A decade ago, at 3 a.m. on a hot night in a small village a few hours north of Kampala, Uganda, I was woken by the sound of screaming. I sat up in the pitch black, head cocked. All around me, in concrete dormitories, the pupils of Makonze boarding school were sleeping—but it wasn’t a child’s voice. I listened for a while longer, then identified the noise: the cold, futile shriek of a dying dog. So I got up, full of indignation at the thought of canine suffering, and padded out into the dark.

A few minutes later the shrieks turned to a whimper then collapsed into silence. Out of the night appeared a knot of excited children. “He want chickens, but we got him!” one boy, Anthony, proudly explained. A hungry dog had jumped into the chicken coop, so a gaggle of alert 7-year-olds, led by Anthony, had leapt from their beds and stoned it to death.

The next morning, to my horror, the Makonze teachers congratulated the children. They saw nothing wrong with youngsters enjoying the drawn-out murder of man’s best friend. I was incensed and began a strict regime of colonial-style re-education, but to no avail. It took me weeks before I could think of the dog’s death without outrage and months before I realized that outrage was best applied to myself and to my wilfully daft attempt to impose British sentimentality on to Africa.

If I’d read Richard Dowden’s Africa then, I’d have seen sense sooner. The most important lesson, the one that runs through the collection of linked essays, is this: be patient, don’t be too quick to judge. In Africa, nothing is black and white.

Dowden’s first experience of Africa was also at a school in Uganda, in the early 1970s, but he learned much quicker than I did. “Here I lost my virginity, physical, spiritual, moral and found Africa’s huge patience and humanity—and its cruelty and violence,” he says. Dowden was forced to leave a year or so later when Idi Amin decided that all whites were spies, but he made a vow to return—one that he kept.

For the last three decades, Dowden, now head of Britain’s Royal African Society, has interviewed dictators, been shot at by rebel militias, and risked his life to report Africa’s hidden atrocities, to debunk received wisdom and to write this humane, heartbreaking, and scholarly book.

Dowden says that to see Africa as just a victim is a mistake. Yes, the continent has been exploited by European and American greed, but it gives as good as it gets. His chapter on Angola says it best. During the Cold War, the two great adversaries treated Africa as a chessboard full of expendable pawns. In Angola, the Soviets backed the Marxist MPLA, so America sponsored the Africanist FNLA, with the intention of bleeding the Russkies of money and determination. On one interpretation, Africa was a patsy that paid an appalling price in the lives of Angolan peasants.

But there’s another side to the story: “Like many of the small civil wars of the Cold War period that appeared to be ideological, fought by proxies of the Marxist Soviet Union and the capitalist United States, the Angolan war was actually the continuation of a local historical conflict,” explains Dowden. “To woo powerful allies, both sides cheerfully sang the hymns of the Soviet Union or the US. The superpowers were fooled into believing they had real disciples.”

The continent’s complexities and its ruthlessness make it hard to help. Dowden’s heart bleeds for Africa, but unlike most of us, he doesn’t salve his conscience by writing a check. He investigates and asks: will aid here do more harm than good? Too often, the answer is yes. Time and time again, all over the continent, he finds that foreign aid—food and medical supplies—is used to sponsor militias and prolong conflict.

In the mid-1990s, for instance, Dowden flew to southern Sudan and camped for a few days by Panyagor airstrip. Rumors of an incipient aid drop had snaked through the jungle, so by the time Dowden arrived, the strip was surrounded by desperate, starving families. But in between the huddled groups stalked the soldiers of the SPLA, who also depended on the aid—just as much as they did on guns and ammo—to prolong the war that had starved the people in the first place.

So what’s a poor NGO to do? Feed the people and the conflict? Or let women and children die? The aid question has a particular, horrific relevance because of the trouble in the Congo, but Dowden addresses another related and equally current concern. Is there ever a case for Western intervention in Africa? Do we always make things worse? As that 21st- century monster Robert Mugabe incites global fury, there is talk of trying to depose him by force. But that would almost inevitably lead to greater suffering for Zimbabweans.

So what should the international community do? They could do worse than ask Dowden for advice. He explains Mugabe’s schizoid personality: “On the one hand he loves cricket and the Queen. … On the other hand he is an angry African man battling British colonialism and imperialism.”

And then there is the other simple fact we find so difficult to understand: Mugabe’s hold over other African states. “South Africa was terrified of being seen in the rest of Africa as the cats paw of the West or the bullying boss of the continent,” says Dowden. “Besides, Mugabe was a hero of the liberation struggle. When others, such as Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, had wobbled, Mugabe had remained clear and steely.”

