'Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles'

Africa's history, present state of being and future is the subject of a new book, Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles. African journalist and author Richard Dowden discusses his book, which focuses on sub-Saharan Africa. He also weighs in on the political climate in African nations, such as Zimbabwe.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And as his Holiness starts his tour of two African nations, we hear from a man who has reported from nearly every country on the continent, Richard Dowden, as the Africa editor of the Independent and later the Economist magazine.

Dowden has spent two decades covering the major events and day to day lives of Africans. He's now the director of Britain's Royal African Society. And he's compiled his stories of this impossibly diverse continent in a new book, "Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles."

He's with us now in our D.C. studio. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. RICHARD DOWDEN (Director, Britain's Royal African Society; Magazine Editor; Author): I'm delighted to be here.

MARTIN: There is a lovely line at the very beginning of the book, where you say that Westerners arriving in Africa for the first time are always struck by its beauty and size. Even the sky seems higher, and they often find themselves suddenly cracked open.

Now, you first went to Africa, Uganda to be precise, in 1971. Why did you go and how did you find yourself suddenly cracked open?

Mr. DOWDEN: I wanted to see the world, and I ran into some Catholic missionaries, and they said, well, we can find a place for you in a school there. So I went to Uganda, and immediately I just thought, wow, this is absolutely extraordinary. The warmth of the reception, the ease of life -people are just at ease with themselves from what I felt was a rather neurotic society that we lived in. When I say to people I was there for the first two years of Idi Amin, they say that must have been terrible. I said, no, I had a wonderful time.

MARTIN: This book is quite timely because it gives the background for so much that is in the news. But there's always this overarching question. It's interesting that you talk about, really, that the love comes through in the book. But you also talk about the fact that you are, as a journalist, constantly being indicted and accused of giving Africa a bad rap. And you don't - talk about the fact that a lot of what people in the West know about Africa is the bad news, the war, famine, disease, misgovernance.

Twenty years on, you still find yourself accused, but how do you respond to that? On the one hand, these are true stories. On the other hand, you don't want people to only see those stories.

Mr. DOWDEN: Exactly. It - I can remember when I first - I was turned down. I was at the Times in 1984, and I'd heard about the famine in Ethiopia. And they said, no, don't think our readers want to read about that, that sort of stuff. And I vowed then that I would tell stories of famine, of war in Africa as they would be told anywhere else in the world - and that's what I did. And then later, I find, hey, you know, you're giving Africa a bad name.

And I realized that that's what journalists do. They go to bad places in bad times. And the accumulation of all those stories was, that's Africa. And of course, it was only a part of Africa. There was a normal Africa - Africans getting on with their lives completely peacefully, happily.

But the other side of it, which I think does come across in the book, is the way even in the worst of times, circumstances where I know I would just curl up and die, Africans will continue, survive, rebuild and have a terrific optimism about the future. Africans just don't do hopelessness.

MARTIN: We need to take a short break, but when we come back we're going to continue our conversation with author Richard Dowden. And we'll get his thoughts on the latest news from Africa, including the crisis in Zimbabwe.

Stay with us on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up: a new voice in R&B with a unique background. Born in Germany, raised in Rwanda, now living in Canada, singer/songwriter Corneille brings transcontinental perspective and wisdom about the world to his new album, "The Birth of Cornelius." We'll hear his music and insights in just a few minutes.

But first, we're going to continue our conversation with Richard Dowden, author of the new book, "Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles." Dowden has been a journalist in Africa for more than 20 years. He's visited nearly all 53 countries on the continent. His book focuses on sub-Saharan Africa, and that's the region where many of the stories we've been covering recently are taking place.

So, Mr. Dowden, I wanted to ask you about a number of countries that have been in the news. Let's go to Zimbabwe first. You followed the career of Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe for quite some time. You give detailed background about him in the book, but I wanted to ask about these ongoing power struggle between him and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. Now that's now resulted after a very long process and a power-sharing agreement. Do you think it's really possible that Mugabe will end up sharing power? Or is this country going to become what many people call a failed state?

Mr. DOWDEN: I think Robert Mugabe is a man whose whole being, his whole life has been about coming to power in Zimbabwe and ruling it. And I'm afraid to say I think there's only one way he'll leave office, and that's feet first. And he will do everything to hold on to that power. That's his…

MARTIN: Even if there's no country left?

Mr. DOWDEN: Even if there's no country left. I don't know whether he knows there's no country left. And I imagine like many dictators anywhere in the world, they're not told the truth, and they wouldn't want to hear it, anyway. And they see all of that as propaganda against them.

MARTIN: You write about personal encounters with a range of these so-called big men, including Idi Amin. Which of these leaders whom you've met fascinates you the most?

Mr. DOWDEN: Mugabe himself I find fascinating, because he has this love of things British. He loves cricket. He will tell you the queen's children have been to visit him. And all of this - and at the same time, he's battling against British imperialism - a very, very schizophrenic sort of guy. And I think if Shakespeare was around today, I think he would have written not "Macbeth," but "Mugabe," a fascinating character to write about.

Julius Nyerere remains my hero. And I had got one of the last interviews with him before he died, and just a man of immense dignity and vision. And I think that shows in Tanzania today. It's one of the least divided countries. It's not rich. It's not done well economically, but it - Tanzanians hold their heads up in a way other Africans don't sometimes. And I think that's due to him.

