Tag Archives for " Africa "

Charm in abundance at the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency

No. 1 Ladies Detective AgencyPrecious and Grace (No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency #17), by Alexander McCall Smith

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Precious Ramotswe is a “traditionally built” woman who founded and runs the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency. She is known throughout Botswana’s capital, Gaborone, for her wisdom and her street smarts. She is also reflective, unfailingly kind, truthful, and patient to an almost superhuman degree. She would have to be to put up with her rude and self-centered assistant, Grace Makutsi.

A charming series of novels

The relationship between the two women is the principal theme of Precious and Grace, the latest addition to Alexander McCall Smith‘s charming series of novels about the agency. Mma (Ms.) Makutsi has always pushed her boss to the limits of her patience. But never before has Mma Ramotswe come so perilously close to lying as in this 17th novel in the series. Shockingly, she is even forced to withhold information that will anger Mma Makutsi! “We are the people we want ourselves to be, and then there are the people we actually are: sometimes it is easier to be the people we want ourselves to be if we keep at least some things to ourselves. That, thought Mma Ramotswe, is only human.”

As in the preceding novels in the series, several subplots unfold in Precious and Grace. Fanwell, the newly promoted junior mechanic in the garage that shares space with the agency, has picked up a stray dog that refuses to return to its home. The agency’s part-time volunteer assistant, Mr. Polopetsi, has been naively promoting a pyramid scheme. And a Canadian woman has come to Gaborone seeking the agency’s help in finding the nanny who raised her when she was child in Botswana. Complications erupt each of these problems as Mma Ramotswe looks for solutions. She solves all the problems, of course. But never in a straight line from beginning to end. The twists and turns are part of the charm of this entertaining little book.

Celebrating Africa through the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency

Through the character of Mma Ramotswe, McCall Smith celebrates an idealized image of Africa. However, he could hardly have picked a likelier setting than Botswana. Botswana is one of the most remarkable countries in Africa if not in the world as a whole. The country has been democratically ruled since it gained independence from Britain in 1964. One of Mma Ramotswe’s heroes, Sir Seretse Khama, set the pattern of peace and stability as Botswana’s first president. Since the 1960s, the country has lifted itself from dire poverty into mid-range income. This, despite the fact of mineral wealth that in other countries has simply enriched a small elite. For many years the nation has been one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. However, Botswana also has one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS prevalence on the planet, with more than 15% of the country’s two million people infected.

About the author

McCall Smith—yes, that is his last name—is clearly in love with Botswana, where he lived for years and taught law at the national university he co-founded in Gaborone. An expert in medical law and ethics, he lives in Edinburgh, where he taught at the university for many years. McCall Smith is an extraordinarily prolific author. In addition to the 17 novels in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, he has written scores of novels in other series as well as 13 books on medical law and related topics.




A satisfying thriller set in Zimbabwe

zimbabweA review of The Death of Rex Nhongo: A Novel, by C. B. George

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

The Death of Rex Nhongo is framed as a thriller, but its primary value (at least to me) is the intimate portrait it paints of Zimbabwe today.

The setting: Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare

Zimbabwe, as you are probably well aware, is a large nation that lies along the northern border of South Africa. It’s also one of the most poverty-stricken countries on earth despite its abundant natural resources. For decades, the country has been ruled by Robert Mugabe, who led its independence movement from the UK. Now 92 years old, Mugabe is rumored to remain as president only to camouflage the corruption and brutality of his colleagues. Many observers consider the regime a “thugocracy.” And that is the picture that emerges in high relief in this novel.

The plot: complex and full of surprises

A complex plot lies at the heart of The Death of Rex Nhongo. The complement of principal characters includes two expatriate families, one British, the other American, as well as an extended Zimbabwean family and a thug who works for the Central Intelligence Organization that terrifies the populace. The author skillfully draws together their numerous individual stories in a series of intersections that climax in a satisfying conclusion. The action takes place after the death noted in the book’s title, though the story manages to come full circle in the end. Naturally, the plot is contrived, but it’s a satisfying read.

