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Book Review

A Passage to Africa by George Alagiah

Published by Little Brown and Company, 2002 286 pages
Reviewed By Rodrick Mukumbira

In A Passage to Africa, former British Broadcasting Corporation Africa (BBC) Africa correspondent, George Alagiah mixes political insights with personal testimony to produce an autobiography, not about himself but of Africa itself.

With unblinking honesty and compelling insight, he chronicles the horror, the hope and the humanity he has borne witness to: from the "kleptocracy' of Mobutu sese Seko's Zaire to the political expediency of Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe; from the playground petulance of Liberia's child soldiers to the towering moral authority of Nelson Mandela.

In this powerful testament of a continent Alagiah considers home kicks as a five-year-old in 1961 when his father announced that the family was to leave Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) for newly independent Ghana in Africa.

"Even as a child of five I think I knew that it represented something better than the divided island we were about to leave. I learned from half-heard conservations between my parents that Ceylon was not somewhere that we Tamils would prosper. So Ceylon was bad and Africa was good. Now we were poor; in Africa we would be rich" (pp5).

He looks at Diaspora and its effects: that the majority of those leaving Ceylon were professionals, an issue he compares to the current problems befalling Africa.

"But now who would run the ministries? How would the roads be maintained? Where are the doctors who would ensure health for all?" (pp29).

Like E.M Forster in A Passage to India Alagiah, who is currently a newscaster at BBC, is honest in account of colonialism on another continent. He speaks of how independence in Ghana created a new breed of colonisers - Indians, Poles, Filipanos, Ceylonese and Czechs. He also writes about a new breed of British who, unlike the imperialists, now came in as expatriates and technical advisers. He talks about how the former coloniser had ventured in banking.

Once in the book, Alagiah appeals to the reader to forget his past BBC reports of Africa's famine, civil wars and general strife. He says "all was once well in the continent as it had hope and optimism.

"In the theatre it's called the suspension of disbelief. You put aside your scepticism and let your imagination run with the plot" (pp36).

He talks about optimism abound in Ghana at the time citing the musical bands like E.T. Mensah and the Tempo Dance Band whose 'hi-life' music had one meaning: the unity of Africa and the destiny of its people.

Alagiah narrates about the formation of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1963 and how this brought hope that it would speed independence for many African countries. He writes about the criticism that now befell Ghana's first president Kwame Nkrumah ranging from his marriage to an Egyptian girl to his allegedly spending of million of dollars on a palace in his home village.

Nkrumah's dream about democracy in Africa failed and a coup in Ghana in 1966 that installed a military government shattered Alagiah's childhood vision of Africa being the "better" than Ceylon .

A Passage to Africa enters into what Alagiah calls "Africa's Lost Years". This is the chaotic period in the seventies and eighties. He says two and a half decade later, from the time his family migrated to Africa, it was now in worst shape than he could remember.

As BBC television reporter he says he met one time Liberian president Prince Johnson who proudly showed him the chair in which former military ruler Samuel Doe had endured beatings and torture.

"He seemed proud of his achievement and he called himself a freedom fighter, and in the same breath he urged me to buy a video tape of Doe's last, painful hour" (pp70).

Alagiah remembers 16-year-old General Do-or-Die, a Liberian child soldier as a living embodiment of the war, who had given himself a new name so that "he could melt into his new world, and find a place in an environment where there is no room for weakness and childishness". He remembers Paulo Simbini, a Mozambican who was captured by the Renamo. Simbini spoke of a friend who had rounded up his own family into a hut and set it on fire.

He remembers Rosemary and her sister in Northern Uganda. Captured by the Lord Resistence Army, they were repeatedly raped and afterwards made to stab corpses. They were only allowed to stop when their captor decided that he had seen enough blood on their clothes and bodies.

Alagiah writes about his translator, Seth Ngarambe, a Hutu Rwandan who was a refugee in Goma, eastern Zaire, who later appeared before the genocide tribunal facing charges of killing his Tutsi wife.

"Africa's conudrum is not its own. Africa got to where it is today because the vast majority of its people were let down primarily by their leaders and also by those in the rich world who made common cause with dictators and despots" (pp270).

He says what Africa has gone through has been witnessed by the baobab trees. He says the baobab trees have seen the liberation movement gaining momentum and the people of Africa rejoice. But less than 50 years down the line, the baobab's small and oval leaves may have caught a chill from the killing fields of Rwanda.

"The baobabs have seen it all: the best and the worst. They have known incredible beauty and the terrifying ugliness" (pp 280).

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