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Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles

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4.15  ·  Rating details ·  1,355 Ratings  ·  112 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 wha ...more
Hardcover, 592 pages
Published March 10th 2009 by PublicAffairs (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
...more
Dave
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 fo
...more
Kate
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 b ...more
Becky
Feb 27, 2013 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.
Tania
May 23, 2014 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 3-star-enjoyment
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
Arno
Sep 09, 2014 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
Lisa
Jul 28, 2014 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
Caleb
Jun 03, 2009 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.
Daniel Gauss
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 co ...more
Kevin Considine
Mar 11, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 fe
...more
Tina Dreffin
Jan 30, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 knowi
...more
Jonathan
Sep 24, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Jeff
Aug 07, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Okidoki
Nov 29, 2017 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Visst finns det läsvärda avsnitt, men boken är inte värd en investering. Vilken slags läsare hade han tänkt sig? Samla artiklar från dagspressen i stället. Där får man både faktarutor och kartor, något som helt saknas här.
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
AJ
Aug 22, 2009 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
...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
Adrienne
Aug 27, 2009 rated it really liked it
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
Christina Craig
Oct 30, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: jointly-africa
This book is phenomenal. The author is a journalist who has spent his entire career covering Africa, some 30 years or so. He weaves so many things together (beautiful landscapes with horrific wars, eccentric humanitarian aid workers with a broad account of Sudan's history, government hierarchies with a Kenyan hotel, the ideas of African tradition with the crumbling South African support of HIV/AIDS education) to create an honest, compelling, and comprehensive account of a piece of this world tha ...more
Sara
Sep 13, 2009 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
Teo
Mar 03, 2015 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
Crcfozzie
Apr 25, 2012 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
Liz
Oct 12, 2009 rated it it was ok
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
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
Paul
Oct 02, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a book full of interesting gems but also fluff and waffle. I'm glad I made my way through it to enjoy the gems, but wish I'd skipped past sections which drifted on. Dowden himself acknowledges that much discussion of Africa descends into ascribing qualities to all Africans despite the continent's massive size. However, he still manages to drift into these generalisms and these are the weakest parts of the book. Furthermore, the style often leaves much to be desired as what start as coher ...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
David Hurst
Aug 18, 2013 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
...more
Sheila
Aug 23, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
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
Cath Murphy
Mar 24, 2011 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
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