What Will Africans Make of Africa?

By Patrick Smith


By Ryszard Kapuscinski

Knopf -- 325pp -- $25


By Bill Berkeley

Basic Books -- 309pp -- $27.50


By Michela Wrong

HarperCollins -- 338pp -- $26

Although the rest of the world may not realize it, this is a crucial era in Africa's long, fraught passage into modernity. Colonialism and cold war conflicts are gone. White rule in South Africa, the final holdout, is most of a decade behind us. Africa is African again for the first time in well over a century. What are its roughly 800 million inhabitants going to make of it? What hold will the past exert as they endeavor to build a freer, better future? And how should we who are not African understand all the drama of this continent in the remaking?

These questions lie at the core of the three books under review. But there the similarities end. Ryszard Kapuscinski's The Shadow of the Sun is a wise, engaging close-up filled with faces, landscapes, rutted roads, and the daily perils of African life. Bill Berkeley delivers some of the same ground-level detail, but his book, The Graves Are Not Yet Full, is less a journey through the continent than a hard analysis of the historical and political factors behind the tragic tyrannies--the Rwandas, Liberias, and Sudans--of the past decade. Then there is Michela Wrong's In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz. While she purports to recount the reign and collapse of Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire (now the Congo Republic), Wrong never quite leaves her native Britain. Her book, condescending and uncomprehending at once, is filled with the very misapprehensions that Kapuscinski and Berkeley are at pains to take us beyond.

Kapuscinski, a Polish journalist who first arrived in Africa in 1957, long ago distinguished himself as one of the great correspondents of his generation. In books such as Imperium (on the collapsed Soviet Union) and Shah of Shahs (on post-Pahlavi Iran), he has explored that sliver of high, thinly populated ground on which journalism and literature are occasionally joined. So he does again in his new book, a distillation of 40-odd years of return visits to Africa. This is not Kapuscinski's best effort: The enormity of the subject lends this book a sketchy feel. But a near miss by this writer still leaves him strides ahead of other correspondents who seek the benediction of hard covers.

Kapuscinski identifies the challenge right from the start. "Only with the greatest simplification, for the sake of convenience, can we say `Africa,"' he writes in his forward. Fair enough: There are many Africas, and Kapuscinski is altogether enthralling as he guides us through them--by bus, boat, Land Rover, and bush plane. He skips the strongmen, the corruption, and the coups that make the news--that's only background to him. Kapuscinski's Africa is the continent of village pathways, roadside tailors, millet beer, baobob trees, and huts shared with cobras.

As in his other books, Kapuscinski's method here rests upon the dilated detail, the fleeting moment explored for all it's worth. A group of Ugandans glimpsed carrying a stricken villager furtively through the jungle night prompts a marvelous exegesis on witchcraft, spells, and sorcery. In Zanzibar in 1964, a coffee vendor sounds his bell calling customers at dawn a few days after a coup (which eventually joined the island to Tanganyika to form Tanzania). This produces a discourse on the often-observed resilience of Africa's struggling millions and the way "normality and dailiness" flow back over events with the inevitability of tides.

"Ordinary people here treat political cataclysms...as phenomena belonging to the realm of nature," Kapuscinski writes. "One must simply wait them out, hiding under the roof, peering out from time to time to observe the sky--has the lightning ceased, are the clouds departing? If yes, then one can step outside again and resume that which was momentarily interrupted--work, a journey, sitting in the sun."

Time, hunger, work; waiting, belonging, fetching water; day and night, sun and shade, rain and drought: You finish this book with a grasp of how much such ordinary things mean to Africans, and therein lies its reward. Bill Berkeley, by contrast, is a reporter whose humanity, while equally evident, takes a different form. An American who spent a decade freelancing in Africa, he's looking to comprehend the violence that has thrust the African hot spots of the post-cold-war years into headlines around the world. The Graves Are Not Yet Full is a book with an intellectual argument, and it is well and forcefully made.

Berkeley's title comes verbatim from an exhortation on Rwandan state radio urging the Hutu majority to finish off the minority Tutsi. We've all read about the massacres that ensued in 1994. "How is such a horror possible?" Berkeley asks a Hutu sorghum farmer who overnight turned into a murderer of neighbors. It's Berkeley's central query. In answering it, he is intent upon countering the orthodoxies that put such tragedies down simply to tribal rivalries, primitivism, or some sort of savagery lurking in the African soul. "This book is intended in part as a pointed rebuttal to that sort of nonsense," Berkeley writes.

I like the pugilistic stance. Berkeley doesn't deny the force of tribalism, but he wants us to see it in its complex, historic context. He explains that the colonial era exacerbated ethnic differences--sometimes purposely, sometimes not. Tribalism, he says, "became a dominant mode of political life in Africa in the major slaving years...when the existing states either failed to defend citizens from violence and enslavement or collaborated with the slave traders." It was a means of self-defense.

Americans are meant to see themselves in the current mess, too. Berkeley takes particular aim at cold warriors such as Chester A. Crocker, President Reagan's point man on Africa, whose apologies for gruesome dictators prolonged the old problems. "My own experience across the continent," he writes, "has taught me that Africans in ever greater numbers favor racial and ethnic tolerance, the rule of law, and the sanctity of individual rights."

Berkeley makes no leap from journalistic to lyrical writing, as Kapuscinski does: His is a straight up and down account with few flourishes. It makes us view things differently, though, and that makes Berkeley's book worthwhile. It's a shame one can't say the same of Michela Wrong's book on Mobutu's Zaire.

This is rich material gone to waste. In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz--the title of course makes reference to Conrad's crazed character in Heart of Darkness--amounts to little more than the leftovers dished from a news gatherer's notebooks, garnished with tasteless attempts at wit and with a Perils-of-Pauline sense of self-dramatization.

You anticipate trouble when Wrong starts out poking fun at Mobutu's famous leopard-skin caps--and goes on to critique the rest of his wardrobe and gaudy furniture. She is simply too busy hiking up her skirts and describing her shock and disgust to truly set foot in Africa. Her first chapter, start to finish, concerns the pitfalls of life at the Kinshasa Intercontinental Hotel, where Wrong seems to have spent far too many of her days. In 338 pages, we do not get to know a single ordinary African. Who does Wrong interview when she visits a copper mine in Katanga province? An old Belgian manager, naturally.

It's a poor performance, and Wrong seems wholly unaware of the retrograde perspective she advances. That is why the book is oddly instructive. Colonialism has passed, Wrong reminds us, but the attitudes it shaped live unconsciously on. These reflexes are also why books such as Kapuscinski's and Berkeley's are to be especially welcomed.

Smith is at work on a book about America's place in the post-cold-war world.

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