Nice chap, shame about the book

‘Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles’
by Richard Dowden, Portobello Books 2008, 376 pp

Richard Dowden has been in and out of Africa for nearly 40 years as, variously, a primary school English teacher, journalist (Times, Independent, Economist, Channel 4) and, latterly, Director of the UK’s Royal Africa Society. He clearly knows and cares a great deal about the continent, and this raises expectations of a work that boldly borrows Africa’s name for its main title. But what we get here is a kind of scrapbook: a blend of personal memoir (“Africa is different,” a chapter about teaching in Uganda in the early 1970s, is one of the most engaging), potted modern history and selective reportage on twelve individual countries, with rather little connecting thread or effort at synthesis. We end up clear about the author’s emotional commitment, his desire to see Africa prosper, his belief in its potential. We hear his opinions, often barbed, on numerous people, issues, places. Yet somehow this doesn’t add up to the coherent whole that the title seemed to promise.

Dowden might fairly reply that we should avoid grand narrative: “Every time you try to say ‘Africa is . . .’ the words crumble and break,” the paperback cover points out, quoting the author. “From every generalisation you must exclude at least five countries. And just as you think you’ve nailed down a certainty, you find the opposite is also true.” That is well said. But why not narrow the scope, then, rather than covering so much so thinly?

The answer is doubtless that, for all the supposed benefits of 24/7 news, Western generations growing up in ‘the global village’ are lamentably ignorant about the world beyond their own doorstep. By and large, Africa remains a black hole in white consciousness, and a largely undifferentiated whole. Dowden’s book is relentlessly accessible, uncomplicated by footnotes or referencing, determined to reach out as widely as possible to share his knowledge, attitudes and concerns. Yet its creaky structure weakens this purpose.

There is an early warning against media stereotypes: “Not all Africans are fighting or starving. Millions of Africans have never known hunger or war and lead ordinary peaceful lives. But that is not news.” (p. 5) Dowden wants us instead to see “the prize that Africa offers the rest of the world: humanity,” declaring that the West “has lost human values that still abound in Africa.” (2) However, he then retraces his journalistic steps in a tour of the continent’s newsworthy places and themes: war, famine, refugee camps, genocide, corruption and electoral fraud . . . more a confirmation than departure from the general run of reporting. Indeed, most chapters sooner or later slip into the present tense for a colour supplement style eyewitness account of this or that dismal event. (Unfortunately for the fastidious reader, these transitions are seldom smooth: you hear a crashing of gears as the tense changes.)

The overall result is lopsided in more ways than one. The places that Dowden gives most space to are those that matter or have mattered to British media. (But not always mattered much: the late Charles Douglas-Home, the blue-blooded nephew of a former British Prime Minister and Dowden’s editor at The Times in 1984, refused to allow him to head off to Ethiopia on the grounds that Britons “wouldn’t want to read about starving Africans.” That’s the UK establishment for you; and it is evidently against such nonchalant detachment that Dowden is writing.) Thus, six former British colonies get chapters of their own: Kenya, Uganda (two chapters), Nigeria, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Chapters are also devoted to Angola (for its long, highly geopoliticised civil war), Congo (for its vast unruliness), and Rwanda (genocide, of course). But francophone Africa on the whole gets shorter shrift.

This might have been remedied by the chapter on Senegal, a country that has remained stable and more or less democratic for the 50 years since its independence (and is thus un-newsworthy). Yet this is one of the weakest chapters in the book. It starts with an account of Muslim trade and business networks, but then rambles off into an account of the way that, across the continent, political elites captured the state and dominated post-independence economies for nearly three decades. This evolves, slightly oddly, into a tirade against the World Bank and IMF’s attempts to remedy state-elite dominance through externally imposed structural adjustment programmes. These critiques are not incompatible, but would be better linked by more methodical argument. Where does Dowden see the state’s role as beginning and ending? We never find out. Meanwhile, Senegal has disappeared altogether in the general fray.

Somalia suffers a worse fate. Dowden goes along with the standard division of Africa into the Muslim, ‘Arab’ north, and ‘sub-Saharan’ Africa, the latter being his subject and his passion. This routine conceptual partitioning is itself dubious after so many centuries of commercial and cultural exchange. (What would we make of a book called “Europe: . . . ” that excluded all the countries that touch the Mediterranean?) But Dowden adds a twist of his own in his chapter on Somalia—the main thrust of which is that Somalis are warlike people addicted to camels and fighting—with the strap line “Amazing, but is it Africa?” Africa is coming dangerously close here to being defined as those bits of the land mass for which Dowden feels an affinity.

