This is a bold book - a strongly felt, intensely personal book; a melange, as the author says, of the scholarly and the creative. In good unscholarly style, and contrary to what one might call textbook thinking, it has an autobiographical thread - an insistent "I". Grasping Africa is at once an injunction and a reflection. It is what we all must do, and do better - Stephen Chan has a nice line about Africa being a Western unity, a construct and an agglomeration - but it is also what he himself has done, over many years, in different guises: friend, fieldworker, teacher, scholar. In this sense, the book is part memoir, part apologia. Indeed, it is almost an apologia pro vita sua .
It seems to have been written, quickly, in the heat of 2005. That was a crowded summer: the G8 Summit, Live 8, the second coming of Bob Geldof, debt relief and the report of the Commission for Africa, Our Common Interest .
Grasping Africa is in large part a dialogue with Our Common Interest, an interrogation of its assumptions, and a kind of fruitful complication of its diagnosis. On military dictators and coups, for example, Chan underlines their sheer variation and occasional utility. "No single body of attributes and reasons fully explains why Africa saw so many coups ... Not all of them have been led by figures like (the British-sponsored) Idi Amin. Some arose as an original phenomenon and provided original service." The two works could be read with profit together.
Grasping Africa wants to be a practical book, and in some ways it is; at the same time it is a bookish book, echoing and responding to other books. Africa is for Chan "a beloved continent", and there is surely here an echo of Alan Paton's novel Cry, The Beloved Country (1948). Similarly, the mix of classical and modern image and idiom in a rather curious, parable-like appendix, "Alice who almost became the witch president of Uganda", recalls Christopher Logue's astonishing reworking of Homer's Iliad : "The Uzi shuddering warm against your hip/ Happy in danger in a dangerous place/ Yourself another self you found at Troy - Squeeze nickel through that rush of Greekoid scum!" Chan is less brilliant, but the effect is similar: "I see Okello in his Land Cruiser, instructing his officers; he has put on sunglasses against the dust."
What is to be done about Africa? Chan has three alternative scenarios, only one of which he considers remotely likely: that it will all remain much as it is. In that case, he is for lifting trade restrictions, now. Why ever not?
Who is it for? Students of international relations and development studies.
Presentation: Thematic, essay-like chapters interlaced with personal experience. Clearly sectioned and signposted. Robustly argued.
Would you recommend it? Yes, definitely, but as a stimulus to thought, or a provocation, rather than a textbook.
Alex Danchev is professor of international relations at Nottingham University.
Grasping Africa: A Tale of Tragedy and Achievement. First Edition
Author - Stephen Chan
Publisher - I. B. Tauris
Pages - 185
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 9781845112851