Altered States, Ordinary Miracles


By Richard Dowden

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After a lifetime’s close observation of the continent, one of the world’s finest Africa correspondents has penned a landmark book on life and death in modern Africa. It takes a guide as observant, experienced, and patient as Richard Dowden to reveal its truths. Dowden combines a novelist’s gift for atmosphere with the scholar’s grasp of historical change as he spins tales of cults and commerce in Senegal and traditional spirituality in Sierra Leone; analyzes the impact of oil and the internet on Nigeria and aid on Sudan; and examines what has gone so badly wrong in Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Burundi, and the Congo. Dowden’s master work is an attempt to explain why Africa is the way it is, and enables its readers to see and understand this miraculous continent as a place of inspiration and tremendous humanity.


"This book is, quite simply, a masterpiece. The finest possible guide to sub-Saharan Africa's past and present. It is both realistic and powerful—a highly personal book written with evident love for the culture of that beguiling continent. A triumph. A gift of love to Africa."
—Alexander McCall Smith
"Richard Dowden's Africa is an extraordinary book of many dimensions. It is full of unconnected stories, eyewitness accounts of Africa's ordinary horrors and miracles. Yet they illustrate a powerful analytical narrative that links them all. And the prose is often poetry.... An enthralling journey, with a uniquely knowledgeable commentator who forces his reader to turn every next page."
—The Financial Times
"Mr. Dowden maintains the reader's interest by skillfully interweaving his research on the economic effects of AIDS and international aid into stories of myriad encounters with Africans rich and poor."
The Economist
"We journalists tend to cover Africa in stark and simple contrasts, but countries live and grow and falter in grays. So it's refreshing to encounter not only Dowden's hopefulness, but also his reliance on shading and nuance, on the recognition that the world does not have to feel sorry for Africa to care about it."
New York Times
"A deeply informed and informative 'tough love' love letter to a continent."
O, the Oprah Magazine, April issue
"Richard Dowden's compelling new book ... looks at individual countries in turn, drawing on his own experiences in an engaging narrative."
The Independent (UK)
"Dowden's experiences as a journalist over three decades are blended with summary historical analysis and a sprinkling of more wide-ranging insights."
The Guardian (UK)
"A wise, compassionate, and understanding account of Africa, written by a man who has glimpsed deeper truths about the continent; truths that we need to know.... This book is an inspiring gift of hope about a continent that never ceases to surprise."
The Times (London)
"Dowden has devoted his life to reporting and striving to understand Africa.... It is a wonderfully honest book that makes more sense of the current situation across the continent than any other recent account I have read."
—Patrick Marnham, The Spectator (UK)
"At last—a book about Africa the way it is. Richard Dowden is the Africa experts' Africa expert. Drawing on more than thirty years of extraordinary experiences the length and breadth of the continent he shows us an Africa of light as well as darkness, engaging as well as horrifying. The real Africa."
BBC News
"Africa is a remarkable, ground-breaking achievement, capturing the complex texture of a rapidly changing continent. It is also terribly moving."
Arts & Book Review
"A remarkably full-bodied and frank discussion of Africa's place in the world."
Kirkus Reviews
"This is non-fiction writing at its most authentic ... it is a masterly overview of the world's most troubled continent."
The Daily Telegraph (UK)
"Hugely readable.... Dowden writes with the rigour of an academic but the immediacy and personal observation of a first-class reporter unraveling the paradoxes of Africa's recent history."
New Statesman
"Dowden weaves his experiences, journeys, and reflections into an acutely perceptive, always sympathetic, and defiantly hopeful portrait of a continent he loves.... [A] compelling book."
Tablet (UK)
"Richard Dowden's new and excellent portrait ... is to be greeted with a hearty round of applause."
"Fresh, revealing.... Dowden's African survey is over 500 pages long and a brief review can only skim its rich resources. It is very likely to be the non-fiction book of the year."
Morning Star

To Penny who let me go and welcomed me home and Isabella and Sophie who endured my long absences.

