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Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles

4.16  ·  Rating Details  ·  1,047 Ratings  ·  101 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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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
May 26, 2009 Dave rated it it was amazing
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
Jul 25, 2011 Kate rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
May 23, 2013 Becky rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Sep 10, 2014 Arno rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: africa
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
Aug 11, 2014 Lisa rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jun 03, 2009 Caleb rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Moyo Oluwa
Mar 11, 2016 Moyo Oluwa rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jun 03, 2014 Tania rated it liked it
Shelves: 3-star-wonders
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
Mar 31, 2015 Teo rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: africa
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
Jan 01, 2015 Leif rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Chris Steeden
'It is the prize that Africa offers the rest of the world: humanity' states the author Richard Dowden who has a remarkable knowledge of Africa through his work as a teacher and journalist in the continent.

In the mid-1990s 31 out of Africa's 53 countries were suffering from civil war or serious civil disturbance. Africa has more than 2000 languages and cultures. This is an important statistic as will be uncovered further in the book in-respect to how African boundaries were drawn up in Europe by
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
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
May 24, 2012 Crcfozzie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
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
Sep 18, 2015 AJ rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: africa, own
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
Nov 23, 2009 Liz rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
Aug 27, 2009 Adrienne rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Sep 23, 2009 Sara rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: africa, journalism
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
May 11, 2015 Pedro Mesquita rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jul 07, 2010 Shannon Pryor rated it liked it
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
Sharon Fawcett
Jul 27, 2015 Sharon Fawcett rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: africa, academic
Richard Dowden breaks down stereotypes about Africa, analyses its strenghths and weaknesses, and shows that the hope for the continent lies with its own people. This book is simultaneously uplifting and disturbing, and while reading it I found myself tending toward despair more than hope. It is a lengthy read, but highly informative!
Jeff Uren
Feb 03, 2014 Jeff Uren rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Regina Valentine
Feb 25, 2016 Regina Valentine rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I read this book my freshman year of college and it had a pretty profound effect on me. I started a club because of it. I can't exactly remember all of the details, but anytime I want to read something about Africa, I reference this book first.
David Hurst
Sep 02, 2013 David Hurst rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: africa
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
Cath Murphy
Apr 23, 2011 Cath Murphy rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
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
May 09, 2010 Sally rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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