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Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles

4.14  ·  Rating details ·  1,644 ratings  ·  132 reviews
After a lifetime's close observation of the continent, one of the world's finest Africa correspondents has penned a landmark book on life and death in modern Africa. In captivating prose, Dowden spins tales of cults and commerce in Senegal and traditional spirituality in Sierra Leone; analyzes the impact of oil and the internet on Nigeria and aid on Sudan; and examines ...more
Hardcover, 576 pages
Published November 1st 2008 by Portobello Books (first published December 31st 2007)
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 ·  1,644 ratings  ·  132 reviews

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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
May 26, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Jul 25, 2011 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 ...more
Nirmal Ghimire
Jul 16, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
One of the best books I've read recently!!! HIGHLY recommended!!! It is so engrossing that you don't feel like putting down.
Aug 07, 2019 rated it really liked it
This book is very interesting.
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
Feb 27, 2013 rated it really liked it
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.
Toon Timmers
Nov 28, 2019 rated it really liked it
It is probably a bit outdated by now but it gives interesting insight in why Africa is what it is, based on personal experience on the continent. It looks mostly at the problems and rarely focuses on solutions that have been found or progress that has been made. Overall a thoroughly enjoyable and interesting read.
Jul 05, 2018 rated it did not like it
I got this book as I am preparing to visit Senegal, not with super high expectations but hoping for it to be a reasonably light read that would still give me some interesting background in the continent. Admittedly, I did not finish this book because it is terribly written, disorganized, and sometimes bordering on offensive. Dowden goes on and on in the first chapter about how the West views Africa as one unified geographical area, as a chaotic disaster zone, as filled with nothing but violence ...more
Sep 09, 2014 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
Jul 28, 2014 rated it liked it
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
Apr 27, 2009 rated it liked it
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
Dec 14, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: africa
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 ...more
Jun 03, 2009 rated it really liked it
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.
Nov 29, 2010 rated it really liked it
Great reference book, not one to be read completely or ever "finished."
Ray Patrin
I learned a lot from this book; unfortunately most of it was about the horrors and atrocities that have afflicted the countries of Africa. Dowden, at times, seems to be either a cock-eyed optimist or so naive as to be blind--to the realities that he himself eye-witnessed--so as not to provide an objective, honest presentation of the facts, that I started questioning what I was reading. For example, "...gangs armed with machetes, spears and sharpened bamboos stabbed and hacked...women and ...more
Chloe Smith
Jan 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
Africa is an incredibly written novel covering all political and social aspects of south-Saharan Africa. Although it can be repetitive at times, this helped me understand and soak in the information given, later helping me draw connections between significant events and the effect they have had on present-day Africa.
I was originally drawn to this book because Dowden does not label Africa as one large, uncivil country, but instead views it as a continent filled with history and ethnic boundaries
Christopher McDonald
Jan 11, 2018 rated it it was amazing
"Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles" is a must read for any and all 'westerners' to help better understand the history, sentiments and cultures of the vast continent that is Africa. All too often people, especially 'westerners,' lump the countries and people of Africa into one category. That misconception is ignorance on the highest level. I too have been guilty of it in the past. This book won't fully be a fix-it-all in comprehension, but it's a good launchpad.

I almost gave this book 4
Sep 23, 2019 rated it liked it
3.5 stars. I learned a lot about Africa reading this book, having known very little beforehand other than the general history of the continent and its relationship to the outside world. Some of the chapters are better than others. My favorites were the ones on Somalia, Sudan, Congo and South Africa. Other chapters were vague and devolved into general discussions about Africa, such as the one on Senegal. There was some awkward prose at times (including patronizing stereotypes) and as another ...more
Daniel Gauss
Nov 10, 2017 rated it it was ok
I bought this from a Barnes and Noble without looking at the publication date. This book is very much out of date at this time, so I would highly recommend that you not buy it. Also, the book is filled with anecdotal passages based on the journalist's own experiences in Africa. I just don't feel this book gave me the bang I wanted for my buck -it added a little to what I already knew, but not much. If you are hoping to use this book to get an overview of and some insights into several African ...more
Kevin Considine
Mar 11, 2017 rated it really liked it
This book was recommended to me by a British expat, married to a Malawian for almost 50 years and living most of his adult life in Africa. He suggested if you want to understand Africa this is one book you should read. I visited here in the 80's and '90's and have been trying to understand the changes. This book seemed dead on in explaining the poor leadership, corrupt governments, outside influences that operated with goals in conflict with Africans.

I am halfway through a 4 month journey and
Tina Dreffin
Jan 30, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Dowdens' insight and knowledge of Africa are impressive. Having traveled to most of the countries in Africa as an author, I found his account accurate–a quality hard to find in some writers. His criticisms of 'big men', the militaristic Americans, and the Chinese gave me additional insight into the tragedy of Africans against the world. It's pitiful the African leaders care so little about their nations, preferring to bank away AID money in European bank accounts.

If you have an interest in
Rowan Sully Sully
Jul 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Picked this up back in 2012 before a trip to east Africa and finally got round to finishing it this year.

Each chapter is based around a different country, so this is a great book to read if you’re interested in an overview African contemporary history by almost every sub Saharan country.

It’s very readable, with each section containing historical background and anecdotes from personal experiences.

Only problem is that reading it almost 8 years after it was published has meant that there is a fair
Sep 24, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A fast paced, well informed history of much of the major countries in sub-sahara Africa. Author Richard Dowden interweaves his own experiences traveling through sub-sahara Africa, with history and major topics such as AIDS and Chinese investment in Africa. Each chapter covers a country or major event and although they don't read as definitive chapters on the countries they are based on they give the reader a good feel for the different countries visited by Dowden. Although it is a few years old ...more
Dec 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Sobering account of Africa

Africa is a latticework of interwoven realities, cultures, and narratives. Richard takes the reader into the hidden, the dark and the colorful until one tapestry is revealed - realistic hopefulness. Being a missionary and social entrepreneur, one gets overwhelmed and discouraged by the pace and enormous challenges in Africa. I could not put this book down... it challenged me to regroup, rethink, and work harder to build deep and meaningful relationships with all this
Mar 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing
The author started as a volunteer teacher and then became a reporter all over Africa. The book is now ten years old, but it is a fascinating view of the history of the continent over many decades -- what the west did cynically or deliberately wrong, but also how frustrating the continent is and times the west tried to do right and still made a mess. Heartbreaking, detailed, powerful, and surprisingly, for such a grim topic, at times it is hopeful.
Aug 07, 2017 rated it really liked it
In the West, we tend to have a fairly homogeneous view of Africa, and this book does an admirable job of convincing its readers otherwise. Mr. Dowden does a great job weaving personal stories with historical accounts as he winds his way through various parts of Africa. I read this while traveling through Africa for the first time, so it likely had a special effect on me, but I believe that anyone interested in learning about different cultures would really enjoy it as well.
Mar 19, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Reading this book will forever change my view on politics in Africa. The writing paints a picture in my mind. This book is a must have for people planning to go to Africa. It covers so many different countries yet every time it's a whole new experience.
Dennis Herlocker
Jun 25, 2019 rated it it was amazing
An excellent book. If you want to understand why African nations are the way they are now (or were in 2008) be sure to read it. I can vouch for the accuracy of the chapters on Kenya and Somalia because I lived for several years in both countries.
Mar 26, 2018 rated it liked it
If you know nothing about Africa this is very readable and comprehensive book. I don’t suspect I retained much of the information contained in this huge book, but if I remember even 10 percent of it I will be better off.
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