Africa is a vast continent, a continent of people, and not a place of exotica, or a destination for tourists. In Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles, it is clear that Richard Dowden understands this, and one could not ask for a more qualified author to explore Africa's complexity. It helps a great deal that he has travelled extensively in Africa, his work having taken him to nearly every African nation, and that throughout his distinguished career he has committed himself to Africa's advancement as teacher, journalist and executive of the Royal Africa Society in London.
Africa, as most people are aware, has endured a tortured history, and continues to persevere under the burden of political instability and religious, social, racial and ethnic strife. Many chroniclers of the African condition often find Africa overwhelming. As R. K. Narayan once said about new stories: 'there are often too many stories out there to be told.' The writer is often faced with two choices: turn away from the reality of Africa's intimidating complexity, or conquer the mystery of Africa by recognizing the humanity of African people.
Richard Dowden makes the brave choice. In Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles, he tackles Africa's problems without fear, sentimentality or condescension. The work benefits from Dowden's deep knowledge of African history, and his writing is often most powerful when he delves into Africa's struggle with corruption, poor leadership, poverty and disease. The treatment of the impact of colonialization on Africa is particularly novel, and the analysis of the continued foreign apprehension about Africa is inspiring. His dissection of familiar themes such as the collapse of nation states like Nigeria, the role of post-colonial political ineptitude and oppression, particularly under tyrannical regimes, is presented with a fresh perspective.
Before I am accused of prescribing a way in which a writer should write, let me say that I do think decency and civilization would insist that the writer take sides with the powerless. Clearly, there's no moral obligation to write in any particular way. But there is a moral obligation, I think, not to ally oneself with power against the powerless. I think an artist, in my definition of that word, would not be someone who takes sides with the emperor against his powerless subjects.
The triumph of the written word is often attained when the writer achieves union and trust with the reader who then becomes ready to be drawn deep into unfamiliar territory, walking in borrowed literary shoes so to speak, towards a deeper understanding of foreign peoples, cultures and situations. In this and so many other respects, Richard Dowden's Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles, succeeds marvellously, and is a welcome addition to the growing library of serious critical analysis of Africa.
Chinua Achebe
Annandale-on-Hudson, New York
June 2008

