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The Tragedy and Hope of Africa

Written by Howard W. FrenchAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Howard W. French


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On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 320 | ISBN: 978-0-307-42430-3
Published by : Vintage Knopf
A Continent for the Taking Cover

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Synopsis|Excerpt|Table of Contents


In A Continent for the Taking Howard W. French, a veteran correspondent for The New York Times, gives a compelling firsthand account of some of Africa’s most devastating recent history–from the fall of Mobutu Sese Seko, to Charles Taylor’s arrival in Monrovia, to the genocide in Rwanda and the Congo that left millions dead. Blending eyewitness reportage with rich historical insight, French searches deeply into the causes of today’s events, illuminating the debilitating legacy of colonization and the abiding hypocrisy and inhumanity of both Western and African political leaders.

While he captures the tragedies that have repeatedly befallen Africa’s peoples, French also opens our eyes to the immense possibility that lies in Africa’s complexity, diversity, and myriad cultural strengths. The culmination of twenty-five years of passionate exploration and understanding, this is a powerful and ultimately hopeful book about a fascinating and misunderstood continent.


Chapter One

I remember clearly, even now, how and when Africa grabbed hold of me, and as is so often the case for people living abroad, my infatuation began with a romance. The lightning struck me in January 1980, in a small, smoke-filled nightclub called the Keur Samba, in Treichville, the densely packed working-class neighborhood and old colonial "indigenous quarter" of the capital of Ivory Coast, Abidjan.

The dance floor was tiny, and as I would quickly learn was commonplace in Africa, when people were moved to dance, they simply jumped up without any other formalities and joined the crowd. The club's African play list was heavy on fast numbers with thumping bass lines, and it did not take long to get swept up in the atmosphere amid all the bumping and swaying. For someone new to the country who had come alone, the discovery that partners were irrelevant was a pleasant surprise.

My father, who is a doctor, had designed and was running a regional primary healthcare program for the World Health Organization, and my parents had been living in Abidjan together with my brothers and sisters for a few years. I had just moved to Ivory Coast after graduating from college to find myself while plotting my next moves in life, and for a young American out on the town by himself, the packed nightclub with its throbbing African sounds and colliding bodies seemed like the very definition of exotic. And then I met Mariam.

With the strobe lights flashing wildly and the club jam-packed, it took me longer than it should have to notice that no matter in which direction I turned I was still bumping into the same lithe, dark-skinned woman. But when a fifties rock-and-roll number came on, changing the mood of the place abruptly, the dance floor cleared momentarily. Damp with sweat and tired of the smoke, I followed a stream of customers outside onto the unpaved street for a breather. When I stopped a few paces from the exit, there she was again.

Under the faint streetlight I could finally fix her features as she smiled. She was a real beauty, with the form of a ballet dancer and the élan of a gazelle, and an extraordinary head full of fine black tresses that tumbled down her back. There was an ever-so-brief moment of awkwardness, and then, suddenly, we both began talking. We spoke in French for a few minutes, and because of that, when she got around to asking me where I was from, she was a bit surprised to learn that I was American. I, on the other hand, assumed she was from Ivory Coast, and asked her what region of the country her family was from. The question elicited an immediate shock. "Me, from Ivory Coast?" she said, indignantly. "I am not from here. I am from a grand country, Mali; a place with a real history!"

Now it was my turn to be taken aback. Ivory Coast was the economic success story of the region. The people of the country had grown smug over their success, bragging about Abidjan's multiplex cinemas and ice-skating rink, its shopping malls and Miami skyline, and condescending to their much poorer neighbors. By contrast, Mali was one of Africa's poorest countries-a landlocked dust bowl plagued by recurrent droughts and famines that had languished under pseudo-socialist dictatorships since independence in 1960.

Mariam and I ended up leaving the nightclub together for a maquis, one of the cheap open-air drinking places that abound in Treichville. Of course I had read plenty about Mali's past greatness, about the fabled empires named Mali and Ghana, whose civilizations had flourished astride the ancient caravan routes across the Sahara between the sixth and fifteenth centuries. I was familiar with Malian sculpture, and that led me to share with my new friend one of my first impressions of her: There was something about her beauty that reminded me of the Chiwara mask, a graceful antelope-like sculpture from Mali that was one of the region's most distinctive forms.

