Review: Africa: Non-fiction

by Ross Grainger
by Ross Grainger

It began in Africa.

Four great non-fiction titles on the African continent.


Few people have heard of Mauritania. Four times the size of the United Kingdom and with a population of 3.6 million, this vast West African nation straddles the Maghreb and the tropics where the Sahara desert meets the Atlantic ocean. From the city of Nouadhibou, the second largest after the capital, Nouakchott, thousands of Africans have set forth in overcrowded vessels on a perilous journey to Europe. The last thing these desperate migrants see before they reach the open ocean is a string of rusting ships dumped in the city’s harbour by richer nations, an illicit and toxic business that represents an important source of revenue for this arid and anonymous land.

The borders of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania are scars from the country’s subjugated past. All those long, oblique lines and abrupt right angles indicate a slice of the African cake cut from a distance by an ignorant colonial power, in this case France. Like many African nations, Mauritania won independence in 1960 and immediately tried to expand its arbitrary and ambiguous frontiers.

To the north of Mauritania is a disputed area officially known as Western Sahara. This arid colonial oversight, a legacy of Spanish imperialism, is about the size of the UK, with a population of just over half a million. In the 1960s, Mauritania, Morocco and the Polisario Front fought a three-way battle for control of the region, which today still languishes in diplomatic limbo.

Though the Western Sahara is mostly bleak and barren, my memory of it is sweet and fresh and the colour of sunset. After a 30-hour coach journey from Casablanca my travelling companion and I arrived in the capital, Laâyoune. It was just after sunrise on a beautiful April day. We went to a small café and each ordered a croissant and a glass of orange juice. Dehydrated, hungry, stiff, tired and slightly bewildered, that glass of orange juice was the most refreshing beverage I have ever consumed.

The Shadow of the SunAfrica is a continent of geographic superlatives, but on that two-week journey down its west coast in 2004 the extremes I experienced were mostly quotidian: that juice, the most welcome drink, came after my longest ever coach journey (which hadn’t finished: our final destination was Dakhla, the country’s second city, six hours south); the most dangerous and uncomfortable train journey on the world’s longest train (a two-kilometre behemoth on Mauritania’s one rail track); the most refreshing and indulgent shower (after a hike in the desert); the longest football match (with some locals on a street in St Louis, Senegal, the penultimate stop of our voyage to the Senegalese capital, Dakar); the most beautiful and unexpected and potentially life-threatening smile (flashed our way with purpose by a young Mauritanian woman in what was generously called an “internet” café). And speaking of Mauritanian beauty, it was in the central Mauritanian town of Atar that I saw the blackest sky and the brightest stars. Can you picture that sickly orange glow that blights the bottom third of most British skies? It does not exist in the Sahara desert.

As well as being remote and largely inaccessible, for most of its recent history Mauritania has been, by African standards, unremarkably stable. Its people are poor, but not starving. Colonel Taya, dictator from 1984 to 2004, was authoritarian, but benign. The jihadists of the Sahel have likely crossed into Mauritanian territory, but have never used the country as a base. Mauritania has followed the post-independence script – skirmishes with neighbours, minor civil strife, economic stagnation, mediocre dictatorship, coup, counter coup, military rule, disputed elections, discovery of oil and gas – with such dull predictability that it barely gets a mention even in books about Africa that aim to go beyond the headlines. Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Shadow of the Sun is an exception.

All around us, as far as the eye could see, was desert. Sand, with dark stones scattered about. Nearby, a large black oval rock. (In the hours following noon, after being warmed by the sun, it would radiate heat like a steel-mill oven.) A moonscape, delineated by a level horizon line: the earth ends, and then there’s nothing but sky and more sky. No hills. No sand dunes. Not a single leaf. And, of course, no water.

‘Not a single leaf’. Yes, I remember that well. But even the great Kapuscinski, Poland’s ‘Journalist of the (20th) Century’, gives only a fleeting impression of Mauritania. His other chapters in this brilliant account of post-colonial Africa describe in rich and gripping detail the bustling markets and raucous cities and charming people and violent coups that made the continent such a wild and mesmerising place in the 1970s and 80s. In ‘Salim’, though, he simply recounts his experience of nearly dying from thirst after hitchhiking out of the Mauritanian capital in a truck that breaks down in a remote stretch of desert just as another scorching day is dawning. Fortunately, the driver, Salim, has four goatskins of water. Rather like Mauritania itself, the account is mysterious, stark and abrupt; surrounded by stories that are bigger, bloodier and of more interest to the outside world.

