Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles, by Richard Dowden

It’s been a while since I posted a new book review, as I’ve been reading Richard Dowden’s rich volume of essays on Africa. Reflecting on a lifetime of reporting on the continent, the book is part history, part travelogue, and something of a gift for people who love Africa.

Dowden is one of those writers who just seems to get Africa, and this book is his way of sharing that affinity. Africa is different from other continents, notoriously tricky to understand and succeed in. As I am often reminded when I mention I grew up in Madagascar and am asked if I lived in a mud hut, there are a lot of misconceptions. When that ignorance is displayed by politicians and policy makers, that’s no laughing matter – Africa is littered with ill advised aid ideas and abandoned infrastructure projects. The brains behind those schemes would have benefitted from this book.

The book begins with a brief history of the de-colonisation process that brought us the collection of nations we have today. It’s not a neat story. Territories are arbitrarily drawn, people groups divided, others given undue favour. Africa’s borders are often straight, drawn up with no understanding of the people and their homelands. Countries like Nigeria have hundreds of different languages and no national identity, while the distinct Somali people group is divided between Somalia, Ethiopia and Northern Kenya.

Onto these haphazard territories the outgoing powers applied a political system of multi-party democracy based on the Western model, but because there had been no opposition during the colonial era, it was a foreign concept. Power simply coalesced around those with an education or an army. And since it all happened in the midst of the Cold War, the newly independent countries were instantly courted and encouraged to take sides. It is this cocktail of tensions that led to the failure of many of the new states in the decades that followed, argues Dowden, “The deadly combination of internal competition for power and outside interference wrecked Africa.”

The central chapters of the book deal with specific countries, including some enlightening insights into Zimbabwe and Sudan. There are sections of poverty and AIDS, but this section is more personal. Those expecting more political and historical material may be disappointed with the detour into anecdote, but it’s excellent travel writing and evocatively described. The politics returns towards the end, with closing chapters discussing the future of Africa, and China’s involvement. I found this particularly interesting, as this was just beginning as I resettled in the UK. China’s trade soared from $5.6 billion in 1996, to $65 billion just over ten years later, in what Dowden describes as “the biggest geopolitical shift of the early 21st century”. It’s too early to tell if it’s a good thing. China is making many of the same mistakes as the West did before, Chinese trade deals are still very one sided, and their ‘no questions asked’ is very tolerant of oppressive regimes. On the plus side, they are providing infrastructure and working alongside local governments. In return, Dowden points out that China is securing resources, but also chalking up allies in the UN, a fact borne out by the Copenhagen conference.

Whatever China’s intentions in the long term, Dowden concludes that Africa’s fate is in its own hands. Neither aid nor democratic reform can be expected to work unless it goes with the grain of local history and culture. “Aid agencies, Western celebrities, rock stars and politicians cannot save Africa. Only Africans can develop Africa.” And they’ve started already, whether we noticed or not. One recurring theme is that there is more going on in Africa than meets the eye, despite the world still considering it a dark continent in need of saving.

At almost 600 pages, Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles may appear daunting, but you don’t have to tackle it all at once. Most of the chapters stand on their own, and you can dip in and out. If you know Africa, you’ll find Dowden’s insider stories insightful. If you don’t know Africa, this ought to be essential reading.


  1. Well, you did sort-of grow up in a mud hut, but it was quite a large one with a tin roof and running water most of the time, both inside and out…

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