MARTIN: Burundi and Rwanda, you write that - by 1994, you covered some 20 wars as a journalist, most of them in Africa. You were about to write your first piece about what the world would come to know as the genocide there, and you sat at the keyboard and you couldn't move. Your fingers couldn't move. You said it was like an explosion, so close it numbs the brain. Rwanda left no immediate impression.

Mr. DOWDEN: I was trying to think, you know, what would my children - they were then sort of nine, 10 years old. And, you know, if they pick up the newspaper, I don't think they need to know this. Does anybody need to know this? I mean, what's the point of reporting what I've seen?

Usually, you do it with all your energy, all your passion goes into that reporting. And this time, I just - there wasn't - there were no - there's - no words came. Why should people need to know this? I just simply wanted to walk away.

MARTIN: But the point that you make is that one of the reasons you couldn't wrap your head around this is you just didn't understand, you just had no framework for thinking that people would mechanistically - mechanically go about slaughtering their neighbors.

Mr. DOWDEN: What surprised me was - because I'd seen explosions of anger before, where people had lost it, and then amazing peace and reconciliation. And so that's the way my feeling was about it. But this went on and on and on, and they called it the work. They called the killing the work. And it was so organized and patterned. And it was just, I couldn't get my brains around it. It was just…

MARTIN: What about now?

Mr. DOWDEN: It's - the underlying dynamics are still there. I think what President Kagame is doing in Rwanda is the most sensible thing. He's trying to overcome this rift in the society. We're just all Rwandans. But…

MARTIN: He took off ethnic identity from tribe of the national identity cards. You no longer carry an identity card…

Mr. DOWDEN: That's right. In those days, it…

MARTIN: …saying Tootsie, Hutu…

Mr. DOWDEN: Yeah. The previous government, going right back to colonial times, had everybody labeled. I mean, you carried a card saying whether you were a Hutu or Tootsie. And that's all abolished. We're just all Rwandans now.

MARTIN: You write a lot about the misadventures of the Europeans and carving up these countries have no relationship to ethnic patterns or previous governance patterns, in some cases, imposing their, you know, European notions of racial or caste hierarchy. But one exception is Somalia. You describe it as one of two countries with only one race, one ethnic group, one language, one religion, one culture. The troubles of so many countries are laid at the door of these, you know, ethnic or racial, tribal conflicts. So, Somalia, how did Somalia become what a lot of people consider a failed state?

Mr. DOWDEN: Well, there, it's at another level. They - it is, as you say, one language, one religion, one people. But they are divided by clans. And they're an extraordinary individualistic people as well.

I was in Hargeisa having dinner with the government minister, and the waiter came up and saw - recognized the minister and started having a go with him about something. But what was even more extraordinary was the minister had to stand up and answer him. And the two were having a fight. This is a minister and a waiter. And I just thought, this is a truly democratic society, in a bizarre way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DOWDEN: And it is. They're just not afraid of anybody. And unfortunately, because of bad leadership, it's turned into an anarchic society - not chaos, because it is kind of organized. But it's an extremely anarchic society. And you just wonder whether any of the normal constitutions that exist in the world would suit Somalia, or whether they just have to have their own, this very self-reliant, very, very strong individualism linked to the clans.

And it's hard to see, you know, how it will work out. But they can make peace. They can make peace. And I think they nearly did under their courts in 2007. And, of course, then Ethiopia invaded and broke it all up. So I'm still - I'm hopeful in the long run.

MARTIN: Tell us about a story or a country that I did not ask you about that you think you would like us to think more about or know more about.

Mr. DOWDEN: Well, Nigeria is the big one. You know, the day Nigeria gets its act together, look out world - a most amazingly dynamic people. You know, very divided ethnically. And that's been the core of it. And it was like quote -misquote Bill Clinton: In Africa, it's not the economy, stupid. It's the politics, stupid. And it's that that's messed Africa up. Incredibly rich country in every way. And when it finally gets its act together, I think it's going to be very, very powerful indeed.

Watching now the Diaspora returning to Nigeria, because they say the quality of life is better, and actually, we can make more money there than we can in London or New York. And I met several of them and I just thought, yeah, maybe this is the beginning of something, of people who've lived in the rest of the world, do things according to international standards - not, as they say, the Nigerian way - and bringing that back and gradually establishing a strong, professional middle-class. The impact on its politics, I think, will then transform that country.

MARTIN: Is that the key, a critical mass…

Mr. DOWDEN: I think a critical - yeah.

MARTIN: …of people with a shared sense of accountability, ethics…

Mr. DOWDEN: Exactly. I think…

MARTIN: …nationhood.

Mr. DOWDEN: Yeah. They've overcome all the ethnic differences. Often, they meet as a little club. In lots of African countries, you meet these little clubs of the professionals, and you think of them - I think of them as the founding fathers. These are the people who could bring those - bring the experience, bring the values, the common trust in each other. And if they could somehow, even indirectly, affect the politics and get those politics right, then I think that's what will ultimately turn Africa around - not outsiders, not intervention. It is the people themselves. And I - it's that class, I think, which will provide the core of it. This is the seed from which real national coherence will grow.

MARTIN: Richard Dowden is the author of "Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles." We only just scratched the surface. He was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studio. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. DOWDEN: Thank you very much, indeed.

MARTIN: And to hear Richard Dowden reading a passage from his new book, please visit our Web site at the TELL ME MORE page at npr.org.

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