This is not to disparage Kapuscinski’s subtle and beautiful travel memoir. Whether it’s reporting a military coup in Nigeria in 1966, or coming face to face with a somnambulant snake in the Serengeti, Kapuscinski writes with a restrained astonishment and uningratiating respect. His inherent indifference to risk is complemented by the technological restrictions of post-colonial Africa. ‘[N]o guidepost, sign, or arrow in sight’, he writes on a drive across the Serengeti to Lake Victoria. No smartphone or GPS either, of course, and, in this case, ‘neither a detailed map nor even a compass.’

And yet, materially unprepared and physically ill-suited, Kapuscinski thrives. In part this is thanks to his innate fortitude (his hometown of Pinsk, in modern Belarus, was occupied by the Red Army and the Nazis in World War II) and his natural affinity for Africans:

With their strength, grace, and endurance, the indigenous move about naturally, freely, at a tempo determined by climate and tradition, somewhat languid, unhurried, knowing one can never achieve everything in life anyway, and besides, if one did, what would be left over for others?

As Kapuscinski notes in his final chapter, the European colonial powers reduced ten thousand ‘little states, kingdoms, ethnic unions and federations’ to 50 nation states. Today, that total is 53. To understand how these nations came into existence and how they fared once free of the yolk of colonialism, one must turn to the most erudite and accessible history of the modern continent, Martin Meredith’s The State of Africa.

The State of Africa

First published in 2005 and reissued in 2011, The State of Africa is the history of Africa since independence. This immense and tragic story really began in World War II, as the old order in Europe was swept aside by the combined might of the United States and the Soviet Union. Though ideologically opposed, the two new superpowers were united in their virulent anti-colonialism. When he drafted the Atlantic Charter in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, albeit less overtly, did for African colonial subjects what Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation had done for African-American slaves in 1865.

The Atlantic Charter was a broad declaration of the shared war and post-war aims of the United States and Britain. Roosevelt was adamant that the end of the conflict should bring about self determination not just for the peoples of Europe, but for the subjects of European colonies. In his desperation for American aid, Churchill, the proud imperialist, had no choice but to sign.

The war in any case had shattered the façade of colonialism. Tens of thousands of African subjects who had fought for their colonial masters in Europe and Asia returned to their homelands in 1945 with not only newfound confidence, but also increased disregard for the broken countries that still ruled them. France in particular suffered humiliating defeat and occupation during the war, a fate Britain avoided only thanks to its island status. Why, the returning troops asked, must we still obey these weak and corrupted powers?

One of the most dynamic and determined returning postwar émigrés was Kwame Nkrumah. After journeying back to his native Gold Coast in 1947 following 12 years in the United States, Nkrumah began advocating self-governance for what was then a British colony. To the astonishment and consternation of the British, he achieved his dream in less than a decade.

In a continent of thousands of languages and over a billion people, Meredith focuses his history on the handful of men who chased away the colonists and forged new nations in their own image. The rise and fall of Nkrumah, the first head of a liberated African state, was, sadly, a grim portent.

Like many subsequent founding African presidents, Nkrumah made a name for himself by fusing Marxist ideals with fierce anti-colonial rhetoric backed by campaigns of civil disobedience. Highly intelligent and with a flair for publicity, Nkrumah rose from convicted criminal to President with such speed that he became a God-like figure among the young people of the newly created state of Ghana; indeed, groups of impassioned youths would chant the slogan ‘Nkrumah is the new Messiah!’

As the lavish praise poured in from all sides, Nkrumah’s pomposity grew in parallel with his paranoia. In 1977, the cruel and corrupt President of Uganda, Idi Amin, would assume the title ‘His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin Dada, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Seas and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular’. This comical conceit was inspired by Nkrumah, who encouraged such sycophantic sobriquets as ‘Man of Destiny’, ‘Star of Africa’ and ‘Redeemer’. From the dizzying and dazzling early years of independence, which included a visit to Buckingham Palace to meet – and dance with – Queen Elizabeth II in 1957, this ‘Man of Destiny’ met a sad and dismal fate.

As so often in the history of modern Africa, the killer blow came from the military. After nearly a decade of economic stagnation, Nkrumah in 1966 made the fatal mistake of trying to take greater control of the army. While their founding father was away on another foolhardy foreign mission, the country’s underpaid and embittered soldiers took control of the country. To underline their message, the rebellious troops pulled down a statue of Nkrumah in the capital, Accra, and cheered as barefoot street children danced upon it. For all the potency of festering social tension and heavy weaponry, it is remarkable how many African leaders have met their end by taking a short trip abroad.

