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November 5, 2013

Money, Power, Sex


November 4, 2013

Reading List 2013 (definitive)


July 25, 2012

Haphazard Empire: Encounters with China’s New African Migrants

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April 26, 2012

More on covering Africa…

A colleague objected that I had been singled out in Laura Seay’s fine piece about woeful coverage of Africa just published in Foreign Policy, and I completely agree.


To reduce a matter like this is to one of persons or personalities is to squander an opportunity to pursue a truly important and long overdue discussion.

For decades there have clearly been foreign correspondents from a range of news organizations who have worked hard at understanding Africa and conveying its complexity, just as one would or should try to do with any other part of the world.

I wrote a blog post that relates to this a few months back. It mourns the demise of the Washington Post’s Africa coverage, and I paid due homage then to a long list of correspondents who worked hard to bring richness and balance to their Africa stories. http://www.howardwfrench.com/2011/12/american-journalism-is-failing-africa/

It seems fairly indisputable to me, however, that the West’s African coverage in general is broken and failing badly. This is true in terms of quantity, quality and especially variety, and I think that is Laura’s main point.

Demonstrating this last criterion is a simple matter. What news organizations have business correspondents or for that matter any business coverage to speak of in Africa? The fact that such coverage doesn’t exist, or quite nearly, means that we have created a special category of beings for whom this important aspect of human life simply doesn’t apply. This has many consequences, only two of which I’ll touch upon here.

It reinforces the strong, preexisting tendency in many publications to write stories that almost exclusively emphasize foreign agency, whether of the U.N, or of NGOs or of the individual Western do-gooder, and by the same token, it reinforces a habit of thinking of Africans either as passive beings, or as those other perennial favorite archetypes: warlords, corrupt officials, rapists and Big Men.

The other effect I’d point out here quickly is that by ignoring this humungous category called business (or, if you will, the economy), the Western press is doing a disservice to its readership by furthering the conditioning of news consumers to not think of Africa as a place worthy of business or investment. It is all the more galling that this is happening at a time when economic growth is booming around the continent and opportunities abound. As someone who is writing on this now, I’d add: Just ask the Chinese.

We need for those who cover Africa to break out of their old, narrow molds and start seeing Africans and Africa in its fullness and complexity. We need more real African characters in our reporting and writing. And we need to have the whole range of human activity reflected in our work.

We need to see an Africa that is written about as a place where ideas matter, and not just our ideas.

We need for people to write about Africa understanding that it has history that goes far beyond index card depth.


April 12, 2012

Chinese Characters

My photographs were selected for use in the cover illustration of this exciting new book from UC Press and edited, in part, by my friend Jeffrey Wasserstrom. For a view of the pix and more information about the book, please follow this link.



January 14, 2012

What does it mean to be fluent?

Jon Hunstman’s insistence on trotting out bits of his Mandarin here and there (see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IPb-5AZuzXo) has provoked a lot of commentary and no small amount of ridicule about his proficiency, and whether it really rises to the level of fluency. A better question, and one which gets asked much less often, is what exactly does fluency mean? It is also a lot harder to answer in any definitive way.

I’ve come to this subject from the perspective of somewhat unusual personal experience. Due to life and career choices, in the course of things to one degree or another, I’ve come to speak a lot of languages: English, French, Spanish, bits and pieces of various Akan dialects (Twi, Baoulé, Nzima), Haitian Creole, Japanese and Chinese.

With every one of these languages at some point I got well beyond the phrase book level. Even now, I speak almost as much French in any given day as I speak English. With both Chinese and Japanese, after prolonged and very deliberate effort, I was able to sustain genuine friendships and do my work, meaning not just function in an everyday sense, but conduct extended interviews in the language. And after years of disuse, I was pleased to have been able to revive my once reasonably supple Spanish on the fly as a Rube Goldberg solution to needing to work and function in a Portuguese-speaking environment. This came recently during nearly two months of solo reporting in Mozambique. Hell, I even learned a good bit of this new language, and attained a decent comprehension level as I stumbled about with my crude Portañol.

But just what is fluency? In the end, it is a slightly foolish term, and one can (should?) feel foolish using it. Language learning is an endless process, and one’s comfort and degree of articulateness, never mind literacy in a foreign language is a dynamic and ever-changing thing.

I conducted nearly all of the many field interviews I did for my forthcoming book on the Chinese in Africa alone and in Chinese, and in the thick of it rarely had language problems of any kind. In the five months I’ve been back in the U.S., though, the Chinese space in my brain has shrunk dramatically, almost alarmingly so. No, I haven’t forgotten how to speak by any means, but my level has steadily gone down from disuse and from removal from a situation of immersion.

I remember a lunch I had with a Chinese friend right after my return from Africa in early September. “You sound amazing, so natural,” she said, to my delight, as we carried on in Mandarin. When I saw her again just a few weeks ago, I was already much less confident. In fact I was stunned and embarrassed to have to ask her in English to remind me how to say something relatively basic that I knew well but suddenly couldn’t summon in the middle of a sentence.

With Japanese, things have been even worse. I mixed a couple of Chinese words into a straightforward conversation with a baffled Japanese person in New York the other day, and didn’t even realize until it after I’d walked away, when I played the conversation back in my mind. I studied Japanese first, but I use it much less now. This “splicing” error used to happen a lot in the opposite direction, and it drove my early Chinese teachers crazy.

(On the other hand, many of my Africa interviews were transcribed for me by students or friends in Chinese, and reading them, while quite time consuming, has not been a problem. In fact, it was a lot of fun.)

Last summer, I got to use my Akan in Ghana again, managing to at least bluff my way through many situations (for most people, comprehension decays much less rapidly than speech) and to ingratiate myself to people in many others. It is a near universal rule that people almost always appreciate a sincere effort to speak their language. Unless I retire to a beach in Axim or Elmina, though, I’ll never really speak one of these languages again. Although I worked at them, I never studied them formally, and I’ve let them go for too long. The same is true for Haitian Creole, for which my exposure these days is mostly limited to song (which, it must be said in passing, is an underrated language tool).

For anyone wanting a sense of the process involved in language acquisition, I really enjoyed this article: