Third World firsthand

Opening with a shy meeting between a young man and woman on an Ivory Coast dance floor and closing with a hellish eyewitness account of the Congo Wars, Howard French’s A Continent for the Taking is a rewarding combination of journalism and personal reportage. French, a senior writer for The New York Times, sustains a delicate balance between objective fact and subjective interpretation as he recounts his 25 years of reporting on African history and culture.

The remarkable power of Continent — and this is clearly a book designed to educate, enrage and enlighten — lies in its combination of aggressive research and first-person reporting. A longtime contributor to such international publications as The Economist and The Washington Post, French knows the broad general sweep of recent African history, as well as how that history has affected individual African villages and cities. As he argues in the preface to Continent, Africa remains, to a significant extent, a great cipher in the Western mind — a continent easily outlined on the map, but difficult to define in any totalizing way. In part, this is due to the immense diversity of Africa’s people and politics, but it is also an effect of the West’s tendency to fixate only on Africa’s horrors — ebola, AIDS, apartheid, genocidal dictatorships — and it is in this capacity that Continent works best, as a journalistic corrective for the Western reader. Notwithstanding the frequently harrowing subject matter, French is ultimately optimistic about the ability of everyday African people to outlast their many exploiters, both foreign and domestic.

Despite the book’s subtitle, French mostly confines his firsthand observations to the part of the continent he knows best, West Africa. That focus, however, feels less like a limitation than a concentration of the book’s themes of limitless chaos and dogged survival throughout the continent. This is the land of Mobutu’s Zaire, and its reversion to the name “Congo” under the volatile presidency of Laurent Kabila; this was the site of the massive 1995 ebola outbreak, which French covered by chartering a plane and flying into Kikwit, the city that had been ground zero for the epidemic. The chapter titles are stark and evocative — “Plague,” “Leviathan,” “Long Knives,” “Falling Apart” — but the stories contained in each are richly developed and deeply moving. In every section that offers a unique story (and history) of mismanagement or disease, French seeks out and talks at length with the Africans who instigated and opposed it — politicians, doctors, volunteer workers, dissident novelists and other activist Africans who make up the front line of defense against infection and oppression. As a reporter, French knows when his personal experiences will help flesh out the expository background for these tales. But he’s also sensitive enough to know that the stories told by native Africans are the most terrifying and the most moving parts of the book.

Indeed, this is one of the most human books on African history in recent memory. Human, because French’s focus is not on faceless biological or political horrors — the approach adopted by so much mainstream journalism — but on the men and women who caused those horrors, or who had those horrors visited upon them. At once personally sympathetic and rigorously researched, A Continent for the Taking is an affecting and important piece of journalism.

Eric Waggoner writes about books for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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