From the dusty Horn of Africa, Dowden takes us on a journey through history and geography through the steamy forests of the Congo River basin, where warring factions replicate like bacteria in a petri dish, and we find the abandoned palaces of that king kleptocrat, Mobutu Sese Seko; the drug-fuelled chaos of war in Sierra Leone and Liberia; the vibrantly corrupt megalopolis of Lagos in Nigeria; the morally topsy-turvy world of Angola's civil war, where US-backed rebels attacked US oil installations protected by Cuban revolutionaries; the growing madness of Robert Mugabe as he truculently turned Zimbabwe from Africa's breadbasket to its basket-case.
The best chapters are those in which Dowden writes from personal experience, where he excels at describing the people and the action around him. Chapters on the civil wars in Angola and Somalia are particularly striking, as is Dowden's harrowing account of the genocide in Rwanda. One unifying theme is the continent's resilience and optimism despite its manifest failures. Of course, Dowden's beat as a journalist has focused on the parts of Africa that have failed in some way, and they tend to be overrepresented in a book that barely mentions peaceful, democratic countries, such as Botswana or Cape Verde. Only in the last chapter does Dowden note that the last decade has actually been reasonably good for the region, with the end of several long-standing conflicts and a period of sustained economic growth.
This may come as a surprise to many, given what most outsiders associate with Africa: poverty, disease, war, political oppression and disasters. The image conjured up is almost exclusively bad news - even at a time when, at last, a power-sharing agreement has been reached in Zimbabwe.
The other truth to learn is Africa's deep spirituality. The spiritual streams are ancient, multifarious - and run deep. The place of spirituality in African life is an essential characteristic that defines the society and individuals. The emphasis is always on a holistic view of life. How people interact with each other is as important as their relationship with their Creator. The dichotomy between secular and spiritual dissolves in African spirituality into a sacramental universe. The West should heed this awareness of the spiritual dimension in life, something Alexander Solzhenitsyn pointed to in his address at Harvard in June 1979. The good, liberal, capitalist, democratic audience was shocked to hear him denounce their values almost as much as the Soviet ones. “A plague on both your houses!” Western democracy and Communism had sprung from the same one-sided Enlightenment roots, both elevating man's reason above the spirit, above God.
“The media’s problem is that, by covering only disasters and wars, it gives us only that image of the continent,” Dowden writes — and 90 percent of the Africans reading this are now nodding at that line. “Persistent images of starving children and men with guns have accumulated into our narrative of the continent.” “The aid industry too has an interest in maintaining the image of Africans as hopeless victims of endless wars and persistent famines,” Dowden continues. “However well intentioned their motives may once have been, aid agencies have helped create the single, distressing image of Africa. They and journalists feed off each other.”
In particular, Dowden lets loose at celebrities like Bob Geldof and politicians like Tony Blair with their “messianic mission to save Africa.” As Dowden writes: “That set teeth on edge. It sounded like saving Africa from the Africans.”
(The New York Times)