However, there is one really annoying element in this novel. The author imagines the internal dialogue of the eight-year-old daughter of a highly educated African-American family in what once was called “ebonics.” Extended passages in italics are worded ungrammatically and full of spelling errors. It’s absurd.

The author: unknown

The background in this engaging novel is clearly based on fact, though the story itself is entirely fictitious. The author, C. B. George, is the pen name of someone who “has spent many years working throughout Southern Africa.” He is British and now lives in London.

August 2, 2016

The deadliest hurricane in history?

deadliest hurricaneA review of Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History, by Erik Larson

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Isaac’s Storm is a detailed account of a massive hurricane that struck the coast of Texas in September 1900. The storm wreaked havoc across a wide swath of the country but devastated one city in particular. In Larson’s words, “Galveston became Atlantis.”

The deadliest hurricane in history?

The book’s subtitle refers to the unnamed storm as “the Deadliest Hurricane in History,” but that’s far from true. Individual cyclones (simply another name for hurricanes) that have struck the coast of Bengal and Orissa in northeastern India (and now Bangladesh) have killed as many as 100,000 people. Several have felled tens of thousands in modern history. The storm that virtually destroyed Galveston in 1900 caused fewer than 10,000 deaths (probably no more than 8,000). In truth, then, “Isaac’s storm” was the deadliest only in US history. But publishers have a way of dramatizing books’ content with sensational titles. Clearly, they sell more books that way.

Galveston today is a city of fewer than 50,000 inhabitants, but in 1900 it “stood on the verge of greatness. If things continued as they were, Galveston would soon achieve the stature of New Orleans, Baltimore, or San Francisco. . . [T]hey were in a winner-take-all race against Houston, just fifty miles to the north.”

Who was Isaac, and why was it his storm?

The Isaac of the title was Dr. Isaac M. Cline, the chief weatherman in Texas. He was also a physician specializing in the effects of weather on human health. Isaac had risen through the ranks of the Weather Service because he had proved to be one of the most diligent and perceptive forecasters in the bureau. In the years following the Galveston hurricane, Isaac spoke and wrote widely about having saved thousands of lives by warning of the danger before the most destructive waves hit the city. In fact, as Larson makes clear, he did no such thing. However, he had indeed perceived that a storm was coming, and even defied orders from Washington to spread the word. Unfortunately, he had no clue that the storm was a hurricane that would blast through Galveston with sustained winds of 180 miles per hour and gusting to more than 200 miles per hour.

In Isaac’s Storm, Larson skillfully intersperses a sketch of Isaac’s life with a detailed portrait of the hurricane. Originating in Western Africa and making its way across the Atlantic to the Caribbean, the storm had gathered such force that Cuban meteorologists identified it as a hurricane shortly after it arrived in the region. Sadly, the director of the US Weather Service was a racist and obsessed with control, and he had prevented the Cuban forecast from being transmitted because he thought the Cubans inferior. Later, the director went even further, refusing to acknowledge Isaac’s warnings about the coming storm. (In years afterward, the director shamelessly claimed loudly and often that he had actually issued warnings about the devastating storm.)

About the author

Erik Larson is unquestionably one of the most talented and accomplished nonfiction authors at work in the US today. He is probably best known for his runaway bestseller, The Devil in the White City, which won numerous awards, including an Edgar in 2004.


African Roots through African eyes

RootsHomegoing: A Novel, by Yaa Gyasi

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Yaa Gyasi’s extraordinary debut novel, Homegoing, traces the story of a Ghanaian family over more than two centuries through the lives of two branches of its descendants, one in Ghana, the other in the United States. The book opens in the mid-eighteenth century, when the slave trade was at its peak, follows the rollercoaster fortunes of the family through the turbulent years of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and concludes in present-day Ghana, where two descendants of the family have returned to explore the land of their ancestors — and the meaning of their lives. The tale in Homegoing parallels the story told in Alex Haley’s Roots over roughly the same period.

