African Madness

by Alex Shoumatoff. Alfred A. Knopf, 1989. 202 pages, $18.95.

African Madness, with its lurid title, deals with some of the most sensational African topics available: Dian Fossey and the mountain gorillas of Rwanda, the cannibal emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa, and Africa's AIDS belt. The surprise comes from the sensitivity and imagination with which the author treats them. A deep romantic love for the tropics, to which he confesses in his preface, leads him to look at his subjects sympathetically, and from all sides.

In "The Woman Who Loved Gorillas," Shoumatoff allows Dian Fossey's supporters and detractors to speak for themselves, and sketches the web of motivations that led her to become increasingly defensive, isolated, fanatical, and violent towards the local pygmies -- who, he points out, are as endangered as the gorillas themselves. He is funny as well as instructive when he explains how the "Thoreauvian" strain of naturalist has traditionally favored wildlife at the expense of people, and when he shows how the small, competitive society of primatologists can echo that of their subjects. "When one's career is devoted to the study of things like territoriality, dominance, access to resources and fertile females, and genetic self-interest, some of it is bound to rub off."

Shoumatoff's writing can be jazzily impressionistic at one moment, scientifically exact the next, and he has a magpie's eye for quirky details. We learn that gorillas are identified by their noseprints, that a portrait of Ronald Reagan made entirely out of butterfly wings hangs in the American Embassy in the Central African Republic, and that the written Malagasy language lacks certain letters, "most conpicuously c," because some cases of type were lost at sea on their way to the island.

The last and longest of the pieces, "In Search of the Source of AIDS," is a kind of detective story in which each clue is Hydra-headed. The search ends not when Shoumatoff finds the source of AIDS but when he has seen too much suffering to continue.

This was not what I wanted out of Africa at all. I wanted to revel in the wild and the primitive, to spend time with the people and groove on the scenery, but instead I was compelled to document the disintegration of beautiful young men and women, of the very fabric of African society, to which sex and pervasive sensuality in all dealings are central. And the worst of it is the absolute hopelessness of the situation. There is no cure in sight. Millions of Africans are going to die, and nothing can be done about it.

Here in the US, where Africa is a blur in the public mind, people seem to blame the Africans for having somehow invented AIDS. This compassionate book helps us remember that they did not, and that the tragedy of AIDS in Africa is much greater than our own.

Published in the Harvard Post, May 26, 1989.