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Book review

A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa

Written by Howard W. French
Published by Pan African Books 2004

Reviewed by Rodrick Mukumbira
Rodrick Mukumbira

In the book "A Continent for the taking: The Tragedy and Hope for Africa" Howard W. French attempts to bring out the aspect of the West's exploitation of Africa and the tendency to turn a blind eye when conflicts threaten to destroy the continent.

With the book, French, an African American attempts to bring out who is responsible for Africa's plight, for which he apportions blame widely, along with the prospects for recovery and what might be called redemption. He accuses the West of being ignorant of Africa by calling it a "dark" continent saying that the continent is in a mess because of the continuous exploitation of its resources.

Arguing that Western governments and their agents have long been fully aware of what is happening on the continent and are active players, French seeks to dismiss the notion that Africa's miseries are not its own making but have been provoked.

Although his book bears some similarities to some travel books written about Africa, his is a
determination to include explanations for what happens in Africa sets him apart.

As he explains in his introduction: "...this book is a chronicle of the disastrous continuum in the encounter between Africa and the West." He aims to "help remedy our complaisant forgetfulness and our hypocrisy."

The former New York Times Regional Bureau Chief for Africa, French singles out the United States of America as one of the countries that have contributed to Africa's woes. He says the country has chosen friends from dictators on the continent such as Idi Amin, Hastings Banda, Samuel Doe and Jonas Savimbi.

He comments: "It bears repeating, given their disastrous legacy, that we supported leaders like
these for our own strategic reasons, and for those reasons alone, during the long years of the Cold War."

Several chapters in the book bring out French's own experience as a reporter, moving between countries and stories as they shift in and out of the spotlight. He devotes four detailed chapters out of the book's 11 to Central Africa after the 1994 Rwanda genocide, managing to give other sub-narratives their place before they are overwhelmed by events in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The book kicks off with his personal African journey as a young man - a long trek from the West African coastal city of Abidjan in Cote d'Ivoire to Mali, an African American on the way to find out what Africa might mean to him.

He says it is a journey of self-discovery that will initially resonate with many of his readers, who may assume they are on familiar territory. He writes about Nigeria under Sani Abacha, the Ebola
outbreak in Kikwit and dedicates two chapters to Liberia, as it is torn apart by warlords. There is a
personal touch in the chapters when he visits Congolese writer, Sony Labou Tansi, who is dying of AIDS in some remote village.

On a visit to Mali the discovery that the country has successfully transformed from a dictatorial to a democracy gives hope to French who writes that it counterweights the grim downward spiral of war and the failure of politics in central Africa.

Amid the good news he is shocked by the discovery that the United States, instead is rewarding the country for seeking to take on a new path. His hope for Africa is rebuffed by senior US diplomat George Moose who comments that Mali's achievements are "virtue is its own reward" thereby confirming the double standard of the west to Africa.

The chapters where the intensity of French's own project and the urgency of the story are most to the fore are those on the DRC, formerly known as Zaire.

French writes about how he tracks down thousands of Hutus - among them the perpetrators of genocide - eastward from the border with Rwanda whence they have fled. He captures eyewitness accounts of Hutu civilian suffering and the international guilt and therefore
the refusal to take responsibility for the Hutus thereby compounding the errors made in Rwanda.

He talks about the final decline of the cancer-ridden Mobutu and his replacement with Rwanda's placeman Laurent Kabila who defeated the popular political will in Kinshasa. It is during the DRC story that he is nearly killed after being exposed to a haze of cerebral malaria.

As he writes about the pursuit and slaughter of Hutus across the vast forests of the DRC, the disturbing news in Monrovia, French's increasing scorn is visible and his passionate determination to bear witness becomes evident.

He brings out US diplomat Dudley Sims' hypocrisy and lack of human empathy in his account of how the US government failed to protect a Liberian journalist working for Voice of America.

French's book does feature massacres, illness, violent elections and other African clich├ęs in significant volume. But unlike many of those who have written comparable volumes, he has made common cause with Africa's people, rather than seeing them, from afar, as unfortunate victims.

French writes that the onus is on the west to bring hope to Africa if it decides to serve the continent "better". French's relationship with Africa has been both personal and professional. His father ran a World Health Organization programme in West Africa. French later reported for many news organisations before becoming the Times' regional bureau chief.

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