Richard Dowden’s book, first published in 2008 by Portobello Books, is littered with anecdotes on Africa covering most of Africa’s post colonial history. A reprint edition by Public Affairs came out in 2010.
Dowden a man who encountered Africa first in 1971 as a teacher, then as a journalist and editor with such publications as The Times, The Independent, and The Economist over a period of thirty years, offers an intelligent blend of anecdote, analysis and history.
The book features several African countries including South Africa, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Senegal, Nigeria, Angola, Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia and Sudan. To be more accurate, this is a story about Sub-Saharan Africa . So how different is Dowden’s take on Africa?
True, he does present many of the traditional interpretations of African history, the punchy prose and the journalese. The book contains the usual stories of war, famine, pestilence and disease. But there is more. Dowden presents a different side of the continent that the majority of outsiders who rely on the mass media never get to see. The view is that of a continent full of diversity, dynamism and change.
Dowden’s first hand accounts are refreshing and illuminating. From the woman hoping to write the next great African novel to the old man who is unafraid of gun totting rebels but terrified of “leopard men”, the book’s accounts come across as unflinching about Africa’s challenges without being blind to the progress being made by the most unlikely actors. Here are stories about HIV positive women contributing to the fight against the pandemic, and Somalis using remittances and mobile phone technology to conduct commerce.
Dowden shows that the mobile phone is changing the continent, and so is private capital, China and the discovery of mineral resources. Clearly Africa is changing and the forces that are driving this change are more complex than may appreciate.
The view of Africa that emerges from Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles, is a nuanced one – presented as part memoir, part topical analysis. Still it is as forceful about what is needed as it is honestly critical of different actors.
In a sense, contrary to what the book title suggests, what Africa is going through is no ordinary miracle – presenting real hope that the continent is on the verge of a break-through. Fittingly, Chinua Achebe, one of Africa’s pre-eminent authors, contributes the foreword to this defining book.