Dave's Reviews > Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles

Africa by Richard Dowden
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's review
May 26, 2009

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 forces that have shaped Africa's history and pertinent personal tales of his experiences there. His message is ultimately fairly simple: Africa's problems can only be solved by African people.

The depressing counterweight to that conclusion that I drew from Dowden's accounts is that corruption is so ingrained throughout the power structure of most nations in Africa that it is unlikely that solutions can ever be implemented.

Having set my latest novel in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I was particularly interested in his conclusions about that beleaguered nation:

"In December 2005 a new constitution was confirmed by a referendum and elections were held in July 2006. The assumption of outsiders was that, forced to govern together, the warlords would check each other's theft and violence. The opposite happened. They keep the country divided, cut deals with each other and filled their pockets."

Dowden makes another observation which mirrors my own experience:

"Despite the politics of theft, violence and patronage, Congo still inspires great patriotism among its long-suffering citizens. They may have little loyalty to institutions or a ruler, but Congolese believe desperately in the Congolese nation and a few are prepared to fight its looting bosses."

Africa - Altered States, Ordinary Miracles reveals Dowden's great love for the continent he has spent his life discovering. It is no dewy-eyed romance, however. He reveals all his lover's warts and blemishes, bad breath and occasional frequent bouts of ill-temper in a paean to her beautiful potential.
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