Africa is a tough, bittersweet beat. Its long-suffering people are too frequently caught in the crossfire of rampaging wars, afflicted in their millions with AIDS and other desperate diseases, preyed upon by greedy despots and prevented by corrupt leaders and bureaucracies from obtaining basic schooling, medical attention and access to economic opportunity.
Africa is raw but resilient. Yet Africans learn to survive. They make do. They reap tiny crops from hard and inhospitable soils. They collect firewood or trek for water across vast distances. They pedal miles with huge bags of charcoal. They sell cast-off clothes or used flip-flops in ad hoc markets along the banks of remote rivers or, for pennies, thrust peeled oranges into the outstretched hands of thirsty and crowded long-distance bus passengers. They scrabble together some old pieces of tin and canvas and create slum shanties within sight of cities of skyscrapers.
Africans believe. In the hard rules of fate. In themselves and in better futures. They have hope. They also flock to evangelical preachers, seek out traditional healers and sometimes put their faith in exotic nostrums. They look after one another, too, and altruism flourishes amid surprising circumstances of adversity.
Howard French’s reporting from West Africa for The New York Times in the mid- and late-1990’s superbly captured much of this maelstrom. He outwitted bribe-seeking functionaries and obstreperous soldiers, fled from mobs, wangled interviews in dangerous circumstances from marauders and mercenaries, and followed important research trails.
“A Continent for the Taking” recalls much of his path-breaking coverage of West and Central Africa for The Times. He had become acquainted with the wiles and seductiveness of Africa as a college student and in the 1980’s as a teacher, translator and writer. It was in Ivory Coast and then by traveling overland, goats and chickens tied to the roof, to bedraggled Bamako, the capital of neighboring Mali, and beyond that he gained a first infatuation with the chameleonlike glories of the continent.
But there was too little time and space for communing with inner Africa when he was writing about it professionally. Politics and real trouble rapidly loomed. First and always, there were the horrors of Gen. Sani Abacha’s murderous regime in Nigeria. Moshood Abiola had won an election, but General Abacha and his soldiers had imprisoned him, and the United States was paying little attention. Mr. French recounts his attempts to reveal the inner workings of the autocrat, about the Abacha administration’s attempts to deal with prominent African-Americans, and about the brutal ways the military government eliminated dissidents.
Oddly, General Abacha’s soldiers had helped for a time to quiet the deadly civil war in Liberia. Families of ex-slaves from the American South had ruled there over the “country” people since the 1820’s. A coup in 1981 gave power to ill-educated soldiers, then to a collection of warlords, and finally to Charles G. Taylor, one of the more colorful thugs of West Africa’s recent past. Mr. French sketches Mr. Taylor and his rivals well, including a bitterly hypocritical news conference, and is critical of what passed for United States policy during the worst days of the Liberian retreat from sanity into butchery.
There was as much mayhem in Congo (formerly Zaire). Mr. French’s arrival there coincided with the final death rattle of Mobutu Sese Seko’s kleptocracy. Thousands of miles of colonial roads were no more. Schools and clinics were gone. Disease was prevalent. (Mr. French writes movingly of the town of Kikwit, during an outbreak of ebola.)
The country’s vast copper, cobalt and diamond mines were divulging their riches to the ruler only and paying for palaces in Switzerland and France. Congo had become a lamentably failed state. “Something definitely smelled,” he writes, “and the country’s decomposition had become an open secret.”
Civil war followed. In 1996 Laurent Kabila, an orotund sometime trader and kidnapper of Americans, emerged out of nowhere at the head of a ragtag army heading westward from Africa’s great lakes toward distant Kinshasa. “Life was breathed” into Kabila, Mr. French reports, “by the jubilation his rebels met in Mobutu’s long-neglected countryside, and by Kabila’s own treachery in eliminating potential rivals.” But the real secrets were the hollowness of what was left of Zaire’s army, and the support ?indeed direction ?that Kabila received from Rwanda. (“We in the press,” he understates, “were far too slow in seizing upon the recklessness of Rwanda’s invasion.”
Mr. French saw much of Zaire’s disarray in upriver Kisangani and its surrounding refugee camps, witnessed “ethnic cleansing” of a typically nasty variety and realized how little Washington cared about the underlying mayhem.
Kisangani fell in early 1997, and Lubumbashi and Mbuji-Mayi succumbed a few days later. All of Zaire was “opening up like a crocus.” Mr. French’s account of the envoy Bill Richardson’s attempt to take the measure of a strutting Kabila, in Lubumbashi, is unwittingly comic. Mr. Richardson told Kabila to clean up his human rights act, warned him that he would need help from the United States and gave the future president of Congo a New York Yankees baseball cap. After the United States and South Africa failed to arrange a soft landing, Mobutu fled overseas to die, chaos descended, and Kinshasa finally fell, hard, in May.
Amid the despots and desperados, Mr. French also saves time for a few democrats, notably President Alpha Oumar Konar?of Mali. There are vivid portraits, too, of ordinary Africans trying to find safe havens or integrity amid the wild maelstrom of war. The book also has bleak messages about the Clinton administration’s foreign policy failures in Africa and some trenchant words on Africa’s own responsibility for the slave trade. Mr. French clearly cares about Africa’s fate and writes compellingly without providing more than implicit recipes for recovery.
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