Africa: Dispatches from a Fragile Continents

by Blaine Harden

“If you took a quarter-century worth of His Excellencies the African leader and tossed them in a blender, you would come up with a Big Man who looks like this....

“His photograph hangs in every office in his realm. His ministers wear gold pins with tiny photographs of Him on the lapels of their tailored pin-stripe suits... He insists on being called “doctor” or “conqueror” or “teacher” or “the big elephant”.... His every pronouncement is reported on the front page... He shuffles ministers without warning, paralyzing policy decisions as he undercuts pretenders to his throne.... He bans all political parties except the one he controls. He rigs elections. He emasculates the courts. He cows the press. He stifles academia. He goes to church.

“His off-the-cuff remarks have the power of law.... He blesses his home region with highways, schools, hospitals, housing projects, irrigation schemes, and a presidential mansion. He packs the civil service with his tribesman... He questions the patriotism of the few he cannot buy, accusing them of corruption or charging them with “serving foreign masters”.... He uses the resources of the state to feed a cult of personality that defines him as incorruptible, all-knowing, physically strong, courageous in battle, sexually potent, and kind to children. His cult equates his personal well-being with the well-being of the state. His rule has one overriding goal: to perpetuate his reign as Big Man.”

After reading the above quote, you'll probably be surprised to learn that “Togo” does not appear once in the book's index! Blaine Harden's book has chapters on Liberia, Ghana, Nigeria, Zaire, Sudan, Kenya, and Zambia. But as the quote indicates, the observations he makes go beyond the borders of those nations.

Blaine Harden was the Washington Post bureau chief in sub-Saharan Africa from 1985 to 1989. (This book is copyrighted 1990.) This book is proof that he is a superb reporter. At times it reads like an adventure story, while at other times he makes astute observations of African politics and culture.

The book starts with a description of a trip Harden took on the Major Mudimbi, one of the boats carrying passengers up and down the Congo river. Jammed with passengers, filthy, and unsafe, the boat is also a bustling floating market that many depend on for their livelihood. Harden intersperses descriptions of his trip with comments on Zairian politics and corruption, if there is a distinction between the two.

Other chapters describe family life in Ghana, rural life in the Sudan, and the vitality and squalor of Nigeria, which he -- at least when he wrote the book -- considered Africa's “black hope”. One of his most interesting chapters is on the way a Norwegian aid project wrecked havoc on the way of life of the Turkana of Kenya.

I can't think of a better non-fiction book on Africa that I've ever read than this one. It is both entertaining and insightful, frightening and hopeful. I rate this book **** (out of ****).

This book can be ordered from Amazon books.

Back to The Friends of Togo Guide to Books about Africa