Africa is a night flight away Images and realities
I have watched the sun set, shrunken and mean, over a cold, drab London street and stood outside a mud hut next morning on a Kenyan hillside and seen it rise in glory over the East African plains. Africa is close.
Few go there. Africa has a reputation: poverty, disease, war. But when outsiders do go they are often surprised by Africa's welcome, entranced rather than frightened. Visitors are welcomed and cared for in Africa. If you go you will find most Africans friendly, gentle and infinitely polite. You will frequently be humbled by African generosity. Africans have in abundance what we call social skills. These are not skills that are formally taught or learned. There is no click-on have-a-nice-day smile in Africa. Africans meet, greet and talk, look you in the eye and empathize, hold hands and embrace, share and accept from others without twitchy self-consciousness. All these things are as natural as music in Africa.
Westerners arriving in Africa for the first time are always struck by its beauty and size – even the sky seems higher. And they often find themselves suddenly cracked open. They lose inhibitions, feel more alive, more themselves, and they begin to understand why, until then, they have only half lived. In Africa the essentials of existence – light, earth, water, food, birth, family, love, sickness, death – are more immediate, more intense. Visitors suddenly realize what life is for. To risk a huge generalization: amid our wasteful wealth and time-pressed lives we have lost human values that still abound in Africa.
Back at home in London I sometimes ask visiting Africans what strikes them most about the way Londoners live. Suni Umar, a journalist from Sokoto in northern Nigeria, gives a typical answer: 'People walk so fast. And they do not talk to each other. Even first thing in the morning they do not greet each other. I came to the office in London and the people working there did not even greet me or each other.' And the most puzzling thing? 'I was lost and I walked up to a man and asked the way. He did not reply. He did not even look at me. He just walked away. Like that.' When Suni goes home to Nigeria and tells that tale they will not believe him. There they know that some Europeans are not kind to Africans, but to be so trivially inhuman to each other is shocking. Even in London or New York or Paris, Africans do not easily lose the habit of catching your eye as you pass. Raise an eyebrow in greeting and a flicker of a smile starts in their eyes. A small thing? No. It is the prize that Africa offers the rest of the world: humanity.
This is not what most outsiders associate with Africa. The image Africa conjures up in most people's minds is the Dark Continent, the heart of darkness, a place of horrific savagery: inhumanity. You can find that in Africa too. Hell has seized parts of the continent in recent times. In the mid 1990s thirty-one out of Africa's fifty-three countries were suffering civil war or serious civil disturbance. Hundreds of thousands of people died, not from bullets, but from hunger, bad water and disease. In such wars the armies, be they government or rebels, live by looting. They target civilians and villages. The direct combat casualty rate is often low; the incidental death and destruction rate horrifically high. Only a tiny number of these wars have been between countries; most have been internal – battles for power and wealth within states, usually between different ethnic groups.
These wars diminished in number after the turn of the millennium, but their chief cause – the lack of a common nationhood – remains. Africa's nation states were formed by foreigners, lines drawn by Europeans on maps of places they had often never been to. They carved out territories, cut up kingdoms and societies of which they had little idea. All but two of Africa's concocted countries combine several ethnic groups. Some, like Nigeria and Congo, harness together hundreds of different societies with their own laws and languages. They lack what we take for granted: a common conception of nationhood.
Beneath the surface of Africa's weak nation states lie old cultures, old societies and communities and a deep sense of spiritual power. This is not a residual superstition, the vestige of religion. Nor is it a neurosis induced by insecurity or poverty. The spirit world, Muslim, Christian or traditional, lies at the heart of many African societies, a core belief in the power of spirits that can be harnessed by mediums. This belief partly explains Africans' lack of political or social agency. It can undermine personal responsibility and weaken communal solidarity. At worst it can inspire the most horrific brutalities – though not on the scale of mass murder inspired by fascism, Communism and nationalism in twentieth-century Europe.
But such beliefs also provide immensely powerful defences against despair and hopelessness. Amid Africa's wars and man-made famines and plagues, I have found people getting on with life, rising gloriously above conditions that would break most of us. In Africa even in the worst of times you do not hear the tones of doom and despair that characterize some Western media reports on the state of Africa. Africa always has hope. I find more hopelessness in Highbury where I live in north London than in the whole of Africa.
'It's the fault of the media,' says the young PR man. 'The image they give of Africa is just wars and famine and disease. We can change that. What Africa needs are success stories. We are going to re-brand Africa.'
A smartly uniformed waiter – a Ghanaian from his accent – wheels the breakfast trolley to our table and offers us paw paw, mango, pineapple and other African fruits. And of course that African drink: coffee. Our tip for the waiter for bringing us that coffee pot will be more than a week's income for the family in Africa who grew the coffee. We are having breakfast in a smart London hotel with starched white tablecloths and heavy silver cutlery. So that's the way to change the world. If you don't like one image, find another one. Changing reality is as easy as flicking channels on TV.