Compared to later African dictators, Nkrumah was almost benign. Similarly, Ghana has been largely spared the horrors of civil war, famine, rape, pillage and ethnic cleansing that feature in so much of Meredith’s book. In this catalogue of violence and greed, the case of the “Emperor” of Central African Republic, Jean-Bedel Bokassa, remains striking.

A decorated former solider in the French army, Bokassa seized power in CAR on 31 December, 1965. Over the next 14 years, he became the most notorious Big Man in African history. As he plundered his country’s diamond resources with ever less subtly, he built palace after palace in which to house his 12 wives and dozens of mistresses and the 55 (official) children that followed. The nadir of his corrupt and deluded reign came in 1977 when, not content with being merely President, Bokassa announced himself “Emperor” of CAR. At his coronation ceremony he wore a 20-foot velvet robe and a had himself presented with a diamond-encrusted sceptre. The whole farce cost $22 million, which could have funded all of the basic social services his impoverished country lacked. The French government underwrote all of this, just as it indulged Bokassa’s other expensive whims (including four chateaux in France itself).

The criticism of France’s support for such a monstrous character reached an untenable crescendo two years later when Bokassa’s Imperial Guard savagely repressed student demonstrations, killing over 100 people. Once again, though, the opportunity for a coup only came with the tyrant out of the country. On 20 September, 1979, while the “Emperor” was on a trip to Libya, troops from the French army in which Bokassa had once served swooped in and installed a new president.

Amid this endless cycle of horror, there is little hint of what Meredith describes in his foreword as the ‘resilience and humour with which ordinary Africans confront their many adversities.’ The

book ends with the depressing observation that African governments are just another burden that ordinary Africans must bear. Sad though it is, this is an indispensable account of the continent where humanity began.

For something that straddles the genres of modern history and travel memoir one can do no better than Richard Dowden’s Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles.

Africa Altered Stated Ordinary Miracles

In his foreword to the 2008 edition, the late Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe writes, ‘The triumph of the written word is often attained when the writer achieves union and trust with the reader who then becomes ready to be drawn deep into unfamiliar territory’. Staying in the sub-Saharan portion of the continent, Dowden’s marvellous book profiles the unfamiliar side of 13 African states, as well as recent, continent-wide developments, including AIDS, the explosion of mobile phone ownership and Asian influence.

Dowden, like Kapuscinski, begins by marvelling at the power of aviation to take one from a drab winter’s day in grey London to a brilliant sunrise in Kenya in just a few hours. Once there, he explains, westerners will ‘lose inhibitions, feel more alive… begin to understand why, until then, they have only half lived.’ By contrast, the reverse journey often leaves Africans feeling jaded. Here in the west, neighbours do not interact, people breeze past each other on the street without a hint of recognition. This, Dowden explains, is ‘the prize that Africa offers the rest of the world: humanity.’

Dowden first visited in Africa in the 1970s, and has since visited and reported on nearly every country south of the Sahara. The last three decades of the 20th century in Africa were a time of war, famine, disease and poverty. Or so the western media would have you believe. These disasters did befall much of sub-Saharan Africa, and Dowden recounts them very well, but he also takes us to street and village level to introduce us to that humane side.

Take, for example, the act of greeting somebody in the language of the Baganda people of south-west Uganda, in an area near Lake Victoria where Dowden first made his home. It is, Dowden explains, ‘an age-old pattern of question and answer, of iteration and reiteration. Its rhythms establish relationship order and peace’:

‘Eradde?’ the Baganda say. (It rhymes with day.) ‘Is the lake calm?’ ‘Eradde – The lake is calm.’

‘Bwera?’ – Is there plenty of millet? ‘Bwera’ – There is millet.

‘Mirembe?’ Is it peaceful where you are coming from? ‘Mirembe’ – It is peaceful.

And so on. The greetings are positive no matter what the personal circumstances, though nature is so generous in this corner of Africa that the Baganda rarely have reason to frown.

It’s not all good news, though, even here, where banana trees and coffee bushes burst from the rich earth and soar towards the abundant sunlight. When Christian missionaries arrived in the late 19th and early 20th century they brought not only education, medicine and football (and the Bible), but also their own entrenched sectarianism. Even in rural Uganda, the Catholics took one part of the hill, the Anglicans the other.

Westerners also brought the infectious desire to become western, which affected Dowden’s rural Ugandan neighbours in unusual ways. Where he was happy to toil in the fields of his breath-taking new landscape, the students at the village school where he worked felt it was beneath them. They aspired to suits and ties and briefcases; to life without manual labour. This aspiration to individualism would have profound consequences for the African sense of family.