Unforgettable characters

Gyasi has a marvelous way with words. In brief chapters, using the most economical language, she celebrates the lives of her characters in ways that will stay with readers for a long time to come. Beginning with Effia and Esi, the two half-sisters whose descendants people the novel, through the generations to follow, Gyasi spells out the legacy of slavery without resorting to stereotypes. There is evil on every side: in the British who manage and profit from the slave trade; in the Asante and Fante warriors and traders who deliver their captives to the British; in the American slave-owners and their successors, who impose lynching and Jim Crow; and in the Northerners who sustain housing segregation and practice racism with only slightly less malice than their Southern counterparts. Yet the members of the family are far from blameless: all the stereotypical afflictions of Black America are to be found here, from the cruelty of recent Irish immigrants to the drug addiction and broken families, yet each of Gyasi’s characters, no matter how unexpected, is easy to believe. This is a novel that meets the sensibilities of our time, when the passage of history has allowed us to gain perspective over the evil in our past. This is historical fiction at its best.

A big step up from the original Roots

Forty years ago, in 1976, a 900-page book titled Roots: The Saga of an American Family was published to enormous acclaim. Its author, Alex Haley, was widely known for The Autobiography of Malcolm X, published in 1965. Roots won a Pulitzer Prize, a special citation in Letters for what was marketed as a novelization based on the actual history of Haley’s family.

Roots begins with the story of a man named Kunta Kinte, kidnapped in 1767 from his home in The Gambia at age 17 and sold into slavery. The tale ends two centuries later in the United States, when Kinte’s descendants — including Alex Haley — have achieved success with their hard-fought freedom.

Roots was quickly made into an epic television miniseries viewed by a total of 130 million people. Later, Haley and his book came under fire from several directions, charged with simply inventing his family history. He was also accused of plagiarism by several authors, and one of them prevailed in court. Critical treatments appeared in a devastating BBC documentary (banned by U.S. networks) and in numerous influential publications, including the Village Voice. In an article in the Voice, for example, one author wrote, “Virtually every genealogical claim in Haley’s story was false.” Though much of the criticism was doubtless grounded in racism or simple envy, even a close friend of Haley’s, Professor Henry Louis Gates of Harvard, concedes that it’s time to “speak candidly,” adding that “most of us feel it’s highly unlikely that Alex actually found the village from whence his ancestors came.” Despite all the controversy, the Pulitzer Jury refused to rescind the award to Haley.

Whatever else might be said of Alex Haley, he was a masterful storyteller. But so is Yaa Gyasi, and she has done us the favor of noting upfront that her book is a novel.

Other reviews of the novel

The New York Times ran not one but two reviews of Homegoing. The first, a brilliant essay by the African-American scholar Isabel Wilkerson, ran on the front page of the New York Times Book Review on June 12, 2016. A second review, by Times critic Michiko Kakutani, appeared in the daily paper two days later. Both reviewers found a lot to like in the novel.

Wilkerson’s review, which sprawled over three pages, referred to the book as “hypnotic” and as Gyasi’s “intimate rendering of the human heart battered by the forces of conquest and history.” She dwelled at length on the emotional power of the novel’s chapters in which “the villages of West Africa come alive.” However, Wilkerson took exception to what she saw as the stereotyping in the chapters set in the United States. “What might have happened had Africans stood together against Europeans?” she asked. It’s a good question. Sadly, history shows us that didn’t happen — although, as Gyasi’s novel makes clear, Asante warriors held out against the British in a series of wars stretching across the last three-quarters of the nineteenth century. In other words, Wilkerson was hardly the first to ask the question.

