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.