Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles

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Africa is a complex continent of peoples. The West so often treats Africa as if it were one country, and its interventions, therefore, often misfire. Richard Dowden teases out the web of history, myth, rivalry, alliance, ambition, and protest that comprises the current reality for the bankers of Kenya or the oilmen of Nigeria, the judges of Congo or the herdsmen of Sudan, even the Chinese miners in Zimbabwe. Their daily challenges, innovations, and dreams provide a sweeping, illuminating and often uplifting portrait of modern sub-Saharan Africa.

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Editorial Reviews

Nicholas Kristof
Dowden is at his best when looking at grand themes—like the degree to which Africa is more promising than journalists or aid workers often acknowledge…journalists tend to cover Africa in stark and simple contrasts, but countries live and grow and falter in grays. So it's refreshing to encounter not only Dowden's hopefulness, but also his reliance on shading and nuance, on the recognition that the world does not have to feel sorry for Africa to care about it.
—The New York Times
Library Journal

Dowden (director, Royal African Soc.) can be forgiven if each of the 18 chapters in his massive tome feels like an abridged version of a larger book; summarizing the history, politics, and people of an entire continent in one volume is a daunting task. Dowden, however, has a wealth of personal experience to qualify him for the job, having first visited Africa as a volunteer teacher in the 1970s and then become a highly regarded Africa-based journalist. Here he attempts to educate readers about Africa's many different nations and to counter the claim that journalists have harmed Africa by publicizing only negative news about it. He alternates chapters each devoted to a particular African nation with chapters on particular issues. Dowden writes in a conversational tone, freely offering up his opinions on controversial topics including politics, foreign investment, the AIDs crisis, and Africa's leadership vacuum. Like other recent works in English on Africa, such as Martin Meredith's The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence and John Reader's Africa: A Biography of the Continent, this work is essentially subjective; unfortunately, books that describe Africa more objectively at this time are primarily directed at juvenile readers. Despite Dowden's optimistic conclusion, much of what he discusses is deeply tragic and can leave the reader feeling discouraged about Africa's future. Recommended for informed readers; includes an introduction by famed African author Chinua Achebe.
—April Younglove

Kirkus Reviews
The director of the Royal African Society offers an ambitious, roundly informative and still intimate look at sub-Saharan Africa's turbulent road in the modern era. Though Dowden fell in love with the continent when he ventured to Uganda in the early 1970s as an idealistic young teacher, he was booted out by Idi Amin's burgeoning regime. As a journalist covering African politics, he has seen firsthand how the so-called Big Man leaders-specifically Mobutu in Congo, Daniel arap Moi in Kenya, Sani Abacha in Nigeria and Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe-have systematically destroyed many of the fledging nations by establishing a ruthless military rule, squandering rich natural resources and nationalizing industry, thereby holding the reins of wealth. The end of colonialism has given way to horrendous civil wars, genocide and the increased impoverishment of the African people, largely because the government systems left by the imperial powers were not rooted in African culture or experience but were based on Western models. Moreover, Dowden notes, many Western powers, including Britain, France and the United States, supported dictatorships that served their own strategic interests, such as the Israeli training and backing of Amin. The author methodically examines some of the toughest issues facing many African nations in their struggle for self-determination and autonomy: the 1994 genocide in Rwanda; rampant government corruption; the curse of diamonds and oil; and the devastation of the AIDS epidemic. He also looks at the phenomenal success story of Asian emigrants and businesses moving to the continent; the Chinese, in particular, "go where Western workers fear to tread." Dowden displays a deeplyfelt knowledge of the recent history of sub-Sahara Africa, and his suggestions for its future are well-informed and wise. A remarkably full-bodied and frank discussion of Africa's place in the world. Agent: Gordon Wise/Curtis Brown UK
From the Publisher
Times UK
“This book is anecdotal, engaging, realistic, and delightfully up-to-date.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781586487539
  • Publisher: PublicAffairs
  • Publication date: 3/10/2009
  • Pages: 592
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 2.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Richard Dowden is director of the Royal African Society. He spent a decade as Africa Editor of the Independent, and then another decade as Africa Editor of the Economist. He has made three television documentaries on Africa, for the BBC and Channel 4.

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Table of Contents

Map vi

Acknowledgements xi

Foreword Chinua Achebe xiii

1 Africa is a night flight away: Images and realities 1

2 Africa is different: Uganda I 11

3 How it all went wrong: Uganda II 38

4 The end of colonialism: New states, old societies 51

5 Amazing, but is it Africa? Somalia 90

6 Forward to the past: Zimbabwe 127

7 Breaking apart: Sudan 158

8 A tick bigger than the dog: Angola 199

9 Missing the story and the sequel: Burundi and Rwanda 223

10 God, trust and trade: Senegal 255

11 Dancers and the leopard men Sierra Leone 284

12 The positive positive women: AIDS in Africa 321

13 Copying King Leopold: Congo 353

14 Not just another country: South Africa 380

15 Meat and money: Eating in Kenya 415

16 Look out world: Nigeria 439

17 New colonists or old friends? Asia in Africa 484

18 Phones, Asians and the professionals: The new Africa 509

Epilogue 543

Further Reading 551

Index 554

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 20 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 3, 2010


    Everybody interested in Africa should read this book, because beyond the references to history, religious aspects, statistics and events, the text is permeated with Dowden's love and respect for the people of a culture he so skillfully helps us to understand.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 29, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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