Kakutani finds the inspiration of Homegoing not just in Roots but also in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks. To my mind, she was reaching to make a literary case that is hard to justify. Though Gyasi explore the mysticism that held sway in the villages of Ghana in centuries past (if not yet today), it’s difficult to find the magic in Homegoing. However, since both Garcia Marquez and Mann won the Nobel Prize in Literature, perhaps we can envision an equally bright future for Ms. Gyasi?

About the author

Yaa Gyasi, now 26, spent seven years researching and writing Homegoing, including two years at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she was rewarded an M.F.A. She was born in Ghana, raised in Huntsville, Alabama, and now lives in Berkeley, California. According to TIME, she received a seven-figure advance for this novel, her first book.


Living the African-American experience

African-AmericanA review of The Black Calhouns: From Civil War to Civil Rights with One African American Family, by Gail Lumet Buckley

@@@ (3 out of 5)

Gail Lumet Buckley’s The Black Calhouns isn’t easy to pigeonhole. Part Black history, part genealogy, and part memoir, the connecting tissue in the book is the story of the author’s extraordinary family.

The African-American experience through one family’s eyes

Born into slavery, the Calhouns quickly moved into the middle class during Reconstruction and took on leading roles in the Black elite as business owners, teachers,  physicians, and attorneys. In the early years of the twentieth century, one branch of the family emigrated to the North along with hundreds of thousands of other African-Americans seeking a better life than could be had in the Jim Crow South. Buckley traces the history of this fascinating family, then focuses on its most famous member, the superstar singer Lena Horne, Buckley’s mother. In the book’s closing chapters, the perspective shifts from Horne to the author herself. The result is an impressionistic picture of the Black experience in America as lived by some of those who were most successful despite the ever-present weight of racism.

Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the legacy of racism

Nested into the continuing saga of one family in The Black Calhouns is a powerful account of how racism has infected American society for four centuries, spanning the years of slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the civil rights era. For two centuries Buckley’s family has been an integral part of this story, rising from slavery through the middle class to America’s privileged elite. Her perspective shifts from the elegant homes of her family’s owner — a relative of slavery’s outspoken advocate, Senator John C. Calhoun — to the comfortable, middle-class homes her family built in Atlanta, Birmingham, Manhattan, and Brooklyn, to the showcase houses of Hollywood’s upper crust. This is an amazing success story — the quintessential American story.

Black history in a series of snapshots

If you’re unfamiliar with Black history, The Black Calhouns will be eye-opening. You’ll learn here about the origins of the predominantly Black colleges and their role in nurturing the civil rights movement . . . the horrific prevalence of lynching in the Jim Crow South from the 1870s to the 1960s . . . the outsized role of Atlanta and Harlem in African-American history . . . nineteenth-century Irish-Black hatred and the race riots it engendered . . . the merciless racism that pervaded the armed forces before the Vietnam War . . . the shift of Black allegiance from the Republican Party of the 1860s to the Democratic Party a century later . . . the role that America’s Jim Crow laws played as a model for Hitler’s Nuremberg race laws and South African apartheid . . . and a whole lot more. No student of American history can be regarded as educated without an understanding of all these factors. No American voter should be ignorant of them, either.

About author

Gail Lumet Buckley is the daughter of superstar singer and actress Lena Horne, Hollywood’s first African-American star, and ex-wife of the award-winning Hollywood movie and television director Sidney Lumet. Harvard educated, she had a successful career in journalism before marrying Lumet and falling into the role of “the director’s wife.” She is the author of two books based on her family’s history.

February 23, 2016

The existential threat of contagious disease

contagious diseaseA review of Pandemic: Tracking Contagions from Cholera to Ebola and Beyond, by Sonia Shah

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

To judge from the over-the-top rhetoric on display among the Republican candidates in the 2016 Presidential primary campaign, many millions of Americans live in abject fear of immigration, terrorism, and having their guns taken away. It’s true there are genuine reasons to fear that our lives, our livelihoods, and our lifestyles might be disrupted in the foreseeable future. But they have nothing to do with immigration, terrorism, or hunting rifles.

