Tropical Gangsters
by Robert Klitgaard

“Like other poor and desperate parts of the world, Equatorial Guinea is not a monochome study in unhappiness. Where you find poverty, disease, and corruption, you may also find beauty and joy and idealism -- in the same places and the same people. Poverty has something to give those of us who have not received it -- above all, the lesson of adaptability.”

“Equatorial Guinea's insect life includes what is called in pidgin English the bush fly. This unpleasant animal enjoys laying its eggs in wet clothing hanging on the line. The United States Embassy regrets this practice.... Without ironing, the eggs move from the clothing to your skin, and then grow into larvae. The larvae -- or maggots -- nourish themselves by eating away at your muscles. The maggots develop into boils. The locals say that you have to wait until they get big enough to pop out, like pimentos from oversized olives.”

The New York Times selected Tropical Gangsters as on of the six best nonfiction books of 1990.... and while that seems to me to be a stretch, this is a fine book, well worth reading. It's subtitled “One man's experience with development and decadence in deepest Africa”, which, if you couldn't figure it out from the title, gives you a good idea of what to expect. The author was an administrator-economist with a World Bank project that was attempting to bring economic reform to Equitorial Guinea. In this book he tells of his successes and frustrations (mostly, as you can infer from the title, frustrations) as he tries to brink economic reform to one of the world's least developed nations.

The book combines personal anecdotes (one of his few successes in Equitorial Guinea is finding a great beach where he can surf) with professional commentary. Alas, the capable few he meets are outnumbered and eventually overcome by the corrupt and incompetent many.

A good book for anyone to read, especially someone interested in the gritty practical side of African economic development. I give it ***½ (out of ****).

Back to The Friends of Togo Guide to Books about Africa