Saturday, April 21, 2007

travel journalism: Blaine Harden

Africa: dispatches from a fragile continent is an amazing book. I would definitely put it on my list of Top 100 books. Jochen and I bought it in Pretoria (South Africa), on our way to Namibia. We both loved it and discussed for hours. Among many books that we read about Africa this was by far the best: the most honest, unbiased and eye-opening.

This book was written by Blaine Harden, when he was the Washington Post bureau chief in sub-Saharan Africa (from 1985 to 1989). There are seven chapters in his book, each focusing on a different African country: Liberia, Ghana, Nigeria, Zaire, Sudan, Kenya, and Zambia. Harden writes about his travels and the people he met, and thanks to it the book reads like an adventure story. But at the same time he is analyzing the political situation of each area.

Even tough “Dispatches…” were published 17 years ago and describe the situation of only few countries, still, the observations Harden makes can be applied also today to almost all African countries. For example Harden says:
Westerners who give money and economic advice to Africa, as well as those who write about the continent, spend far too much time looking in the wrong direction. We concentrate our energies on semi-fictional, barely functional, frequently irrelevant Western imports: central bureaucracies, ministerial policy papers, macro-economic statistics, and the "sincerity" of leadership commitment to free-market reform. All of which can be condemned, applauded, or made fun of within easy walking distance of a four-star hotel. Meanwhile, we are ignorant of the indigenous system that help hold the whole sorry mess together.

As much as we are unwilling to accept it, the African way of keeping “the whole sorry mess together” is to have a rule of Big Men who forcibly takes control of the country until some other Big Man wrests power from him. This again proves to be true even in the case of today’s “democratic” presidential elections in Nigeria:

Nigeria's presidential election was tainted by violence and fraud, a far cry from the credible democratic vote many had hoped would mark the country's first handover from one civilian president to another.

Nigerians hoping for an honest leader to fight endemic corruption voted in presidential elections Saturday, but disarray at the polls and a failed truck bombing caused unease in a country trying to solidify democratic rule.

Obasanjo admitted that the vote was flawed, but said Nigerians were nonetheless devoted to democracy. (...) As was widely expected, Umaru Yar'Adua, the 56-year old Muslim governor of northern Katsina state, won in a landslide.

If you are still not convinced to read Harden’s book, maybe this review will convince you (The book can be bought on amazon under 1$!!!).

Here is also a sample of Harden’s writing for the Washington Post about Nigeria in 1987. Even though it is an old article, it is still very interesting and could equally well be written today.