Any logical, clear-headed look at the world around us reveals that the true existential threats on the horizon include climate change, nuclear holocaust, pandemics, and, at a higher level of logical abstraction, rampant consumerism. However, the most immediate of these threats to our civilization appears to be contagious disease. In Pandemic, Sonia Shah’s superb survey of the past, present, and future of infectious disease. Just so it’s clear: she’s not writing about simple colds and mild flus, but about illnesses that might kill tens or hundreds of millions of people with little warning and with unpredictable consequences for the cohesion of society. The heart of the problem, as she explains, is that “epidemics grow exponentially while our ability to respond proceeds linearly, at best.”

A balanced view of contagious disease

Thanks to alarmist reporting, Americans are terrified that hemorrhagic diseases such as Ebola will “break out” and kill us by the millions. Shah patiently explains that much more common diseases are far more likely to pose threats to us, influenza and cholera in particular. A series of unfortunate mutations in either one could fashion a disease that is not just virulent (contagious) but also highly lethal. Today, for example, influenza kills only a small proportion of its victims. We tend to regard it more as a nuisance for most of us, a threat only to those who are most vulnerable. However, the “Spanish flu” (the H1N1 virus) that broke out in the final days of World War I infected up to 500 million people (between a fifth and a third of the world’s population) and killed between 50 and 100 million. Epidemiologists live in fear that H1N1 or one of the countless other varieties of influenza incubating in Southern China could put on a repeat performance — or worse. Cholera poses a similar threat.

Sanitation, Hippocratic medicine, and Christianity

One of the most fascinating passages in Pandemic is Shah’s account of the role of Christianity in fostering infectious disease for more than a thousand years.

History shows us that two thousand years ago the Romans piped clean drinking water to their cities through an elaborate system of aqueducts and made public baths available to one and all. Cleanliness was a virtue to them. That all began to change with the advent of Christianity a few centuries into the Common Era. Unlike the Jews and (later) the Muslims,  Christian clergy disdained personal hygiene, associating it with Roman polytheism and viewing cleanliness as superstitious. It was common for Catholic priests and the Protestant pastors who succeeded them in some parts to discourage their flocks from bathing. For many centuries, the vast majority of people in Christian lands lived side-by-side with their animals atop pits filled with excrement and cooked with smelly water drawn from contaminated streams or wells.

When disease struck, as it did with increasing frequency as population grew and gravitated toward the cities, the physicians who purported to combat it were in the thrall of the Hippocratic school of medicine, which attributed all disease to an imbalance in the four “humors” within the body and in external factors that exacerbated it. For example, cholera, which sickened hundreds of millions through the centuries and killed half of them, was blamed on the inhalation of what the ancient physician Galen termed “miasmas” (offensive smells). The nineteenth-century physicians who practiced medical “science” based on these beliefs “increased [cholera’s] death toll from 50 to 70 percent.” Though the germ theory of disease was first proposed in the sixteenth century, it wasn’t until three centuries later, on the cusp of the twentieth century, that practicing physicians began to accept the role of microorganisms in causing disease.

Meanwhile, progress toward improved sanitation and the availability of clean drinking water was even slower. As Shah explains in chilling detail, the construction of London’s sewer system was not prompted because public health officials understood that water used for drinking and washing was dangerously contaminated. The reason they proposed the effort was that they thought it was essential to pipe all the smelly sewage into the Thames, the source of the city’s drinking water! Only in the twentieth century did it become common for municipalities to regard drinkable water as a necessity of life.

Why is contagious disease more of a threat today than ever before?

In Pandemic, Shah describes the role of contemporary trends in making the threat of epidemic disease greater than ever. Five stand out: climate change, continuing urbanization, ever more accessible global transportation, resistance to vaccines, and the encroachment of development on previously virgin lands, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, South and Southeast Asia, and the Amazon. The result is that an increasing number of unknown and unpredictable new tropical diseases is emerging and making their way into more and more crowded cities further and further north on the globe. All the while, diseases previously thought conquered, such as polio and measles, rise up in communities around the globe.

