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Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles

4.2 of 5 stars 4.20  ·  rating details  ·  853 ratings  ·  89 reviews
For the past three decades, Richard Dowden has travelled Africa, listening, learning, and constantly re-evaluating all he thinks he knows. He tells the story of modern sub-Saharan Africa - an area afflicted by poverty, disease and war, but also a place of breathtaking beauty, generosity, and possibility.
Paperback, 448 pages
Published May 4th 2009 by Portobello Books Ltd (first published December 31st 2007)
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Hana
Two and a half stars. When Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles is good it is wonderful. There is a five star book hidden in here, but alas, too much of the book is confusing, repetitive and poorly organized. Largely at fault, I think, are over-ambitious goals coupled with very poor editing.

As an example I’ll take Chapter 10 on Senegal: God, Trust and Trade. It starts off splendidly, with a short biography of Amadu Bamba, the Sufi mystic founder of Senegal’s Mouride movement. Dowden descri
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Dave
As an author and activist, I am generally optimistic about Africa's future, but Richard Dowden tempered my hope with a sobering dose of reality based on his decades of reporting on the continent. His powerful guide to sub-Saharan Africa is a must-read for anyone who hopes to understand why Africa is the mess it is.

Dowden is the director of the Royal African Society and spent two decades as Africa editor of the Independent and the Economist. His book is filled with both studied thoughts on the fo
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Kate
Ok, i will start the review by noting that I have never been to Africa, and while I was a history major and an am an avid global news reader, i don't have any particular specialized knowledge of Africa. That is, of course, why I checked out the book, and of course, it doesn't make me particularly qualified to criticize or fact-check things he says in the book. I did check the book out from the library with an air of skepticism that an author could cover such a vast and diverse continent in one b ...more
Arno
The art adorning the cover of "Africa" highlights a key paradox in the enlightening if often unfortunately simplistic book. Pictured is a young, shirtless boy holding a soccer ball as the sun sets behind him. A note on the back of the book tells the reader the boy’s name, adding that he is a fan of the British football club Arsenal, like Dowden himself. In providing this information, Dowden counters the potential for the cover portrait to merely serve as an anonymous face of poor, sub-Saharan Af ...more
Lisa
It is interesting, but it does rely a lot on his own personal experiences rather than being a more of a solid research-based book. He also tends to make the mistake that lots of Westerners do, of generalising about the continent or referring to it as if it was a single country, like "all Africans love music" "Africa needs to do x, y and z" . I also found it quite negative, despite stating at the beginning that the West should stop viewing Africa as a charity case, or a war torn continent, a lot ...more
Maryam Talakoob
I came across this book on the Economist's book review list. I started reading it a while ago, put it down and now reading parts of it. Dowden goes from East to South to West to North Africa. His observations are really astute as a reporter but mostly on the political level. I didn't find a deep immersion or impression in rural societies where he covers a specific country. Altogether, his analysis of the war torn regions like Somalia, Sudan, Zimbabwe and Uganda is very impressive. Dowden really ...more
Stuart Woolf
Africa is a tricky subject: consumers of its history will expect it to be prepackaged as continental history, when, even at the level of individual nation-states, it is perhaps most appropriate to think of it as a large collection of tribes and clans, each with its own language and traditions and in no way confined to preexisting geographic boundaries. (Certain patterns emerge in postcolonial history, whatever the region: India is also a tricky subject because many of its provinces speak entirel ...more
Caleb
A good but not great book with some wonderful stories and some flawed sections. Dowden has been in many of Africa's hot spots over the last thirty years and had great stories (and history) on many countries. That said, there were sections that got whiny and the entire epilogue was redundant to the point of being a waste of time. Nevertheless, for a deep look into Africa, into places like Angola and Sierra Leone, this is worth the warts.
Tania
I bought this for 1.50 at a charity shop.

I began reading immediately, because I was excited by the promise of 30 years experience travelling and covering Africa and a semblance of historic context for the countries I've heard about, but know almost nothing about.
That said, there are a lot of things that I enjoyed about this book, but mostly, what really stands out to me, is that it could've been a much better book. It irks me that Dowden can't shake off his white liberalism. Sometimes, he can
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Becky
This book took me forever to finish, but it was worth it. I don't know much about African history besides well-known events/places (i.e. Rwandan genecide, South African apartheid, Darfur, ect.). I enjoyed learning about Africa's history/way of life through the eyes of a journalist.
Teo
A great read, not flawless, with enough unnecessary generalisations and what may seem as Western pessimism at times, this book is actually an excellent depiction of the continent that fascinates us and the author alike. Dowden has travelled, worked, lived in Africa since the 70s, his experience brings a lot to the book, his stories captivating, I loved the chapter on Senegal, which is a country you don't often meet in books "on Africa", paradoxically, due to its rather peaceful recent history. T ...more
Leif
Absolutely excellent. Some organizational problems interfere with middle to late chapters as material seems to have been culled from various publications across the years, and as a result promised information goes amiss (the chapter on Senegal, for instance, bears little relationship to any specific country). That said, these are generous, acute, and informative observations on Africa, and their author is bold enough to step well beyond established critiques of social and political movements whi ...more
Roy Bartle
An interesting survey of some of the headline countries in Africa, and their strengths and weaknesses. The book lies somewhere between modern history and development studies, in that it provides post-independence historical narrative and highlights some of the developmental challenges encountered. What kept me from rating it with more marks is that, whilst I gained greater insights into the complexity of African development and retardation, the book did not seem to offer many hypotheses or solut ...more
Yves Gounin
Richard Dowden sillonne le continent africain depuis plus de quarante ans. Ce journaliste britannique a couvert l’Afrique pour le Times, The Independent et The Economist avant de prendre la tête de la prestigieuse Royal African society. Quatre ans après sa publication à Londres, "Africa, Altered States, Ordinary Miracles" est enfin traduit en français. Bizarrement, c’est un éditeur belge spécialisé dans la littérature de voyages qui en a pris l’initiative. La traduction est calamiteuse mais prés ...more
Crcfozzie
At first this seems like a horribly pessimistic book--stories of war, genocide and poverty. But underneath it all, there is a strange sense of optimism. Every time the author describes a country being ravaged by violence or gutted by corruption, somehow the people of Africa keep picking themselves back up again and carrying on living. Kept down by corrupt leaders and international meddlers, many of the countries he describes have bleak histories; but the stories of the regular people left me wit ...more
The American Conservative
'Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles is as much love story as political analysis. For example, though Dowden describes the toll taken by Somalia’s bloody and ceaseless civil wars, he also celebrates the fierce Somali spirit: “Their poetry reveres bravery and revenge. One of their songs composed during the 1978 war with Ethiopia runs: “if I don’t wash the face of the land with the blood of the enemy, I am not a Somali.”

