Africa, Dispatches from a Fragile Continent by Blaine Harden

The best book on Africa you’re likely to read. Acid commentaries on modern African culture and corruption from the ground up.

If you want to understand anything at all about the state of modern Africa then Blaine Harden is the man to read. A reporter for the Washington Post, his Africa – Dispatches from a Fragile Continent is a welcome reminder that there is such a thing as honest journalism.

Blain Harden’s book deals with varying themes of the family in Africa, river economies, and the incompetence of aid programs, all with the continuing theme of corruption, pilfering and brutality of the Big Men in charge. The book is written in 7 chapters, each with a particular thrust and the essays on economics and society are spruced with Harden’s own travel experience and on the spot observations that make what could have been rather dry reportage into something alive and kicking on the page.

One of Blaine Harden’s qualities is in acknowledging his own limitations both in understanding and perspective. He begins the book with his own introduction to Africa, in the first great famine in Ethiopia, where he interviews a starving woman who has just lost her baby. He realises that there is no way he can bridge the gap and wonders how me must appear to her:

“…a white foreigner whose face was concealed behind dark sunglasses, a baseball cap, a zoom lens, a greasy coating of Coppertone sunblock cream.”

Understanding that he need to get close, Blaine Harden submits himself to a grueling boat trip down the Congo River in Zaire; a ship chugging along at double its capacity, people, animals and shit everywhere, natives clinging to the side to be cheated for their merchandise by the canny merchants on board. No wonder Harden finds himself quoting Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, though the present day reality is far louder and bleaker.

‘Once a week for decades, “The heart of an immense darkness” has been blighted by river boats like this one. Part supermarket, part disco, part abbatoir, part brothel, the boat is open 24 hours a day for river business.’

Anyone who feels they’ve had it hard on their travels should consider what it’s like on board a boat there the meals regularly kill hundreds of their passengers.

Harden explains about the history of Zaire (formerly and now once more called the Congo), detailing the blood-thirsty and torturous regime of King Leopold of Belgium, relating the past exploitations to current politics. This comes to be a running theme through Africa – Dispatches from a Fragile Continent, as Harden makes no bones about mentioning the monumental fuck-up that colonisation was, creating mythical countries with arbitrary boundaries that lumped all kinds of ethnic and tribal groups together under the guise of a single nation.

Harden explores these themes in more depth looking at the burial rights of a dead lawyer in Kenya, whose tribe want to claim him back, long after he renounced his tribal ways; we also hear of the struggle of educated tribal kids to bring back home to the village the money their families expect from their citified kids; and also of the Dinka herdman, Manute Bol, who, standing at 7 feet 6 inches tall, who makes it in the NBA, but whose basketball success only intensifies his loyalty to his tribe back in the Sudan.

Harden can be funny, ironical or tough, as he examines Western involvement in Africa, pointing out the aid packages that keep corrupt dictators in power, the charitable projects that end up making the locals poorer and the ministers in charge richer, due to all the kickbacks which, he tells us, never run at less than 10% of the scheme’s funding.

Most absurd of all are the Norwegians who arrive at Lake Turhana in Kenya to teach the Turhana tribesmen how to fish. They bring 30 boats, build a refrigeration plant to store the fish for export and spend another $20 million on road to Nairobi to feed the city. It’s only a few years later though that the lake periodically dries out, stranding the boats in the mud, the cooperative is run by outsiders who cheat the Turhana, and they realise that the cost of running the refrigeration plant would make the tribesmen lose money – it ends up as ‘the new mountain’, an effigy to the intensity of the good intentions of people who had no idea how things work in Africa. But the Norwegians seemed to enjoy their failure more than success.

‘In Northwest Kenya, they were performing an act of Nordic contrition. Their spending, their failure and their hand-wringing over their failure was Lutheran recompense for North Sea oil wealth and, perhaps, original sin.’

Kenya, Liberia and Nigeria get similar treatment from Harden Blaine but he doesn’t see them as lost causes, just countries managed with such incompetence and corruption by the Big Men of Africa, so interested only in their own popularity cults that the welfare of their people is only ever a distant worry.

Blaine Harden’s Africa – Dispatches from a Fragile Continent was written in 1990 but the lesson from the past and the corruption of the present make this essential reading for anyone with the desire to understand modern Africa.