A Feb. 2005 interview with the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder about “Continent”

At the end of the film, ***Hotel Rwanda***, a weary and terror-stricken group of Tutsis make a final run toward freedom during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. In terrible awe, they press on, weaving through an endless mass of equally forlorn Hutu refugees who head in the opposite direction.
Unlike the 100 days of genocide, which were powerfully and honestly depicted in the film, the story of what happened to those Hutu refugees has not been heard and heard again around the world. As a ***New York Times*** correspondent in Africa, Howard W. French stood witness to that story as millions of innocent Hutus left Rwanda for the Congo, driven by fear of reprisals and threats from the extremist militiamen responsible for the genocide. They would later become the victims of mass killings themselves in a catastrophic war that, in part, rages on to this day.
French’s coverage of the Congo war is also the running focus of his latest book, ***A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa*** (Knopf, 2004). French, an African American who first lived in Africa almost 30 years ago, instills his book with an appropriate amount of poignant personal reflection that sets him apart from the many other writers of memoirs about the continent.
The range of his coverage in the book is still great: his first voyage into Mali as young romantic Pan-Africanist and a return trip more than a decade later; the forgotten history between Liberia and the United States and rise of the Liberian dictator Charles Taylor; meetings with legendary African writers and musicians.
Just as French targets corrupt African leaders and Western governments for their misguided and exploitative policies and neglect, he also criticizes the media and even himself for a narrow representation and understanding of Africa.
“All too often, Africa coverage has come to resemble the cowboys and Indians games of my childhood,” he writes. “We are too quick to find heroes in the Westerners who are always rushing to the rescue, while unconsciously concluding that the Africans served better in the role of, at best, passive spectators. […] I was determined to be different, and yet here I was, just like everyone else, rushing around another lurid African mess that, thanks to the magic of television, had become the global story of the week.”
Instead of the story of the week, ***A Continent for the Taking*** may be the most compelling book on Africa in recent years. Last week, the ***Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder*** interviewed French (HF) via Shanghai, where he now lives with his family, still writing for the ***New York Times*** and working as a scholar.
MSR: I want to start by asking if you could delve deeper into your inspirations for writing ***A Continent for the Taking*** both as, in your words, a personal memoir and a meditation on the historical encounters between Africa and the West.
HF: I had witnessed and in some sense lived the reality of one of the greatest human tragedies since the Second World War: the civil war and subsequent near disintegration of the Congo (formerly Zaire). I felt that despite my best efforts, working for a very powerful newspaper, the story of this tragedy had remained little known and poorly understood. My book, therefore, became an effort to bear witness to this tragedy and to its victims, to explain more truthfully and thoroughly how the Congo got sucked into the maelstrom, and to detail our responsibilities and complicity, moral and political, as Americans.
MSR: How would describe the difference between your perspectives of Africa from when you first journeyed through Cote D’Ivoire and Mali in the 1970s to when you left your position with the ***New York Times*** from the Congo in the late 1990s?
HF: I was a fresh-eyed kid at the time of my first Mali trip, which is recounted in the early part of my book, idealistic and freshly imbued with a lot of the ideals of Pan Africanism, picked up, in part, in school at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where I studied African history and art and politics.
It is almost impossible to recount the sense of exhilaration I felt trodding African soil, visiting places of history that I had once read so eagerly about. By the time I left my assignment for the ***Times***, this had already changed.
Politically speaking, Africa had entered a sort of Dark Age. I am grateful that it appears to have been a short-lived Dark Age, but it was a dire period nonetheless, with coups and violence eating away at much of the subregion, often, as in the case of Congo, or Liberia and Sierra Leone, to catastrophic effect.
MSR: Minnesota happens to be home a large population of Liberians. Do you have hope that Liberia will be able to overcome the specter of Charles Taylor and realize lasting peace in 2005?
HF: Liberia is about to have very important elections. This is a critical moment for the country. I sort of feel that the country has gone so low there is nowhere to go but up. That sentiment is generally right, perhaps, but it is not helpful if it lulls people into complacence.
Liberia has a large, skilled and relatively prosperous diaspora. They must bring their contributions to bear in rebuilding this country, which is an important beacon for Africa. They must also play a vigorous role in keeping Liberia on the radar screen in Washington, and in helping make sure that the United States does the right thing in that country, which hasn’t always been the case.
Monrovia is a capital city without public electricity. This country’s everyday life is equal to most countries’ dire emergencies, and some of the same generosity that has been mustered to help the tsunami victims of Asia should be mustered to help Liberians lift themselves up again.
MSR: I found the running story of Mobutu Sese Seko to be the most telling and evocative of the book. Between the coup of Lumumba and the on-and-off genocide between the eastern Congo and Rwanda, how do you think the Congo encapsulates the tragedy of post-colonial Africa?
HF: The story of Congo has all the essential elements of Africa’s tragedy, and many elements of the continent’s hope, too. It was the scene of some of the first extended contacts between Europeans and Africans, which gave way to one of the most poignant betrayals of Africa by the “West,” setting in place patterns that are still operative today.
The Congo was and is a zone of economic predation par excellence, where resources, from human beings, to rubber, to gold and diamonds, copper, cobalt and coltan are raked off by outsiders without a thought to the fates of the indigenous peoples.
There is hope in the Congo, though, because the human impulse for self-betterment is strong there — the same impulse that fired Lumumba to stand up to the West, and which resisted three decades of misrule by Mobutu Sese Seko — and the Congolese show no sign of giving up, however dire their situation might look.
MSR: In the book, you seem to particularly assail the Clinton Administration for its neglect and downright neo-liberal exploitation of Africa.
HF: My book is not meant to become part of anyone’s generalized brief against Bill Clinton. There are other aspects of his record that I admire. His Africa policy, though, was an unmitigated disaster, and must be described as such. This is where having a well-informed and energized African American public comes into the picture.
Clinton paid his respects to his Black base, knowing how important it was to his election. To a significant extent, his African policies of engagement with Africa, were designed to appeal to this base.
The fact, though, is that Clinton compounded one of the worst disasters of recent memory, the Rwandan Genocide, which his government studiously avoided intervening in, by allowing Rwanda to invade the Congo. The net result of this miscalculation based on feelings of guilt over the genocide was the death of four million Congolese — over four times the number of dead in the Rwandan catastrophe, and the largest toll in any conflict since WWII.
MSR: That being said, how would you rate the Africa foreign policy under George W. Bush for the past four years?
HF: The Bush Administration has failed Africa, too. Sudan, it acknowledges, is the scene of an ongoing genocide, but it seems to think that it is enough to simply acknowledge the tragedy and walk away from it. This is a running scandal, made all the more appalling by comparison to the outpourings of aid for the recent tsunami victims in Asia.
MSR: Can you comment further on how journalists define the global view of Africa?
HF: Journalists are the messengers. There is no way around that. We all have a responsibility to our profession and to our readers to break out of convention and stereotype and say something more meaningful, more true, and hopefully more interesting. Too few respond to the call.

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