About the author

The daughter of Indian immigrants, Sonia Shah is an American investigative journalist who has reported from around the world, principally on corporate power and gender inequality. Pandemic is her sixth book. Though her parents are both physicians and she lives with a molecular biologist, it appears that the impetus for writing this book came from a painful personal experience with MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), which she contracted from her son. Shah describes her eye-opening experience at length in Pandemic.



A terrific novel for political junkies about Africa

africaA review of The Seersucker Whipsaw, by Ross Thomas

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Clint Shartelle is a honey-tongued Southerner who wears impeccable three-piece suits and drinks like a fish. (Waitaminnit! Do fish actually drink? Whatever.) Shartelle claims to be one sixty-fourth Native American, one-twelfth African-American, and the country’s best political campaign manager. Apparently, he is not the only one who believes that. Enter Peter Upshaw, who represents a fast-growing London-based American PR firm. Upshaw carries an offer of an immoderate sum of money for Shartelle to run a campaign in a West African nation that bears a considerable resemblance to Nigeria. This — eventually — turns out to be an offer Shartelle cannot refuse. Thus begins The Seersucker Whipsaw by Ross Thomas.

Africa for the Africans

It is 1966, barely more than two years since the assassination of John F. Kennedy and before the major U.S. escalation that seared the Vietnam War into the memory of all who lived through it. In Africa, decolonization was just getting underway; Ghana had been independent for less than a decade. Presidential elections are scheduled in a country called Albertia (as in Prince Albert, get it?), and the British are falling all over themselves to get out and leave Africa to the Africans. Albertia is wealthy, so competition for the presidency is naturally stiff.

A problematic three-way race

With little delay, Shartelle and Upshaw arrive in Albertia to launch the campaign for Chief Akomolo, the Big Man in the west of the country. He faces two major opponents, one in the north, the other in the east. Unfortunately, both command more populous territories and are better positioned to win than the Chief. To make matters worse, other American organizations are working for the two opponents — and one of them is the CIA. Shartelle, as strategist and manager, and Upshaw, as speechwriter and flack, realize that Akomolo can’t possibly win if they run a clean, straightforward campaign. But Shartelle, it turns out, is a genius at dirty tricks — and Akomolo’s advisers prove to be equally flexible about campaign ethics. For anyone with even the most casual experience in electoral politics, the ensuing campaign is a wonder to behold.

Dialogue that sings

To say that Ross Thomas has a way with words is akin to claiming that Barack Obama is a fair-to-middling orator. His narrative prose is superb, his characters are unforgettable, and his dialogue is priceless: witty, intelligent, and oh-so-natural.

About the author

Ross Thomas began writing novels in the 1960s and passed away twenty years ago, but his books are just as fresh and engaging today as they were when first published. The Seersucker Whipsaw is the fourth of the twenty thrillers he wrote under his own name. He also wrote five novels under a pseudonym and two books of nonfiction.

You’ll love this charming little novel about lady detectives

lady detectivesA review of The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine (#1 Ladies Detective Agency 16), by Alexander McCall Smith

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Several years ago the BBC and HBO co-produced a short-lived television series based on the #1 Ladies Detective Agency series. If your impression of those books and the characters featured in them was colored by watching TV, please forget everything you saw and read the books themselves. There are few examples anywhere in adult literature that can match the charm and insight that Alexander McCall Smith brings to these lovely little books.

The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine is the sixteenth novel in the series, and it’s by no means the best. But it’s as good a place as any to gain entry to the unforgettable world of Mma Precious Ramotswe, the endlessly wise proprietor of the agency; Mma Grace Makutsi, her exasperating sidekick; Mr. J. L. B. Matekoni, “the best mechanic in all Botswana” and owner of the Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors repair shop; and the priceless recurring secondary characters in the ensemble.

