In some ways, Howard French didn’t have a choice about writing “A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa” (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004). The book chronicles some of the troubles of Africa’s recent past, particularly the devastating war in what was then called Zaire. “I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t wrestle with it and attempt to bring it to the world’s attention,” French said at a recent OPC book night. “This is about the failure of mankind.”
French has had a long relationship with the continent, particularly with West Africa. As he was heading off to college in 1975, his father, a doctor, took a job with the World Health Organization in Abidjan, the capital of the Ivory Coast. French spent summers with his family, and then moved there after college. Initially, he had no interest in journalism—he thought he’d try to write short stories, maybe a novel—but he began freelancing, soon filling in for The Washington Post bureau chief. “What seized me,” he said, “was the idea that people would pay me to go somewhere and write about it.” After his first son was born, he decided to get a full time job, and landed with The New York Times at the metro desk in New York.
French was desperate for a foreign posting. The Times wanted to send him back to Africa, but French resisted. “It was not that I thought poorly of Africa—but I knew that they did,” he said. He was worried that his stories would get little play, and besides, he wanted to go somewhere new. The Times offered him the Caribbean post, and he felt he couldn’t say no. Midway through his time there, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was first elected and then overthrown—making Haiti one of the biggest foreign stories of the year. French covered it intensely, and when his time was finished, he was offered Africa once again.
This time, French accepted and he and his family returned to Abidjan. After about a year, the war to overthrow long-time Zaire strongman Mobutu Sese Seko began. Once again, French, who won an OPC award for his coverage of Mobutu’s downfall, was in the middle of a major international news story.
At first, the official story—the one accepted by Washington and the UN, and reported by the international press — was that an obscure ethnic group, fed up with being pushed around, was behind the uprising. Something about that story, though, didn’t seem right to French. It didn’t make sense to him when he saw young rebels kitted out with slick gear and high-tech weaponry. “What was really happening,” he said, “was the invasion of Zaire by Rwanda, led by the post-genocide Tutsi government.” The war that followed resulted in the largest death toll of any conflict since World War II. “What ensued was a campaign of destruction and a looting of resources, resulting in the deaths of 3.3 million people,” said French.
Now, seven years later, French’s account of the war is widely accepted, but at the time, it defied conventional wisdom. “The international press never reflected on the gravity of what was going on,” he said. Even now, some people question the number of dead. “Even if that number were halved,” said French, “it doesn’t make me feel much better.” The massive human devastation was largely what compelled him to write the book. “I felt I needed to bear witness,” he said. “It needs to be felt and thought about, and lessons learned.”
French read a chilling passage about a visit to a refugee camp in Tingi-Tingi. There, he encountered Hutu refugees—many of whom were “notionally associated with the Rwandan genocide.” At the same time, they themselves were “almost certainly going to die.” And indeed, days after French’s visit, rebels attacked the camp, slaughtering thousands of people. The dead were buried in mass graves, which were kept off limits to the international community by the Rwandan-backed president, Laurent Kabila.
French harshly criticizes the U.S. government, multinational corporations, international lending agencies, and the press for their tragic inattention to Africa. Members of the Clinton administration, he says, weren’t even allowed to use the term ‘genocide’ as hundreds of thousands were dying in Rwanda and later Zaire, because to do so would have eliminated any excuse for inaction. Bush was elected saying that Africa held no “vital” interests for the US—and yet, French says, any quarter of Africa—the North, South, East or West—alone had more trade with the U.S. than the entire former Soviet Union. “We need a lot of things that Africa produces,” said French. “And we can get them without paying anything.”
“What’s wrong with us?” he asked. “What can we do to change this?”
And the ‘hope’ in the book’s subtitle? French acknowledges that the book is heavier on tragedy than hope, but says there are some reasons for optimism. He cites the continent’s cultural resilience, despite decades of war, brutality, and oppression, as well as recent democratic advances, particularly in places like Mali. He also thinks that simply focusing the world’s attention on Africa—as he attempts to do in his book—could improve the situation. “We need to re-imagine the way we think of Africa, and get it out of the cellars of our imaginations,” French said. “We need to think about them as humans.”