Nov 25 2009

Richard Dowden’s wisdom: Africa ordinary and miraculous

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 8:13 PM

Richard Dowden once was an ambulance chaser, a chronicler of tales of disaster, disease and mayhem — stories that neatly fit media stereotypes of what about African affairs satisfies the appetites of the British, American and European minds. For Dowden, his earlier phase as a working journalist, reported on African affairs for British newspapers and magazines, is today a source of both understandable pride and some embarassment. A gifted reporter and a sturdy writer, Dowden’s pursuit of “heart of darkness” journalism made him worry about accusations that he was “giving Africa a bad image.”

He no longer can be so accused. His written a wonderful tour of contemporary Africa, based on his many visits and extensive assignments in the region stretching back decades. In an important counter to the cant and often ridiculous proclamations about Africa’s real and impending “disasters” by the great and the good, Dowden reminds us in a new book, “Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles,” that the normality remains the norm in Africa — and pathologies is often peddled by people bent on profiting from providing aid and emergency relief to the region. Dowden’s book presents a valuable alternative view to the dominant paradigm of a dependent, diminised and indeed easily dismissed Africa. For a flavor of Dowden’s contrarian views, let me quote at length from Dowden’s perceptive introduction which, like the entire book, remains available only in Britain:

“The news of Africa has been almost exclusively about poverty, wars and death.”

“Not all Africans are fighting and starving. Millions of Africans have never known hunger or war and lead ordinary peaceful lives. But that is not news. … Africa may often look like chaose and madness but there is always a comprehensible — if complex — explanation. …. The new realities of Africa … have been ignored.”

“Only Africans can develop Africa.”

“The aid industry too has an interest in maintaining the image of Africa 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.”

Dowden’s words carry weight beyond his own inspired conscience. As director of London’s Royal Africa Society, he influences opinion about the region in a critical country, Britain, which continues to play an outsize role in the affairs of sub-Saharan Africa. Dowden’s insights reinforce my own view that outside donors risk “losing” the African while trying to “save” them. In effort after effort to reform and renew aspects of life in Africa, outsiders essentially “write out of the story” the actions of ordinary Africans themselves. The idea of African transformation, by and for Africans, living in Africa, often seem absent from discussions of policy and practice in the region. Dowden, in his introduction, reminds us of the high cost of losing the African while trying to chronicle him. As the august Nigerian novelist, Chinua Achebe, writes in a brief prologue to the book, Dowden recognizes “the humanity o

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