About A Continent for the Taking

Africa first captivated New York Times journalist Howard W. French more than twenty-five years ago, but his knowledge of and passion for the continent has the depth of a lifetime association. His experiences there awakened him as nothing before to the selfishness and shortsightedness of the rich, the suffering and dignity of the poor and the uses and abuses of power. And in this powerfully written, profoundly felt book, he gives us an unstinting account of the disastrous consequences of the fateful, centuries-old encounter between Africa and the West.
French delineates the betrayal and greed of the West�often aided and abetted by Africa�s own leaders�that have given rise to the increasing exploitation of Africa�s natural resources and its human beings. Coarse self-interest and outright greed once generated a need for the continent�s rubber, cotton, gold and diamonds, not to mention slaves; now the attractions include offshore oil reserves and minerals like coltan, which powers cellular phones.
He takes us inside Nigeria, Liberia, Mali and the Congo, examining with unusual insight the legacy of colonization in the lives of contemporary Africans. He looks at the tragedies of the AIDS epidemic, the Ebola outbreak and the genocide that resulted in millions of deaths in Rwanda and the Congo. He makes clear the systematic failure of Western political leaders�the nurturers of tyrants such as Mobuto Sese Seko and Laurent Kabila, whose stories are told here in full detail�and the brutal excesses of the CIA.
In helping us to better understand the continent, and indeed Africans themselves, French helps us see as well the hope and possibility that lie in the myriad cultural strengths of Africa.
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Africa: The Hard Truth

Neal Ascherson/New York Review of Books

In the newspapers and on television, the tide of bad news from Africa rises again. Once more, the tiny butcher-bird of Rwanda is pecking at the eyes of the dying elephant which is the Congo. Once more, concerned white reporters crouch by emaciated babies, as the camera zooms in on the victims of the ethnic cleansing, massacre, and starvation which are obliterating the people of Darfur.
We in the rich world have grown used to these images, and now we are hooked on them. It is almost as if we require them. Since the first European contact, Africa has been mined for its gold, its diamonds, its oil and cash crops, its slaves and its wildlife, its copper and its hardwood. Now the raw material most demanded is fuel for the stoves that keep our shock and compassion warm: AIDS, famine, Ebola, mass murder, war, and again war. The old Kenyan intellectual Ali Mazrui once said to Howard French: “Where Africa is concerned, there is a constant search for tragedy with a new face; it’s like, what else is new in genocide?”
It is better to be angry than to be sorry. But angry with whom? With the appalling political leaders that Africa so often (but not always) throws up? With the governments of Europe and America which so often can be seen to have helped those leaders into their palaces, overlooking their cruelty and corruption for the sake of strategic or economic advantage? With the vanished colonial regimes, which left to the Africa frontiers that remain an invitation to ethnic cleansing? With the social engineering that cemented loose ethnic groupings into fiercely nationalistic “tribes”? With the examples of vast inequality in land and wealth that led to instant corruption in political elites?
It has to be said, though, that sustained political anger is still rare in Africa. Years ago, a white radical working to subvert the apartheid regime in South Africa said to me: “The most disastrous trait of ordinary African people is their infinite capacity for forgiveness, their sheer inability to keep up resentment.” He gave a wry smile. He knew what a European remark that was, and he loved that very characteristic which was making his struggle harder. Much later, the common people of his country awed the world when they overthrew their oppressors and then asked them only for repentance. At that time, a black girl working in a Cape Town restaurant complained to me that the local police would not admit which of them had murdered her brother. “If I don’t know who he is,” she went on, “how can I forgive him?”

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Dark Years on the Dark Continent

Mort Rosenblum/AP

Few words evoke mystique and misconception like the proper noun Africa, and chroniclers have tried to capture its essence ever since Henry Morton Stanley wrote his swashbuckling diary more than a century ago. Howard W. French, a New York Times correspondent on the continent during four of its particularly dark years, adds substantially to this effort.
French’s forte is not the broad view suggested by his title — “A Continent for the Taking” — but rather his up-close encounters. Some of those he meets inspire him with that irrepressible African humanity that manages to bounce back despite all obstacles. Others depress him with their rapacity and cruelty. A few come uncomfortably close to shooting him.

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What went wrong in Africa

David Kilgour/Toronto Globe and Mail

Much of this book is devoted to the tragedy of contemporary Africa. Readers are likely to share Howard French’s thinly veiled rage at a long list of villains, including Western governments, local tyrants, international financial institutions and the CIA. He also documents a litany of current woes: bad governance, corruption, atrocities, foreign greed and massive ignorance outside the continent concerning the cultural and human strengths of 800 million Africans.

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Inside Africa An insightful examination of the continent’s past and present

William Reno/Chicago Tribune

There have been few times like the present for reporting on Africa. Genocide in Rwanda, fighting in Congo and Liberia’s grasping warlords have provided fodder for many journalists’ memoirs. Some provide more background than others, while most offer a heavy dose of horror and exoticism.
Howard French’s book, “A Continent for the Taking,” moves away from all of that. Though his book is full of personal experiences, French reminds us that there is much more to Africa than bad news, and that where there is bad news, there is more to it than meets the eye. What places this book above the rest is how French makes connections between present disasters, past history and especially how that reflects Africa’s place in the world.

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