I had grown up in a strong African-American family, where pride and self-respect were passed on daily, and in abundance-together with lots of history. Bowing and scraping were alien to us, and we were reminded of the achievements of blacks at every turn, from people like Charles Drew, the doctor who pioneered blood transfusion and had been my father's professor in medical school, to Ralph Bunche and Paul Robeson. Even so, it seemed that Mariam, whose pride in her culture was boundless, could easily teach us a thing or two when it came to holding our heads up. For Mariam, no matter how much I knew about Mali, it wasn't enough. For her, her homeland was the center of the universe, the cradle of African civilization and the repository of its greatest culture.

Mariam soon became my first African girlfriend, and we saw each other steadily for the next few weeks. She was visiting Abidjan from Paris, where she lived, and I was working as a translator, helping a French writer produce an English edition of her first novel. We would often meet at Mariam's hotel in Adjamé, a cheap but clean little affair where she could spend a couple of months in town without going bankrupt. She was buying West African goods-cloth, clothing, spices and artwork-to take back to Paris for sale there. The trip had far more than a mercantile interest for her, though. For Mariam, Africa would forever be home, the place where she returned to recharge.

As Mariam's stay drew to a close, I announced my decision to visit Mali. She seemed delighted, but as someone who jetted back and forth to Europe, she thought it funny of me to insist on going there overland, perhaps even as far north as Timbuktu. Jamie, my younger brother by seven years, was as determined as I was to see the continent from ground level, much as any ordinary African would, so together we set out by train for the north of Ivory Coast, as the first leg of our journey.

No one could say how much it had cost to build the Régie Abidjan-Niger railway, whose tracks were laid from Abidjan to Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso (formerly known as Upper Volta), between 1905 and 1954, or how many lives were lost in the process, but these many decades later it was easy to view it as a positive legacy of France's colonialism in the region. The train's cars were packed with migrant workers from the Sahel, the parched, impoverished badlands south of the Sahara Desert, carrying home their savings and cheap manufactured goods-black-and-white TVs, bulky radio-cassette decks and electric fans from China and India-bought with the meager salaries they had earned as laborers on cocoa plantations or as domestics.

Abidjan's fancy, "developed" veneer, all haughty and self-impressed, peeled away instantly as the train chugged along, propelling us through a thick patch of rain forest, then through verdant plantation land, and northward, with the temperature rising steadily, into the savannah.

We were traveling as light and unencumbered as possible, out to discover Africa and searching for ourselves a bit, too, along the way, and we must have made a curious sight for our fellow travelers. For luggage we had nothing more than a couple of changes of clothing stuffed into two goatskin sacks, which we wore slung over our shoulders. I had a wire-bound notebook to write in, and an old Olympus 35mm camera. For reading, I had brought along Freud's Introduction to Psychoanalysis and a hefty paperback travel book, Susan Blumenthal's Bright Continent, whose brilliant mixture of learned reflection and backpacker's-eye view made it the best African travel guide I have seen before or since.

At each stop along the way, in cities with strangely beautiful names like Katiola and Bouaké, the scenery grew more stark and simple, as did the dress and manners of the people we encountered. Before long, young girls were converging on the train at each station, shouting their sales pitches in Dioula, the commercial lingua franca of the northern half of the country, instead of French, and offering cold water to drink in clear little pouches of plastic. Other girls carried small brown smoked fish, exposed and still baking under the powerful sun, or bread borne on large enamel plates they balanced on their heads. These were not the fancy French baguettes of Abidjan, but big, boxy loaves of white bread with which the vendors rushed forward toward our open windows in a sales competition that was desperate yet always cheerful.

We fell asleep long after dark, at the end of a long and sweaty day, both feeling that the "real" Africa that we were searching for wouldn't reveal itself in earnest until we got off the train and trod the dusty ground, unmarked by man's hand, that stretched to the horizon outside. Later I came to distrust this concept of authenticity deeply.

We were awakened when the train lurched to a stop in the morning to discover that we were in Ferkessédougou, our jumping-off point for Mali, which was still about a hundred miles to the northwest. It had rained overnight and suddenly the air was surprisingly chilly. We took a taxi to the gare routière, where Peugeot 504 station wagons left for Bamako, the capital of Mali, and discovered that it was little more than a puddle-filled lot.

Around its circumference sat a bunch of buvettes, little tumbledown shacks that passed as restaurants, each with its own hand-painted sign describing the fare. We settled into one, feeling faintly like cowboys moseying around in an old western. But instead of being served whiskey, a characteristically light-skinned young Fulani man poured thick, heavily sweetened condensed milk into our coffee and whipped up our helpings of bread and fried eggs.

