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Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles
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Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles

4.2 of 5 stars 4.20  ·  rating details  ·  712 ratings  ·  81 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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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...more
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
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
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
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.
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...more
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.
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
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...more
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...more
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...more
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...more
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
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
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
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
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.
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This book sat on my shelf for a long time because it looked daunting and textbook-y, and it was, but I'm glad I read it. I learned a lot. There were a lot of facts and bits of history (harder for me, personally, to get through) intertwined with fascinating albeit disturbing stories about blood diamonds, tribal conflicts, AIDS, corruption and the like. I thought the last couple chapters especially on China's influence and Africa's future are worth reading as stand-alone chapters if you are intere...more
I enjoyed the book and think it is a pretty good intro to the topic but could only give three stars due to the uneven quality of the writing and analysis. Some chapters are really interesting and insightful but others are not so much. Political analysis was mostly excellent but when the author made statements on economy, culture, etc., I was wondering on what basis he did so as I didn't see much evidence backing him up in the book. I definitely plan to read more on Africa to gain more in-depth k...more
Everyone should read this book. Africa's role in the world is ever evolving and increasingly important.

The author does a chapter on each country, giving you a snapshot of how different African nations are but also how interdependent and interconnected to one another. He looks to their past, presents, and futures, in an interesting and succinct way.

This book is a launch pad to tons of other reads on africa. Read this and I guarantee it will lead to at least one memoir or history book.
In-depth and insightful. This is one of the best non-fiction books I have read in a really long time. As somebody who doesn't have a lot of detailed knowledge of African politics I felt that this book provided a solid fondation and definitely inspired me to read more on the subject.

Dowden's love for the African continent shone throughout the book and the overwhelming sentiment was of optimism.

A must-read imho.
A good overview of the recent history in many African countries including Uganda, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, South Africa, Rwanda and Burundi and others. His chapters on China in Africa and HIV/AIDS put a different spin on issues I have limited knowledge of and I enjoyed his perspective as a journalist. If you are interested in sub-Saharan Africa over the last fifty years and want some idea of the future, then I recommend this book.
Panashe M.
Most of the reviews here are by non-Africans, who definitely recommend this book to. As a Zimbabwean, I found the chapter on Zimbabwe particularly good as the authour looks at Robert Mugabe's motivation for all he's done, rather than just demonising him. Also, I didn't know a lot about East and West African history so those aspects of the book were illuminating, allowing me to draw comparisons with my own country. A very good read
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