Colonialism's Debris


By Blaine Harden

Norton -- 333pp -- $22.50

In Moses Lake, Wash., "where nobody's fingertips had ever fallen off," and leprosy is a Biblical curiosity, people die of natural American causes--old age or car crashes. Blaine Harden's move from there to assignment in Africa for The Washington Post placed him in a world where they die in massive numbers from famine, disease, local wars, neglect, or manipulation.

To come to terms with this continent-sized disaster zone, Harden uses a series of well-written profiles. He brings to the task the best possible combination of journalistic skepticism about what he's told and a gee-whiz attitude toward what he sees, no matter how appalling.

Sprinkled among interviews with government officials, a teacher, and the odd sports figure are telling facts and statistics that sum up Black Africa's skewed economies. For example, 10% of discretionary income in oil-rich Nigeria is spent on air tickets, which are bought not just for travel but also for investment and use in daily business transactions. Currencies lost value throughout Africa in the 1980s, and the air-ticket game is a local solution.

In Harden's view, Africa was brought to its knees by colonialism and its destructive aftermath. Borders drawn up by 19th century Europeans bore no relation to tribal boundaries or the natural flow of commerce. Local armies were left with modern weapons but without the political infrastructure to guide them. Wealthy countries have been throwing aid at the resulting mess ever since. But foreign aid imposed without an understanding of local culture fosters corruption, dislocation, and misery. This engaging book will enrich any discussion of what to do when Africa finally claims the appropriate American attention.