Afterward, we scouted out what looked like the best car, negotiated our fare to Bamako and then waited for a departure we figured was imminent. A two-hour lesson in patience awaited us, as well as a very neat illustration of power. We were in a world of peasants and the poor, and they already understood perfectly well what we were just discovering and could never completely accommodate ourselves to: that there is often little more to do in life than sit around and wait until those who are more powerful are ready to budge.

In this case, the more powerful meant the drivers, who seemed to live and work according to an internal calendar whose secrets were known only to themselves and to their coxswains-the boys who helped collect their fares. Although there was a nominal fare between any two points, supply and demand was the ultimate arbiter, and the driver was free to negotiate the cost upward whenever the cars were few and passengers many. Departure times were even more elastic, and seemed governed not just by how many would be occupying the vehicle, which counted a great deal, but also by the Muslim obligation to pray five times each day, by the need to eat and, most vexingly of all, by what seemed to my untrained eye to be the reckoning of innumerable omens.

But finally we took off, and it felt great to be moving again, even if the car was filled almost beyond its capacity. Since I am six foot four, I had luckily taken the precaution of paying a little extra so that I could sit in the front seat, where there was a little more leg room and a prime view of the scenery. We were heading north, supposedly toward the Sahara, but oddly the vegetation was getting steadily greener. By the time we reached the border, several hours later, the cramped space and huge potholes in the road had left me feeling like an invalid.

When we climbed out of the car at the crossing, we were introduced to a brand-new waiting game, this one run by the poker-faced customs officers. The border crossing was, in reality, little more than a legally sanctioned stickup spot. And in this racket, if it is true that the driver and the customs agents could not be called friends, they were clearly complicit. Our chauffeur had obviously tithed away a portion of the passengers' fares to pay off the customs agents, and stood nearby watching the scene with studied disinterest as the passengers pleaded poverty so as to surrender as little as possible, and the agents gradually escalated their threats to extort whatever they could.

But the agents' ultimate leverage was our driver. After an interval of about forty-five minutes or so-long enough for our driver to eat, drink something and relieve himself, and for Jamie and me to eat a few small wooden skewers of grilled mutton deliciously seasoned with a sprinkling of powdered red pepper and spices-he beckoned us back into the Peugeot and began making ready to leave. His departure would have stranded our fellow travelers, with no question of a refund for the fares they had already paid. As the driver and customs men surely knew, this was enough to get the men to take off their shoes or to fish into secret pockets to retrieve some hidden cash, and the portly market women among them to start undoing the elaborately wrapped cloth they wore to find the crumpled bills they had so carefully hidden in their bras or in secret folds.

The drive from there was our introduction to the savannah. The reddish clay earth stretched infinitely in whichever direction one looked, melding in a blur at the horizon with the low, bright sky. Other than the little circular villages, with their peaked thatch roofs and red walls made of mud and straw, the only relief from the landscape was the incredible termite mounds-huge baroque cathedrals that rose to the height of a tall man.

When night fell, we may as well have been on the moon as on that unlit highway with its deep craters, the location of which the driver seemed to know almost by heart. He slowed down for some of the holes and slalomed to dodge others. Despite his best efforts, though, every now and again he would hit one-perhaps, I thought, he was too tired to give a damn-but as we plummeted to the bottom and were then jolted back out of even the deepest potholes, the passengers scarcely stirred from their deep slumber. The sky was lit brilliantly with stars, and the savannah mimicked them with the fires of villagers, which could be seen twinkling in the distance. Malian music was playing on the driver's radio, and the alembic strumming of the kora, a long, eighteen-stringed harp, and the soaring declamations of the singers were carrying me back to the age of the great empires.

We arrived in Bamako a little before dawn. Trying to be frugal and not knowing the city, we decided to do what so many other travelers at the station had done. We unrolled our little straw mats, clutched our goatskin bags close to us, covered our faces with pieces of clothing and slept right there on the ground. A few hours later, we rose to the sunrise and the sound of heavy traffic to discover Bamako in all of its dusty and smoke-filled glory.

From the Hardcover edition.

