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Africa: Tragedy and Hope

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Apr 30, 2004 (040430)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"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 lines."

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 desperate tragedies.

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, see

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++++++++

Howard French, 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 and south.

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 journalism.

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 of power.

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 and wide.

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 acknowledged.

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 emigrants.

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 involvement.

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 become inconvenient.

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

Monrovia, 1995

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 afterward.

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 Kinshasa. ...

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 association?"

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 democracy. Ha-ha-ha!"

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 eventually prevail.

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 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

George Alagiah, A Passage to Africa.
London: Time Warner, 2001. 292 pp.
Sri Lanka, Ghana, Liberia, Somalia, Rwanda, Congo (Kinshasa), Uganda, Zimbabwe, South Africa.

Bill Berkeley, 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.

Manthia Diawara, In Search of Africa.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998. 288 pp. and
Manthia Diawara, We Won't Budge: An African Exile in the World.
New York: Basic Civitas, 2003. 288 pp.
Guinea (Conakry), Mali, France, USA.

Nuruddin Farah, Yesterday, Tomorrow: Voices from the Somali Diaspora.
London: Cassell, 2000. 198 pp.
Somalia, Kenya, Italy, Nigeria, Britain, Switzerland, Sweden.

Karl Maier, 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 (Kinshasa).

Ellen Ndeshi Namhila, The Price of Freedom.
Windhoek: New Namibia Books, 1997. 200 pp.
Namibia, Zambia, Angola, Gambia, Finland.

Barack Obama, Dreams from my Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance.
New York: Random House, 1995. 404 pp.
USA (Hawaii, Chicago, Cambridge), Indonesia, Kenya.

Philippe Wamba, Kinship: A Family's Journey in Africa and America.
New York: Penguin Putnam, 1999. 384 pp.
USA, Tanzania, Congo (Kinshasa).

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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