I’ve just finished Richard Dowden’s book, Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles, part of my crash course on African history. Thanks for all the good book suggestions. I’ll append (in no particular order) the list of books people have recommended below.
Dowden’s book is good. Another quite long (600 pages plus) look at sub-Saharan Africa’s past and present. It is a sympathetic and humane treatment based upon the author’s decades long experience as a teacher and journalist working in Africa. Dowden weaves personal stories of people and places into pithy chapters on the history and politics of various countries. The passages of memoire are quite effective in giving us glimpses into the flesh and blood stories of people who are often overlooked in histories.
Again I would have liked to hear more about the role of religion in African history. To his credit Dowden tries. He claims that “belief in God and the world of spirits is universal and powerful in Africa” (p. 324). While this seems a bit of an overstatement to me, at least he is trying and he does try to offer sympathetic portrayals of the religious motivations of a variety of folks in the book. However, he occasionally gets basic facts wrong. In one place he says, “In the sixth century AD Islam spread across North Africa from Arabia and cut Ethiopia off from the rest of the Christian world” (p. 504). Quite wrong, given the fact that Muhammad didn’t received his first revelation of the Qur’an until 610 AD. Then there is the bizarre passage where Dowden writes: “Cannibalism was practiced in Africa, but largely for spiritual reasons. It was not eating people as if they were animals. This may not affect the morality of it, but cannibalism’s spiritual aspect shows that, far from being an act of contempt for the victim, it showed respect. It was not a question of chicken, beef or human for dinner. To eat the vital organs of someone is to absorb their spirit into you. The nutrition is spiritual, not physical. So, traditionally, a warrior might eat the liver of his dead enemy to absorb his spirit, become part of him. There is also a belief that a spirit will not haunt itself, so if you eat part of the body of a dead enemy, his spirit will not come back to haunt you. It is not so far from the Aristotelian Catholic belief in transubstantiation in the Eucharist: eating the real body and blood of Christ but in the form of bread and wine. The idea is the same: eating ordinary food makes it part of you, eating God — or another person — makes you part of the devoured” (p. 331). It’s hard to know where to begin with such paragraph. A good editor or perhaps a good Catholic friend would have told him to delete the whole thing.
Despite these lapses, as I said, Dowden’s book is good. He does not sidestep the corruption and violence, but also maintains throughout a love for people and an optimism for the continent. Given the fact that as a journalist he often covered (and recounts at length in this book) the tragedies and horrors of recent African history, one wonders how he manages to remain so optimistic. However he does it, he does, and in a closing chapter he gives a sketch of the new Africa he sees emerging. It is a hopeful picture of Africa’s future. I found quite interesting what he says is driving the new Africa. He says, “There are three main motors driving this change: China, mobile phones and the emergence of a new African middle class.” It is hard to know how to assess this claim. Yet, a common theme in what Dowden is pointing to as hopeful are those people and movements that are embracing globalization rather than turning inward.
Time will tell.
Here’s my book list:
Martin Meredith, The State of Africa
John Parker & Richard Rathbone, African History: A Short Introduction
Charlie English, The Book Smugglers of Timbuktu
Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost
Tom Burgiss, The Looting Machine – Warlords, Tycoons, Smugglers and the Systematic Looting of Africa
Paul Kenyon, Dictatorland – the Men Who Stole Africa
Morten Jerven, Why Economists Get it Wrong
Dambisa Moyo, Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How there is a Better Way for Africa.
Richard Dowden, Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles
Joshua Hammer, Badass Librarians of Timbuktu
Trevor Noah, Born A Crime
Glad to receive some more suggestions.