Table of Contents





The Golden Bough

Greater Liberia

Falling Apart

Where Peacocks Roam

Castles in the Sand

Tough Love

Long Knives

Le Roi Est Mort (Long Live the King)

Howard W. French|Author Q&A

About Howard W. French

Howard W. French - A Continent for the Taking

Photo © Howard French

Howard W. French wrote from Africa for The Washington Post and The New York Times. At the Times, he was bureau chief in Central America and the Caribbean, West and Central Africa, Japan, and China. He is the recipient of two Overseas Press Club awards and a two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee. The author of A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa, he has written for The Atlantic, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Magazine, and Rolling Stone, among other national publications. He is on the faculty of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He lives in New York.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Howard W. French

Q:  Tell us about the title of your book: A CONTINENT FOR THE TAKING.
A:  The title is intended to reflect the notion that Africa is a continent that has always been up for grabs, or at least that has been the case since its "discovery" by Europe around the time of Columbus. There is also a little bit of ironic play on this same theme, in the sense that today's Africa is largely uncontested, almost abandoned by outside powers (unless one considers commercial interests, such as oil). In the context of modern African history, this is a very unusual state of affairs.

Q:  You grew up in Washington, DC, and visited Africa for the first time in the 1970s, as a college student. What pre-conceptions did you bring to Africa? How did Africa surprise you over the course of your assignments as a reporter in the 80s and 90s?
A:  I came of age at the tail end of the Black Power movement in the United States. My siblings participated actively in some causes. Part of this was a fraternal identification with Africa, and especially a political sympathy for what were seen then as the continent's more "progressive" governments, and especially for the anti-apartheid movement. My parents were very active in the American civil rights movement, and as residents of Washington, rubbed shoulders with Africans and with people who knew the continent well. They were members in the 1960s, for example, in a group called something like "Friends of Ghana." An older sister went to Africa after high school in a Peace Corps-like program called Crossroads Africa.

This is all to say that before any of us could have imagined we would someday live in Africa, Africa was part of our world. We moved to a Boston suburb when I was entering junior high school, and my father shifted careers from surgery to public health, and then to international health, eventually focusing on Africa. He traveled to the continent and we flirted with a move to Cameroon, but nothing came of it.  I can remember the excitement. I also remember the feeling of dismay and almost insult when a liberal white friend of my father told me not to expect that if we moved to Africa, we would be treated like "brothers."

In a very simplistic way his comment turned out to be true. Africans are generally not waiting at the shores to embrace black Americans seeking to "return." At the same time, I eventually learned, there tends to be a refreshing degree of relaxation about matters of race that contrasted dramatically with the America I knew at that time, and indeed even with the America of today.

Q:  You write in great detail about the distinct countries and cultures of Nigeria, Liberia, Mali, and the Congo. Is there one place that concerns you especially at this juncture, several years after the events reported in the book?
A:  A thought that runs through my book is that Africa doesn't really have small crises. When ignored, the problems of what seem like insignificant countries (take Liberia or Sierra Leone, for example) fester and often engulf whole regions. Having said that, I think Nigeria's ongoing experiment with democracy, with its very mixed results, is of paramount importance to the entire continent, given the huge population and economic weight of the country. I think that whether Congo-Kinshasa can establish some kind of stable footing will condition the fate of a huge swath of the continent.

I also think that the economic and political success of vibrant democracies like Mali, and some which are not treated at any length in my book, among others, Senegal, Ghana, Botswana and perhaps Kenya, is vital to the entire continent's attitudes toward democratic governance. For this reason, among others, it is in the West's interest to treat these countries as most favored states; to go out of our way to make them showcases for others to emulate.

Q:  Your book covers some of the major tragic stories of the past decade, e.g. Ebola, AIDS, and genocide. Amid these tragedies, were there any leaders you admired? Who was/is leading Africans in a prosperous and peaceful direction?
A:  There are many positive things happening in Africa. The countries above, for example, give reasons for real encouragement. African civil societies–even war torn and very corrupt societies–are full of heroes. We must find ways to strengthen them and to help their voices emerge from the chaos.

Q:  How can Africans escape the destructive legacies of colonization?
A:  Education is perhaps the biggest single thing. In some cases, however, the European imperial experience produced unviable countries, and colonialism froze them into place, along with petty, ill-founded notions of nationalism. Some of today's turmoil reflects a return to the process of sovereign state formation, bloody and brutish, just as it was in many parts of Europe and Asia. The quicker one builds a literate society, the quicker the idea of resolving these problems through the use of laws and ideas will supplant the currently favored mode, which relies on the gun.