René Descartes launched western philosophy with ‘I think therefore I am.’ The Kenyan theologian John Mbiti said, ‘I am because we are and, since we are, therefore I am.’ ‘In Europe’, Dowden writes, ‘families shed people, in Africa families acquire people’. The latter is a consequence of the abundant land: many hands make light the work. And with so much space, wars are rarely fought for territory. For women, cattle and revenge, but not for land. The Rwandan genocide of 1994 was an exception.

Before the killing began in early April Dowden had considered warning in his dispatches, much against the prevailing opinion of the time, that genocide was imminent in Rwanda. Now, nearly two decades later, he writes that, ‘The awful truth about the genocide is that it was democratic.’ His background to and analysis of the mass killing of Tutsis by their Hutu compatriots is written with his usual concision and compassion, but, strangely, contains nothing on the theory that the genocide was driven by a desire for land.

In the early 1990s the small nation of Rwanda was one of the most densely populated countries on Earth. In any state where agriculture accounts for nearly half of GDP, and most of that output is from a single crop (coffee), such density would lead to trouble. Rwanda, though, with its long-running rivalry between the dominant but minority Tutsis and shorter, poorer Hutus, was particularly ripe for catastrophe. The organised killing that began on the 6th of April, 1994, in which Hutus murdered around 800,000 Tutsis and moderate or non-compliant Hutus, was as much a response to the shrinking quantity of fertile land as to resentment and fear of the dominant ethnic group.

It’s by no means a universally accepted theory, and the chapter is gripping enough without it, spilling as it does into Africa’s ‘Great War’ in the land formerly known as Zaire. Dowden is at his best mixing history with his own eye-witness accounts. Despite the brutality of what he sees in Rwanda and elsewhere, he remains eternally upbeat about Africa’s future.

The book ends with the extraordinary rise of mobile phone technology in Africa. Western reporting of the Rwandan genocide was hampered not just by ignorance, apathy and self-interest, but also by a lack of communications technology (and transport infrastructure; it took Dowden three days to get there from South Africa). Today, thanks to the growing ubiquity of mobile phones, the truth would have emerged within minutes rather than weeks. For a long time nobody thought such a thing possible, just as nobody in the 1980s and 1990s would have predicted that Africa would now be largely free of violence and winning the war against HIV/AIDS.

‘Africa is finding itself’, Dowden writes in his epilogue. A wealth of information and perspectives awaits the reader who finds this book.

King Leopold's GhostWhile it is of course useful to take a continent-wide view of Africa, sometimes it can be more enriching and exhilarating to explore the history of a single country, although ‘enriching’ will carry a unpleasant resonance once you’ve finished King Leopold’s Ghost, by Adam Hochschild.

The colonisation of the Congo by King Leopold II of Belgium ranks as one of the greatest diplomatic coups of the colonial epoch. It is also one of the most tragic. Even by the standards of the time, the murder, maiming and exploitation that took place in the land astride the Congo river was appalling in its scope and severity.

When American author and journalist Adam Hochschild began exploring the history of the Congo in the mid 1990s he discovered a world that was, much like the Congo for the first European explorers, difficult to penetrate. The Belgian authorities had good reason to keep things hidden. Leopold II, the country’s second king is still officially venerated in statues, roads and metro stations. There is even a statue of him in the Africa Museum outside Brussels, which, in a grotesque irony, one reaches via a grand avenue financed with the plundered riches of the Congo. Thanks in part to Hochschild’s enthralling and explosive account, people have begun to chip away at the legacy of a man whose callous greed killed millions of native Congolese in the late 19th and early 20th century.

The exploitation and death that followed Leopold’s skilful annexation of the Congo in 1865, inexorably tied to the explorations of Henry Morton Stanley, came to a boil in 1890 when a company named Dunlop produced the first rubber tyres for the burgeoning bicycle industry. The disaster that followed was human and environmental. In their desperation for profit, plantation owners used murder, enslavement and dismembering to extract the maximum of output, while demanding their human chattel tap more and more rubber trees.

Leopold cared little for the suffering he inflicted. He never visited his enormous prize, and thwarted all those who tried to expose the truth. Among the brave people who took on the king were E.D. Morel and Roger Casement, founders of the Congo Reform Association. Their organisation made some progress towards gaining justice for the Congolese, but Leopold still died rich and unprosecuted.

Hochschild’s book has all the suspense and action of a Robert Harris novel combined with the factual scope of the aforementioned Martin Meredith. In a vast land, pillaged by men possessed of gigantic egos, he mixes small details with grand and startling ideas. Leopold’s ghost still haunts the land today known as the Democratic Republic of Congo. Thanks to Hochschild, nobody, least of all in Belgium, can pretend it is otherwise.

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