The recent campaign to change Africa's image accuses the media of creating a false impression of Africa's reality. Some even suggest there is a conspiracy against the continent by foreign journalists. Say 'Africa' to people who have never been there and they will describe a sick and starving child and men with guns. The news of Africa has been almost exclusively about poverty, wars and death.
Would it be better if journalists did not cover the bad news out of Africa? As a reporter on The Times in 1984 I received a call from a contact at Oxfam who warned me that a huge famine was building in Ethiopia. I asked the editor, Charles Douglas-Home, if I could go. 'I don't think people want to read about starving Africans,' he drawled. 'We saw quite enough of that in Biafra.' Later that year The Times was forced to scramble another reporter to Ethiopia to catch up with what was one of the biggest stories of the decade. At that moment I vowed to try to get the reality of Africa's wars and famines covered in the press as well as they would be if they happened in any other part of the world.
Now, more than twenty years on, I find myself accused of giving Africa a bad image. My first reaction as a journalist is to say: 'Did I make this up?' My second reaction is to say: 'Change the reality – not the image.' The media's defence is that it feeds on news of wars and disasters. The ordinary gets ignored in Africa as it does in Asia or South America. Normality is nice but it does not – as they say – sell newspapers. You need to go no further than Yugoslavia to see the truth of this. We all know about Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia and Kosovo because they were engulfed by war. But how many people know about Slovenia? That is the one bit of former Yugoslavia that broke away, stayed peaceful and became very successful. So it gets no media attention.
It is the same with most of Africa. Not all Africans are fighting or starving. Millions of Africans have never known hunger or war and lead ordinary peaceful lives. But that is not news. Editors want breaking news but have little interest in explanations, let alone explanations from an African perspective. Journalists are sent to get 'the story' – or not, if the editor is like Douglas-Home. And even if they do go, editors and journalists do not dig into the complexities of Africa. 'Keep it simple' is the message. All the rich history, culture and complexity of Africa is missed. Few in the media have felt the need to dig deeper into Africa. It is easier to describe it as chaos. Africa may often look like chaos and madness but there is always a comprehensible – if complex – explanation. A group of us, journalists who covered Africa full time, decided that we would ban the word chaos from our reporting and never give up the search for rational explanations for what was going on. Our watchword was, 'If you describe it as chaos you haven't worked hard enough.' That worked well enough until I told a Nigerian editor of our pact. 'It does not work here,' he said. 'Nigeria is chaos. But the chaos is created, organized by the government. Chaos allows it to stay in power.'
Africa has many realities. The media image dismissed by the young PR man is not untrue, but it is only one African reality, incomplete. Stories of war and disaster are not made up, but they are only a slice of the reality of Africa. The new realities of Africa – mobile phones in the village, Chinese suits in the market, African multinational companies – have been ignored.
The media's problem is that, by covering only disasters and wars, it gives us only that image of the continent. We have no others. When we see floods causing havoc in New Orleans we do not think that all of America is permanently under water, or when we see troops marching in Indonesia we do not think all of Asia is at war. We know from other images we see and stories we read that there is a functioning and thriving America and a peaceful and successful Asia. But we have no other ideas of Africa, no sense of ordinary Africa. Persistent images of starving children and men with guns have accumulated into our narrative of the continent: Africans are guntoting, mindless warriors or hopeless, helpless victims who can do nothing for themselves, doomed to endless poverty, violence and hunger. Only foreign aid and foreign aid workers can save them. The endlessly repeated images of guns, oppression, hunger and disease create the impression that this is all that ever happens in Africa. The story of Zimbabwe and Darfur and all their predecessors has become the story of Africa. We think all of Africa is like that – always.
By their nature victims need pity, not respect or understanding. 'They are just like us but without money,' we are told to believe. 'Give money and all will be well.' Aid and development agencies, from the smallest NGO to the World Bank and the United Nations behemoths, have little interest in understanding African difference, how Africa works. But aid agencies, Western celebrities, rock stars and politicians cannot save Africa. Only Africans can develop Africa. Outsiders can help but only if they understand it, work with it. Africa's history and culture, Africa's ways, are the key to its development, but they are as little acknowledged and understood now as they were in the nineteenth century when Europe colonized the continent. Some would argue that disregard for Africa and Africa's voice in its own development is as destructive today as territorial imperialism was 150 years ago. The policies the aid and development agencies have for Africa are not always bad – they often represent the highest aspirations and idealism of the rest of the world – but they take no account of the human reality on the ground. From the socialist and statist models of the 1960s, to the free market ideology of the 1980s, the Washington consensus of the 1990s, and the aid-driven development of today, there has always been a missing element: the Africans.