Q:  You are quite critical of the Clinton administration policies toward Africa. What recommendations would you make to current U.S. leaders about policies toward Africa?
A:  There are a great many highly practical things that we can do, at relatively low cost, that could provide a tremendous boost to the continent:

Work seriously with Europe and others in the rich world to lift subsidies on our agricultural products that prevent African farmers from earning a living.

Invest in education. Near-universal literacy is a reachable goal that should be strongly supported throughout the continent, through bilateral aid, multilateral assistance, and philanthropic and voluntary work.

Similarly, with relatively modest investments, we could help make basic health care and things that we take for granted, like clean drinking water, available to a majority of the continent's citizens.

Help build civil society. Be consistent and forceful in supporting democratic rule. Engage the continent much more vigorously at the political level, reinforcing the message both at the level of the continent's leaders and its people that Africans are part of the global community, that we are all in the same boat.

Q:  What do you imagine current African leaders might think about your book?
A:  I am hopeful that Africans, leaders or otherwise, who read the book will receive it as the thoughts and feelings of someone who loves the continent, who has lived it intimately, and who cares deeply about its fate.

Q:  The subtitle of your book includes the “tragedy and hope” of the African continent. Are you hopeful for the future of Africa? In what way?
A:  Things can change in surprising ways in human affairs. No state is permanent, and certainly there is nothing inherently flawed about Africans or about Africa. China and India, two huge countries whose populations were as poor or poorer than many African countries a generation ago are both caught up in sweeping growth and stunning change. In both cases, international capital, sensing its opportunities, is rushing in. This can happen in Africa, too. I'll go out on a limb and even predict that in my lifetime people in many parts of the continent will be able to look back at their poverty-stricken or strife-ridden past and marvel at the distance traveled.

From the Hardcover edition.

Praise | Awards


“Lively . . . vivid . . . This is the best book about Africa to come out in some time.” –Chicago Tribune

“An often riveting eyewitness account of the chaos enveloping West Africa in the 1990s.” –San Francisco Chronicle

“Vivid, disquieting. . . . French’s engagement with the continent goes far deeper than most Africa-based correspondents.” –Washington Monthly

“Remarkable. . . . This deeply empathetic account of a region in crisis deserves to be read widely.” –Foreign Affairs

“[French’s] skill as a writer — in particular his telling anecdotes, fascinating historical narratives and prescriptions for a complex continent he clearly loves — is compelling. . . . He succeeds brilliantly in helping readers understand the continent and its people.” –The Globe & Mail (Toronto)

“Exhilarating for its frankness. . . . A triumph of passionate reporting.” –The New York Review of Books

“A passionate, heartbreaking, and ultimately heartbroken book. . . . [French] has a deeper and more profound connection to the continent than most journalists.” –The Nation

“A brilliant and nuanced meditation on the complexities of contemporary Africa. Essential reading for those of us who live Africa and for all those who wish to gain a fuller understanding of a continent that is sprawling, mysterious, and endlessly fascinating. Howard French’s voice is both fresh and enlightening.”–Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

“Persuasive. . . . The tone is grim, but French also finds an unquenchable African spirit.” –The Washington Post Book World

“Even when you've been there or know the basic facts, Howard French takes you to Africa in a way you've never been taken before. His superb writing, his keen insight and passion-driven analysis combine to make A Continent for the Taking a great read for those who find the continent as fasinating as he does, as well as for those who need to know why we do.” –Charlayne Hunter Gault , author of In My Place

“French gives us the context necessary to understand Africa’s current problems. . . . Broad-ranging. . . . Passionate.” –American Prospect

“French’s great advantage in telling his tale is his depth of perspective. . . . Rare is the book on Africa that gets passed around among policymakers in Washington–we can only hope this becomes one of them.”–St. Petersburg Times

“Many Western narratives tend to exonerate the West for Africa’s seemingly endless woes, placing blame squarely on the continent. Some African accounts tend to blame the West entirely. Howard French strikes the right balance, showing that Africa’s ills are rooted in internal and external factors but which are clearly linked.”–Ngugi wa Thiong’o, author of Weep Not, Child

“A harrowing picture of a continental catastrophe.” –Hartford Courant


WINNER 2014 YALSA Best Books for Young Adults
Howard W. French

Howard W. French Events>

Howard W. French - A Continent for the Taking

Photo © Howard French

4/4/2015 Seattle Art Museum
1300 1st Avenue
Seattle, WA 98101

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  • A Continent for the Taking by Howard W.French
  • April 12, 2005
  • History - Africa
  • Vintage
  • $15.95
  • 9781400030279

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