The World Bank and IMF are not the only outsiders to have their knuckles rapped. UN agencies, Western donors, NGOs, missionaries, corporations, governments and even the media scrum are all at times lambasted for various failings above and beyond the original sin of colonial appropriation. This is not unreasonable per se: there are serious charges to be laid at all these doors. The trouble, though, is that Dowden seldom takes careful aim at a single target, but writes more like a cannon loaded with grapeshot that scatters far and wide, grazing—and, really, only grazing—just about everyone except the man standing behind the muzzle.

Given this tendency to see everyone else as either misunderstanding or exploiting Africa, it is not surprising to find Dowden cautious about “Asia [in the event, nearly all the attention is given to China] in Africa.” His chapter on this worries lest China spoil the recent efforts of NGOs, donors and international financial institutions to civilise Western capital and improve African governance; but he does try to present a balanced view of the China ‘threat versus opportunity’ debate. The verdict:

“In the short term [China] may be scrambling for Africa’s resources, a smash-and-grab deal done with African’s politicians which leaves African people worse off than ever. But in the longer term the Chinese-built infrastructure may be their main impact on Africa, enduring investments that make a vital contribution to development there.” (p. 526)


“China will either make or break Africa but it is up to Africa to control the relationship . . . At the moment China has an Africa policy but Africa’s fifty-three governments do not have a China policy.” (506-507; he goes on to charge the African Union with failure to take a lead in this, suggesting that only Angola has come close to managing partnership with China on its own terms.)

This point is spoiled by hyperbole: “China will make or break Africa.” Really? As so often, it is not the substance of the remark but the emphatic journalese that grates. This is not a merely pedantic reaction, for there is a serious problem in the stark dichotomy between seeing China as either “breaking” or “making” Africa, as either “smashing and grabbing” or else making “vital contributions to development.” Isn’t life often a tad more complicated than that?

The penchant for vivid truths spills into and yet subverts the search for reasons to be cheerful. Dowden really wants to be optimistic. Like many in the Western governments, NGOs and donor agencies grazed by his grapeshot, he finds hope in the courage and dedication of women AIDS activists, in new communications technology, and in the emergence of “new professionals” running investment portfolios. But however enthusiastically these are presented such “ordinary miracles” are rather unconvincing when set against all the strife and gloom that went before. The more so since, throughout the book, the author keeps interrupting his own narrative to drop in subversive asides like this:

“In Africa, I often sensed that the modern world had arrived like a cargo cult, brought by aliens and that it was fun while it lasted but inevitably the wheel of fortune would turn, the road would disintegrate, the light bulb break and everything would be back where it was before.” (513)

This is a recurrent theme, often cropping up when Dowden spots a piece of broken machinery. He seems to feel that “the modern world” is antithetical to the heart and soul of Africa, which he suspects might be inherently hostile to ‘development’— as the result, he speculates, of social evolution in extreme and uncertain environmental conditions:

“Living in such a fickle world makes African societies conservative, controlled by the elders, tradition and thousands of proverbs. Proverbs—wisdom distilled into sayings—reinforce the old ways. At one time they had to. Survival margins were narrow; doing something different was risky. People were forced to accept whatever nature threw at them and appease the spirits that controlled it. Do not try to change things. Accept and adapt. These have been the watchwords of the human inhabitants of the world’s most fecund ecosystems. Maybe in the past Africa’s toughest environments dictated that this was the safest way to live. Obedience to the risk-averse elders was a Darwinian survival mechanism. But the qualities needed to survive are opposite to the qualities needed to develop. To change the world around you, you must take risks, be open to new ideas . . . ” (358)

But this big picture of Africans trapped in struggle with an exotically unforgiving Nature—and was Nature really so much kinder in, say, Scandinavia, Iraq, or China?—is impossible to generalise across the continent. Indeed, as Dowden acknowledges in one of his Uganda chapters, that country’s fertile soils, abundant rains and sun, far from creating narrow “survival margins,” are often cited as being so munificent as to deter struggle and ‘progress:’ all folk have to do, the argument goes, is to throw a few seeds in the ground and food will abound, so why bother to ‘develop?’ No, from whichever direction it comes, this kind of broad, explanatory sweep in fact does more to trivialise than to illuminate the immense difficulty of reconciling tradition with forces of modernisation that came from outside, bringing forms of destruction that were hardly creative.

