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Not Prince Hamlet

"Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse."

Africa Reading

Thursday, March 02, 2006

One of my hoped-for changes following a month in Africa is that I'll read more. There was a lot of down time with nothing else to do but play cards or read, so I plowed through a few books, only some of which had to do with Africa itself. Here's some quick feedback and recommendations.

Best of all, King Leopold's Ghost. This book was a historical event in itself when it was published in 1998, because so much of what it contains had never before been published. The author, Adam Hochshild, is an accomplished reporter on human rights issues, and he investigated the history of Leopold's Congo from that angle. The book draws heavily on the journal entries of some of the most important people to have a hand in that 20 + year reign of terror, from Leopold himself to Congo State officials to missionaries and senators. It is a page-turner in the strictest sense, and I hope I haven't read it for the last time.

Another Africa analysis book I got into was Africa in Chaos by George Ayittey. I only could get about half way through it before I had to give it back, but the part I got through was valuable. Ayittey writes about post-colonial Africa, taking up the argument that the tremendous problems that have resulted have had more to do with factors internal to African nations than to issues external to them. In other words, he wants to say that the wars and poverty that have ravaged countries like Congo and Nigeria in the last 50 years have been more the fault of the leaders of those countries than they have been the fault of the "legacy of colonialism" or multinational corporations.

I only got halfway through it, but I'm not sure I buy it. It seems that Ayittey's position represents quite the pendulum swinging the other way. International opinion about Africa has leaned heavily on the externalist view for the last 30 years, largely ignoring the corruption and greed displayed by African leaders themselves. But the truth is somewhere in between, I think. Because democracy and good governance are not things that can just be "implemented"; they have to be learned. And when the model a country has to learn from is a colonial one or a multinationally corporate one for so long, how can it be expected that that country can just, over night, become democratically sound when once it has declared its independence? Anyway, it's a thought-provoking book.

Black Samson is a wonderful little book that I read in about two days. Its subject is a man named Maweja, who grew up in colonial Congo, and who was imprisoned for murder. In prison he became a Christian. I came upon this book because one of my travel companions, a doctor in Congo for 25 years, was a personal aquaintence of Maweja. After his release from Prison, Maweja went to seminary at Ndesha and became a pastor. Everyone in the Presbyterian church in Congo knows of this guy, and after reading the book I feel like I do to. It was written by a Mennonite missionary, but it's in first person (the author transcribed Maweja's biography, which he tape recorded). The language is simple but elegant, and it's full of the kind of African proverbs that are so influential to the thinking and the culture of Congo.

At present I'm in the middle of Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim. I got about halway through a musty old paperback edition of it before we left, so now that I'm home I'm going to finish it. I have a copy that I got at a used book store years ago (only because I recognized Conrad as an author I was made to read in college--Heart of Darkness), and that I have never read. I do very poorly at reading fiction, so it's important that I finish it.

My highest recommendation goes to King Leopold's Ghost. Even if you don't consider yourself a goodness crusader, and even if the subject of Africa doesn't interest you, the book is excellent.
posted by Not Prince Hamlet, 12:45 PM


Cool page :)
commented by Blogger R2K, 1:13 PM  

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