember feeing quite often when I sometimes visited the continent (between 1989 and 2003). He writes:

In Africa I often sensed that the modern world had arrived like a cargo cult, brought by aliens and that was fun whilst it lasted but inevitably the wheel of fortune would turn … and everything would be where it was before.
A romantic but not a Luddite
Dowden is prone to romanticise starry nights with pastoral tribesmen (women joked about but not much in evidence in the circle round the fire). But he doesn't seriously overdo it and he is not an enemy of the modern and he isn't a leftist Luddite either. He is, for instance, much less angst-ridden than most commentators about China's current dealings with African countries. He notes that China may become a little more interested in promoting good rather than bad behaviour in the Africans it deals with. Besides, he says, the roads and bridges and all the other infrastructure China brings may produce quite general benefit. He notes that:
For the first time African governments may have some real power … Never renowned for their negotiating skills in the past, [they] may now learn how to play strategic and economic diplomacy a lot better.
For good measure I would say as Dowden does not, either: "Yeah, right", or "About bloody time".

From one fleeting reference, it seems Dowden approves of Paul Collier's prescriptions for African development, and those are firmly capitalistic and industrial. Part of Collier's analysis is that some African countries are so far behind the curve that they will have great difficulty in competing on any footing with any country. Dowden doesn't go there. Rather, he reminds us that most Africans most of the time were not affected by armed struggle, and that there are fewer conflicts nowadays anyway. He says that politics is becoming more lively and well-informed in many places. The mobile phone and the internet café and FM radio have seen to that.

What's more, he says, a middle class - and a Civil Society - is emerging. He gives us scant evidence, but one hears the same thing from other sources. And another modern feature of African life: Dowden spots that the African diaspora is becoming more of a two-way process as exiles return or otherwise influence their old homeland.

The infuriating thing about this deeply informed and richly engaged book is that it is severe in its judgement only of colonialists, and of modern US and UK politicians. Richard Dowden does take several swipes at charities and campaigns, and media dependency on them. One gets the feeling that he thinks that Africans are not finally to blame for much of the awfulness they inflict on each other. Rather, one infers that he supposes they are unwittingly working through a desperate historical course unleashed on rather a nice if unsophisticated continent by rather nasty conquistadors. The colonials made duff pseudo-states which they abandoned as quasi-democracies which were ripe for plunder.

This approach - rationalisation, strategy, whatever - risks being patronising but it at least avoids the charge that Africans are intrinsically - racially - nasty or stupid. It also fits the facts quite well, of course. It risks missing the profound cultural deficit which afflicts the continent.

Obviously, I couldn't have written this book. I very much like being in Africa, but don't like it much. Besides, I have nothing like Richard Dowden’s physical and emotional courage as he reports almost everything (and once or twice is too shocked to file his story).

But in one way, I would go a little further than Richard Dowden. Maybe I am more ideological than he, or more romantic. I have a huge faith in the power of information if it is combined with quite small amounts of intellectual and political freedom and minimal affluence. Even more than Dowden, I am inclined to think that the next two or three generations of Africans may utterly transform their continent. With Dowden, I suspect that the result will be extraordinarily both ancient and modern.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.

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"I am inclined to think that the next two or three generations of Africans may utterly transform their continent. With Dowden, I suspect that the result will be extraordinarily both ancient and modern."

Agreed I suspect we are seeing the beginings

"Obviously, I couldn't have written this book. I very much like being in Africa, but don't like it much"

Thats a contradiction in terms you either like it or you don't
I will say on balance that you don't like Africa.

At least you were honest enough to admit that much

So I ask this, why Visit a place that you hate ? or even bother writing about it ?

Posted by: cjwduke at April 22, 2009 08:43 PM
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