It is only fair to acknowledge that Dowden does at times dwell on the unhappy legacies of colonialism and Cold War: indeed, these injustices seem to have prompted his younger self to have set out for Africa in the first place. But on the whole his voice is now that of the modern pragmatist who accepts that what lies in the past cannot be changed and that the real issue is how to make a future out of the present. Well, okay. But if, little more than a century ago, some overwhelming outside force had welded France, Germany, and all the bits in between into a single polity and then ruled over it for seventy-odd years, it would strike me as misguided to search for culturally inherent attributes of some apparently changeless North European-ness—related to their weather, perhaps?—to explain the later failure of the polity to thrive.

Then there is the spiritual realm:

“[I]n Africa every event has a spiritual cause or actor. Success in exams or football games, and disasters such as disease or death, all have agents, human or divine. There is no such thing as chance. Wealth and progress are obtained with the help of spirits or magic medicine. A Big Man has power, and that power cannot be challenged or questioned because behind this wealth or position lies spiritual power that enables him to accrue wealth and an important job. That sense of spiritual power is common to almost all of Africa, a whole dimension that outsiders ignore at their peril.” (30)

This strikes me as being, as usual, overstated. Dowden’s experience far exceeds mine but I simply don’t accept that Africans attribute the success of, say, a Mandela, an Obama or a Didier Drogba—success they feel a share in and warmly celebrate—to spiritual backing. Nor can I accept that Big Man power, however much it may be deferred to or coveted, is never questioned. Still, let us grant that ‘traditional’ belief in spiritual power has not been modernised out of existence in Africa, whether we want to celebrate this as residual contact with ancestral wisdom, deprecate it as lingering superstition and shamanism or, more wisely, wonder just how ‘traditional’ the present forms really are; and even, perhaps, let us grant that such belief flows into and informs the fervour of syncretised Christianity, with its various, offshoot cults—such as, in Uganda, the Lord’s Resistance Army. All this does seem worth exploring. However, and despite the advertised “peril” of ignoring this “whole dimension” it is, once signposted in an early chapter, allowed by Dowden to hang in the big background without further comment or discussion. This is annoying. If it is so important, aren’t we entitled to hear a bit more about it?

It is a recurrent annoyance. The big thoughts all seem to arrive more or less at random, momentarily disturbing the flow of journalese, but are then left to sink to the bottom of the reader’s consciousness. Like the thought that various recent electoral farces “all raise the question of whether winner-takes-all, first-past-the-post ,multi-party democracy is ever going to work in Africa. As Western influence wanes in Africa the whole democracy and human rights agenda backed by aid is being called into question.” (531) Yes, that sounds like a question—in fact, a whole set of questions—worth talking about. But they end with the full stop.

Or, even more starkly:

“I sometimes feel that Africa is not violent enough. If Africans fought back sooner against theft and oppression instead of allowing themselves to be slaves to the rich and powerful, Africa would be a much more peaceful place. Instead African patience allows exploitation and oppression to thrive until everyone loses their temper and explodes.” (454)

Hmmm . . .

And yet, paradoxically, these throwaway remarks somehow redeem the book, giving it an engaging honesty. At first I couldn’t decide whether Dowden’s main problem was the sheer difficulty of synthesizing his accumulated knowledge and experience, or the fact that he was just too busy with Royal Africa Society affairs (as an unquestionably energetic ‘advocate’ for Africa) to give the task the time it would need, and so resorted instead to a cut-and-paste job on his lifetime’s notebooks, stitching in a few summary thoughts along the way. But in the end I concluded that, despite his penchant for opinionated writing—battling against all those who do harm without much caring—his real problem is that he doesn’t actually know what he thinks. So what we get here is pretty dodgy if taken as a portrait of Africa; but if taken as a portrait of how decent, well-meaning and relatively knowledgeable British liberals think and feel about Africa, it is without parallel. The simple truth is that we are deeply confused.

May 17 2010