Africa: Dispatches from a Fragile Continent

by Blaine Harden. Houghton Mifflin, 1991. 335 pages, $10.95 paperback.

This book is an ambitious, engaging, and largely successful attempt to describe the problems and potential of modern Africa. It begins with a river journey down the Zaire (formerly the Congo), in which the crowded, filthy, disease-ridden riverboat and its profiteering captain become a floating symbol for Zaire and its leader, the rapacious Mobutu Sese Seko. It ends with a chapter on Nigeria, where once again there are crowds, filth, disease, and greed -- but where the author sees much more reason for hope.

"Nigeria is an odd place to find a silver lining," Harden admits. "It is infamous, even among Nigerians, for being loud, dirty, violent, and corrupt. Its reputation is not unlike that of the United States at the end of the last century -- and that is my point. In spite of its all-too-visible failings, I believe that Nigeria's mix of talent, resources, and gall will one day pull the country up out of Africa's Nth World." The Nth World is Harden's term for a continent where the problems of poverty and environmental destruction seem even more intractable than in Asia and Latin America.

The book deals at some length with Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria, Sudan, Zaire and Zambia, and with several other countries in passing. Harden, formerly the Washington Post's bureau chief for sub-Saharan Africa, is attempting more than a travelogue, and he uses the histories of these countries, and his personal experiences, to build arguments about what is wrong and right about the continent.

With its punchy, fact-filled prose, its illustrative examples, and its carefully attributed quotations, the book often resembles a Sunday feature article. Famine, AIDS, overpopulation, desertification, and the decline of the elephant are conscientiously noted, and judgments are rendered about the pros and cons of foreign aid, the role of the African family, and especially the nature of Africa's Big Men, whether they be "kind" like Kenneth Kaunda (recently voted out of office in Zambia's first true multi-party election), "brutal" like Samuel Doe of Liberia, or "insipidly acquisitive" like Daniel arap Moi of Kenya.

Although Harden touches on the obligatory topics, he doesn't just repeat the usual remarks about them. Americans often think, for example, that large sums of their tax money are going to support people in the Third World. In fact, Harden points out, the US gives away .21 percent of its GNP on foreign aid, making it "the stingiest donor nation in the world relative to its wealth." And while acknowledging that tribal conflict has deep roots in many countries, Harden points out that ethnic tension in Africa -- as in the US or anywhere else -- is often worsened or even generated by the wrongheaded policies of outsiders. In Liberia, for instance, the US continued its heavy subsidies to the government of Samuel Doe even after he blatantly hijacked a national election. When a coup attempt by Doe's opponents failed, members of Doe's tribe, the Krahn, carried out vicious attacks against the country's other ethnic groups.

Harden does not idealize African society. He does not shy away from brutalities committed by Africans, including ritual murders in Ghana and elsewhere, but he does put them in perspective.

"Juju murders," he says, "afflict modern Africa in a way that shopping-mall and work-place shooting sprees afflict the United States. Abhorrent, unpredictable, and atypical though the violence may be, it happens often enough to be a symptom, in Africa as in America, of how tradition, myth, and modern stress can twist human behavior. Nursing a grudge and infected with the gun-toting American spirit, a self-styled Rambo goes shopping for nameless enemies with an AK47 assault rifle. In need of a spiritual edge over his competition, a tradition-steeped, profit-crazed African businessman goes shopping for a juju merchant and a fresh head." On the whole, Harden agrees with African historian Ali Mazrui, who believes that Africans are characterized by a "short memory of hate."

Whether describing the steps that took a Dinka herdsman from Sudan to a career as the tallest player in the NBA, or the motives behind the disastrous project to establish a frozen-fish plant on the shores of Kenya's Lake Turkana, Blaine Harden is clear, vigorous, and sensible. Though his book makes no claim to be comprehensive, it is a good place to get a sense both of the seriousness of Africa's problems and of the extraordinary talents and energy that Africans are devoting to solving them.

Published in the Harvard Post, December 13, 1991.