So journalists are not the only ones to blame. The aid industry too has an interest in maintaining the image of Africans as hopeless victims of endless wars and persistent famines. However well-intentioned their motives may once have been, aid agencies have helped create the single, distressing image of Africa. They and journalists feed off each other. The deal, mostly unspoken but well understood, is that aid workers tell journalists where disaster is breaking. The aid agencies provide plane tickets, a place to stay, vehicles, a driver, maybe a translator – and a story. In return the journalists give the aid agencies publicity, describing how they are saving Africans and using images of distress and helplessness to raise money. This deal excludes the efforts of the local people to save themselves. It is easier – and more lucrative – to portray them as victims dependent on Western charity.
In the early 1990s, several aid agencies appointed attractive young women to act as press officers in disaster zones to appear on TV and raise income. A decade later, they went further and invited celebrities to visit these places, bringing the media along to follow rock singers and film stars wandering through refugee camps, hugging starving children and pleading for more aid. Celebrities are even less well equipped than journalists to provide a coherent understanding of what is happening in Africa, but it worked for the aid agencies. 'Saving African babies' is now big business, but it has also become the entry point from which the rest of the world sees the continent. Bob Geldof first experienced Africa in Ethiopia when he bullied the world into delivering food aid to the starving. Twenty years on, he resurrected that crusade and persuaded Tony Blair to join it. Though he had paid only a fleeting official visit to the continent, Blair proclaimed a 'passion for Africa'. He referred to it as a 'scar on the conscience of the world', deeply offending many Africans. His messianic mission to save Africa was reminiscent of the nineteenth-century missionary zeal. That set teeth on edge. It sounded like saving Africa from the Africans.
Life – as John Lennon sang – is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans. Travelling around Africa since the early 1970s I began to glimpse deeper truths about the continent, caught out of the corner of my eye as I went in search of the big stories. History books will tell you about momentous events and complex politics. Memoirs and travel books give you the feel of a place from personal experiences. In this book I have tried to combine the broad history with the local and personal, telling stories of incidents, actions, characters that hopefully give something of the feel of Africa, demonstrate its huge diversity of peoples and places, and go some way to illuminating why Africa is the way it is, both positive and negative.
I hope Africans will recognize their continent and themselves in these pages, but I write chiefly for outsiders, those who have not been to Africa but would like to know more about it. The best way to find out is to go, not as a tourist in a bubble of Western luxury and safety, but as a traveller to meet people and engage with them. It is easily done. But beware. Africa can be addictive. Les fous d'Afrique, the French call them, those who become mad about Africa.
This is a book about Africa south of the Sahara. I have not written about North Africa: Islamic, Arab-influenced and bordering the Mediterranean. The history and culture of the countries of the Maghreb have only tenuous connections with the rest of the continent. The Mediterranean linked North Africa with Europe, the Sahara desert blocked the route south to the rest of Africa. Few North Africans regard themselves as African. Nor does this book deal with Africa's islands and archipelagos, seven of which are independent countries, including Madagascar – two and a half times the size of the United Kingdom and a world apart with its own unique character. While influenced by Africa and counted as part of the African region, these islands too are different.
This is not to imply that Africa south of the Sahara is all the same. On the contrary, it is the most diverse zone of planet Earth. From the rainless deserts of Namibia to the diminishing snows of Kilimanjaro, from the Sahelian scrublands to the lush tropical forests of the Congo basin, Africa has an extraordinary range of climates, flora and fauna. And it is among African peoples that the greatest diversity occurs. Africa has more than 2000 languages and cultures and, despite the fact that we all share a single African woman as the mother of the human race, there is more human genetic diversity in Africa than in the rest of the human race combined.
Africa is often spoken of as if it were one small uniform country. Yet in comparison, Europe is homogenous, America monotonous. Who would dare make generalizations about Asia based on Bangladesh? Or about Europe based on Greece? Perhaps Africa only exists as a piece of earth defined by the oceans, a mere shape on a map whose peoples and cultures have as much in common with other parts of the world as they do with each other. Even if you divide Africa in three: Africa north of the Sahara, South Africa and its orbit, and the zone in between, there are few common factors within these regions. What is Africa then? Not even the distinctive pale terracotta soil of Africa covers the whole continent. The lean brown African dog is common but not ubiquitous. Music? Maybe. I have yet to find an African community – or an African – which does not celebrate with music. But music is universal and African music varies widely. Africa's social systems, beliefs and culture are as diverse as its peoples and as disparate as its climates. West Africa feels quite different from East Africa, and even within West Africa you could never mistake Nigeria for Senegal. And neither of them seems on the same planet as Mali. Every time you say 'Africa is ...' the words crumble and break. From every generalization you must exclude at least five countries. And just as you think you have nailed down a certainty, a defining characteristic, you find the opposite is true in other places. Africa is full of surprises.

Africa is different Uganda I


On Sale
Dec 16, 2008
Page Count
256 pages

Richard Dowden

About the Author

Richard Dowden is director of the Royal African Society. He spent a decade as Africa Editor of the Independent, and then another decade as Africa Editor of the Economist. He has made three television documentaries on Africa, for the BBC and Channel 4.

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