Dowden loves Africa despite its savagery, and he persuades his reader to
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AJ
It took me a very long time to read this book, but only because I read it on my breaks at work and it's very long. I've read snippets from it many times over the years, but this was the first time I'd decided to read it cover to cover - and oh man am I glad I did.

I loved this book. The author clearly loves Africa, and is, of course, well versed in the good, the bad, and the ugly there. The book focuses on sub-Saharan Africa - so it's not for the North Africa lover. The author has made a career i
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Liz
I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this book, other than glad to be finished with it. I need to stop optimistically checking out books from the library that coincide with my job, or would have been on a grad school reading list. The length of this book and the fact that it covers such a wide array of places and topics definitely slowed down my momentum.

The author has spent a large chunk of his life in Africa, and is clearly committed to the well-being of its societies and people. I have only
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Adrienne
This book is about the modern history of sub-saharan Africa. I liked that the author made no attempt to be unbiased; he simply attempted to make his biases apparent. The author lived in Africa before independence and returned there to roam around as a journalist for about 30 years after independence.

I'm finally going to say that a book was well edited, but that does not mean it was short. This monster clocks in at 550 well filled pages.

A dozen or so chapters tell the modern history of chunks of
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Sara
Richard Dowden, before taking up the post for the Economist, has been for many years the Africa Editor of the Independent. I was very curious to read his work and I have found, first of all, the immense love he feels for the continent! According to me this is important… he can transmit passion to the reader. I believe the author has a profound and intimate understanding of the topics he writes about thanks to the many years he has spent in Africa… even though I have found some of his points argu ...more
Pedro Mesquita
Probably the best description of African culture, politics and society available. Richard Dowden is a journalist that covered most key events of the last 40 years, from the rise of Idi Amid in Uganda to the end of Apartheid in South Africa and the genocide in Rwanda. He gives us a different view of Africa - not the poor, sick, aid desperate one that we know in the West, but a young, vibrant, optimistic one, impatient to grow. A thrilling adventure
Shannon Pryor
I have become increasingly aware of my lack of knowledge of current events and African history and thought this book might be a good way to start getting up to speed. While I don't regret buying or reading this book, I was frustrated frequently. Dowden has spent considerable time in sub Saharan Africa as a journalist. The book is written to primarily focus on one country per chapter and describes recent (primarily political) history in a way that provides context for Dowden to tell of his person ...more
Jeff Uren
A bit quick through the different areas of African conflict, whether medical, violent or political. Probably a good start for anyone with a passing interest in Africa, its history and a bit about its current state. The writer chose his locations and topics very well and it makes for a great read.
David Hurst
Good reference on recent sub-saharan African history. Although subject matter is initially a little depressing as you read about country after country that has been looted by its head of state. The book presents a convincing case that Western governments are doing more harm than good with aid, because the aid keeps the robbers in power and hungry to remain there. Also convincing on China's involvement.

The last chapter is uplifting because it documents the rise of the honest middle class due to d
...more
Cath Murphy
Excellent, penetrating, moving. Dowden was the Africa editor at the Economist and he has lived and worked in the continent for the whole of his adult life. The stories he tells of countries such as Uganda, Somalia and Kenya reveal once again how diverse this continent is and how totally it has been ruined by colonialisation and the subsequent antics of Western powers. One anecdote sprang out at me: in Black Hawk Down, the Hollywood version of the misguided blundering attempt by US forces to kidn ...more
Sally
This is a really great book because it not only talks about Africa's history, one country at a time (so you can read the ones you are interested in), but the author tells his own story about his visits to each country. He is really good at explaining how great the African people are, and also why they are so difficult for Westerners to understand. He tries to help the reader understand the terrible and violent side of African society and why genocide and war have been so much a part of African h ...more
Dan
I bought this book in the Amsterdam airport in October on the way to Tanzania for my second trip teaching in a medical school there. I just finished it (12/14/09). Although there is very little specific to Tanzania, the one African country I am familiar with, I found it to be an excellent overview of how Africa got to be where it is today. For all the terrible stories of bloodshed and corruption, it ultimately is a hopeful book. It is a very personal story and as such I found it to be gripping a ...more
Sheila
Dowden writes "Once again the message from Africa was clear and simple; you cannot achieve anything in Africa unless you work with Africans. To do that you need to understand Africa and how it thinks and works." And this is what the author tries to do in this book: and mostly I think he succeeds. As a journalist in Africa for over three decades, he writes more about the politics of Africa than its people. He writes what he knows. The book is a series of essays on different countries and problems ...more
René Van leeuwen
Fantastic book, providing a good insight in the history and present of the beautiful continent Africa.
Markus
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De staat van Afrika Walks after wild flowers

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