Search for an African voice with which to say no

A Passage to Africa
December 14, 2001

George Alagiah, the award-winning BBC journalist, has mixed political insight with personal testimony to create a powerful book in A Passage To Africa . It is compelling because he brings to it his early experiences as the son of an emigrant from Ceylon whose Tamil family fled ethnic conflict in the island in 1961 and settled in Ghana, the first African country to gain independence from the British.

Over three decades, Alagiah has travelled the length and breadth of Africa, from Algeria to Zaire and from Accra to Zanzibar, eventually winding up in South Africa, the last country to free itself from the heavy weight of colonialism. The journey has left him "gasping when facing the best the continent has to offer, and in despair when faced with its ugliness". He has had to learn not to judge Africa by its worst excesses.

If Ghana's independence was a milestone for Africa, so too was the coup that overthrew Nkrumah less than ten years later. Since then, as the author points out, Africa has endured more than 80 violent unconstitutional changes of government; almost 90 leaders have been deposed; and at least 25 heads of government have been killed in political violence. Thirty-one countries have been plagued by such violence, and in 20 of them, political turmoil has occurred more than once. The book does not cover Kenya, Tanzania, Mozambique, Angola, or indeed Nigeria - where one in six Africans reside - but there are first-hand accounts of Liberia, Somalia, Rwanda, Zaire, Uganda, Zimbabwe and South Africa. Many are startling, some are gruesome. To take just a couple more amazing statistics: there is only one doctor for every 20,000 people in Africa; and the standard of living in Africa is much the same as it was three decades ago.

After graphically discussing his two years of living dangerously in Somalia (1991-92), the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, in which 100 days of slaughter took the lives of 800,000 people and led to a cholera epidemic, the fall of Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire in 1997 and the collapse of government in Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe, the author finds new hope in the leadership of Yoweri Museveni in Uganda and Mandela in South Africa. The former put an end to nearly a quarter of a century of death and destruction in his rich central African state, and now Uganda boasts the fastest economic growth rate not just in Africa but in the world. Mandela miraculously stepped down as president in May 1999 and left behind an economy that has not collapsed and a nation where politics are as lively as when he was first elected in 1994. Both leaders have shown the possibility of an African renaissance.

But what exactly might an "African renaissance" mean? As Alagiah points out, to the liberal establishment in the West, the idea meant a flowering of democratic government and respect for human rights; and when Africa failed to deliver these, western liberals turned away. However, to men like Museveni it means simply an assertion of whatever Africans think is in their best interests, which does not always include a commitment to the way we in the rich world happen to interpret political, economic or social progress. "African renaissance," Alagiah explains, is not so much a victory of any particular set of political values as a period in which the continent searches for its own voice, free from the distortions of colonialism or the cold war. He goes on to say: "And if like me you have watched Africans try to fit into a moulded shape in another man's image, you will understand what a huge achievement it is simply to say no."

Surely no other continent on earth has been interfered with as much as Africa. First there was slavery, then colonialism, then the "insidious captivity of development", in which the rich world got richer while the vast majority of Africans got poorer.

Alagiah feels that the most effective answer to white dominance of the continent is not revenge, but black competence. This is what men like Museveni and Mandela have understood. Africa has come full circle. The generation now in charge looks back not so much with anger as with regret. The author hopes that his book shows, if nothing else, that life in Africa is much more complex than its detractors often suggest; and that although Africa's failings are many, so too are the reasons for them. After reading his thought-provoking autobiography, it is difficult not to agree.

Christopher Ondaatje is a council member, Royal Geographical Society, and the author of Journey to the Source of the Nile .

A Passage to Africa

Author - George Alagiah
ISBN - 0 316 85554 5 and 85904 4
Publisher - Little, Brown
Price - £16.99 and £10.99
Pages - 304

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