I guess some of the Old African tyrants are right - there really is a white conspiracy out there that keeps black people down. Only it's not the conspiracy they're probably thinking of.... What I'm talking about is the grand conspiracy of silence, a collective willingness of white people in the West to bury their heads when the talk turns to Africa. It's so pervasive that even the word tribe gives some white people the jitters because they think it's racially laden, condescending. The more polite term now is indigenous ethnic group.
Of course blacks, too, are unindicted coconspirators in this grand silence. Here I'm talking about those self-anointed spokesmen who purport to represent all of black America, as if we were a unified group with a single worldview. They make their ritual demands for debt relief. They call for ever-increasing amounts of foreign aid to these corrupt little black potentates.... All of this talk about Africa skirts the real issue - the need for a critical reexamination of independent Africa's internal failings. What's missing is the straight talk.
So endemic is African corruption - and so much more destructive than its Asian counterpart - that the comparison has even spawned a common joke that goes like this:
An Asian and an African become friends while they are both attending graduate school in the West. Years later, they each rise to become the finance minister of their respective countries. One day, the African ventures to Asia to visit his old friend, and is startled by the Asian's palatial home, the three Mercedes-Benzes in the circular drive, the swimming pool, the servants.
"My God!" the African exclaims. We were just poor students before! How on earth can you now afford all this?
And the Asian takes his African friend to the window and points to a sparkling new elevated highway in the distance. You see that toll road? says the Asian, and then he proudly taps himself on the chest. Ten percent. And the African nods approvingly.
A few years later, the Asian ventures to Africa, to return the visit to his old friend. He finds the African living in a massive estate sprawling over several acres. There's a fleet of dozens of Mercedes-Benzes in the driveway, and indoor pool and tennis courts, and army of uniformed chauffeurs and servants. My God! says the Asian. How on earth do you afford all this?
This time the African takes his Asian friend to the window and points. You see that highway? he asks. But the Asian looks and sees nothing, just an open field with a few cows grazing.
"I don't see any highway," the Asian says, straining his eyes.
At this, the African smiles, taps himself on the chest, and boasts, "One hundred percent!"
- from Keith Richburg's Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa.
As the quotes above demonstrate, Keith Richburg's Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa is powerful stuff. Richburg, an award-winning reporter for the Washington Post, was the Post's African bureau chief from 1991 through 1994. As a journalist, he reported on the turmoil rocking Africa during this period, including the civil wars in Somalia and Rwanda. He was horrified by much of what he saw: not just the massive slaughter of the wars, but the corruption and incompetence of government officials, and the ongoing decline of much of Africa, in contrast to the growth and development he had seen as a journalist in Asia. Both areas, he points out, suffered under colonialism - so how to explain their subsequent divergent paths?
Richburg is brutally honest about Africa - with an emphasis on the word "brutal". Many of us who have lived in Africa have a different perspective: we found the people to be warm and friendly, and think back fondly on our lives there. But there can be no denying the validity of his experience, and it is sad but true that when we look at the continent on an aggregate basis, the statistics in most respects indicate a region that is falling further and further behind the rest of the world.
This is a disturbing, but very readable book. You may find it shocking, and disagree with the author's viewpoint, but you'll find it hard to put down.... and it may profoundly change the way you think about Africa. I give it ***½ (out of ****).
This book may be at your local library, or can be ordered in hardcover or paperback from Amazon Books.
By the way, you can hear a RealAudio NPR interview with the author (Keith Richburg) as well as with author Eddy L. Harris (Native Stranger) and RPCV Jill Jupiter Jones. Jones has a different perspective on Africa than Richburg, as do most of the listeners who call in.
Back to The Friends of Togo Guide to Books about Africa