“Only in recent years have African leaders, largely led by South Africa, begun to become masters of their own ship. They now push back against Western demands and display their dislike of what they see as Western interference in Africa by showing solidarity with Mugabe.”

Dowden has no sympathy for Africa’s psychopathic “Big Men”—Charles Taylor, Mobutu, Mugabe—whose chief aim is to demonstrate how far they are now from the squalor they were born into. But he is almost equally wary of AFRICOM, the new military command that will co-ordinate U.S. Africa policy.

He has a story that perfectly illustrates his thinking: “I asked an American general how he would feel if China had created a similar structure, putting its Africa policy under military command and Chinese boots on the ground there,” says Dowden. “He paused for a moment. ‘Uneasy,’ he said.” Quite.

After 18 chapters of Dowden’s adventures, it seems possible that even now, Africa isn’t quite ready for direct democracy. By way of explanation, Dowden quotes from Barbara Kingsolver’s book The Poisonwood Bible: “To the Congolese it seems odd that if one man gets fifty votes and the second forty nine, the first one wins altogether and the second one plumb loses. That means almost half the people will be unhappy and in a village that’s left halfway unhappy you haven’t heard the end of it. There’s sure to be trouble down the line.”

Kingsolver’s novel is set in pre-independence Congo, but in those few sentences she spells out the story of most of Africa post independence.

And it’s comic but telling that the whole concept of a loyal opposition leaves Africans perplexed. “In 1991, Neil Kinnock, the leader of Britain’s Labour Party, then in opposition, toured Southern Africa,” writes Dowden. “Over Zimbabwe his plane was forced down by bad weather and he landed unannounced at a small airstrip in the bush. Zimbabwean soldiers detained the plane and questioned the visitor. When he proudly announced that he was leader of the opposition in Britain they arrested him. They were thrilled. The soldiers thought they’d caught a really important terrorist.”

Am I giving the impression that Dowden despairs of Africa? He doesn’t. Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles is as much love story as political analysis. For example, though Dowden describes the toll taken by Somalia’s bloody and ceaseless civil wars, he also celebrates the fierce Somali spirit: “Their poetry reveres bravery and revenge. One of their songs composed during the 1978 war with Ethiopia runs: “if I don’t wash the face of the land with the blood of the enemy, I am not a Somali.”

Dowden loves Africa despite its savagery, and he persuades his reader to feel the same: to see that its inconceivable cruelty is matched by an equally inconceivable talent for living. At the height of the civil war in Sierra Leone, Dowden meets women clapping, singing, and pounding yams in the setting sun, their capacity for joy undiminished though their villages burn around them. There is no word for depression in most African languages.

And there is compassion, even in the middle of the worst and most pitiless conflicts. In Burundi, after the first spate of Hutu/Tutsi massacres, Dowden comes across a man he describes as a “brilliant spark of hope.” Jean-Baptiste Nteturuye is a retired policeman, “Tall, dignified aristocratic-looking … he used to be a sub-chief in colonial times. … His back rooms are filled with Hutu families—thirty-eight people packed on the floor terrified but alive. That in itself is not strange in these troubled times. Refugees and the homeless crowd into the houses of their relatives until they feel safe enough to return home. What is strange is that all the guests in Mr. Nteturye’s house are Hutus but Mr. Nteturuye is a Tutsi.”

Africa’s heart, Dowden shows us, has never changed. “Beneath the surface of Africa’s weak nation states lie old cultures, old societies with a deep sense of spiritual power,” he says.

The same is true of the people. For Africans, even Harvard-educated government ministers, reality is a different, deeper place than it is in the secular West, and any U.S. or European politician making decisions about Africa would be foolish not to take this on board. Earlier this year in Liberia, I met a practicing lawyer, an economics graduate and possible future candidate for president, who talked to me about the recent civil war. “One of the troubles was that so many of the warlords had magical powers,” he said, then nodded enthusiastically: “Yes, it’s true, bullets could not hit them. There are witness who saw the bullets swerved around the generals, because they were under the protection of spirits.”

I was a little taken aback. It wouldn’t have fazed Dowden: “This belief in the spirit world partly explains Africans’ lack of political or social agency … but such beliefs also provide immensely powerful defences against despair and hopelessness. Africa always has hope,” he says. “I find more hopelessness in Highbury where I live in north London than in the whole of Africa.”

As the Nigerian novelist Ben Okri points out, “the African world of spirits and gods and mystical powers is one in which Homer, Jesus Christ, and Shakespeare would have been far more at home than our modern Western atomised lives.” America, of all nations, should appreciate that. 

Mary Wakefield is deputy editor of the London Spectator. 

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