Crime takes a holiday

Almost invariably, detective fiction is about crime and the brave and clever investigators who bring malefactors to justice, often risking their lives in the process. But don’t expect any of that from the #1 Ladies Detective Agency. The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine and its predecessors in the series are all about Botswana, its culture, its history, and its commanding natural setting. More often than not, the “crime” that the agency is hired to solve turns out to be a false rumor, a family squabble, or one of the frequent shenanigans of Violet Sephotho, the scheming young woman who is the sworn enemy of Mma Makutsi and the bane of the agency.

The home of the famous lady detectives

Just in case you can’t place Botswana on the globe, look for the huge chunk of territory just north of the nation of South Africa midway between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Once upon a time it was a British protectorate called Bechuanaland. The country gained its independence in 1966. Unlike so many of its neighbors, Botswana has been remarkably peaceful and a paragon of democracy — singular accomplishments that are celebrated in the #1 Ladies Detective series.

About the author

Alexander McCall Smith taught medical law for many years at the celebrated University of Edinburgh. He is remarkably prolific writer, the author of several additional series of novels, five series of children’s books, and thirteen books of nonfiction. You might wonder when he sleeps. I do.

African writers aren’t all world-class

African writersA review of The African Equation, by Yasmina Khadra

@@ (2 out of 5)

Here’s a story that could have been worked into a terrific novel in the hands of a writer with a trifle of self-restraint. Unfortunately, Yasmina Khadra, reputedly one of Africa’s greatest writers, displays none of that. Every one of his characters, from a German physician to a passel of Somali or Sudanese pirates, speaks like an Oxford philosophy don — and somehow they all understand one another perfectly without any indication that they could possibly speak any language in common. Khadra’s characters are not people but mouthpieces for his philosophical and political views, which tend to be tedious.

The novel’s protagonist, Kurt Krausmann, comes upon the dead body of his beloved wife soon after the tale opens. She clearly committed suicide. (This is not a murder mystery.) The good doctor, a general practitioner in Frankfurt, goes into an emotional tailspin. His best friend, Hans Makkenroth, one of Germany’s wealthiest and best-known industrialists, presses Krausmann to join him on a long ocean voyage on his yacht. Weeks underway, as Krausmann begins to recover his senses, Somali or Sudanese pirates (it’s never clear which) attack the ship in the Gulf of Aden and drag Krausmann and Makkenroth off to the Somali coast. There the group sets out on an overland journey westward for nearly 2,000 miles through Ethiopia and Sudan to the godforsaken reaches of Darfur, meeting violent and tragic circumstances along the way. The journey, while eventful, serves primarily as a setting for the principal characters — two of the pirates as well as Krausmann and Makkenroth — to pontificate about the meaning of life and about Africa and its relation to the West. While their sentiments are well expressed — remember, I compared these characters to Oxford philosophy dons — they strike me as dated and overwrought.

Think I’m exaggerating? Here’s a sample: “It is true that we are insignificant. But in this perfect body which age breaks down as the seasons pass and which the smallest germ can lay low, there is a magical territory where it is possible for us to take our lives back. It is in this hidden place that our true strength lies; in other words, our faith in what we believe to be good for us . . .” and that’s just the beginning of the soliloquy. Have you EVER heard anyone actually say anything like that?

By the way, Yasmina Khadra is not a woman as his pen name suggests but a former Algerian army officer named Mohammed Moulessehoul who adopted his wife’s name to avoid military censorship.

Africa has made worthy contributions to world literature through the work of an abundance of world-class writers: Chinua Achebe, Nadine Gordimer, Chimananda Ngozi Adichie, Wole Soyinka, NoViolet Bulawayo, and Alan Paton, among many others. Yasmina Khadra doesn’t measure up to them.

Who’s responsible for corruption in Africa?

9781610394390_p0_v3_s260x420A review of The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa’s Wealth, by Tom Burgis

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Misconceptions abound in the public perception of corruption in Africa. Tom Burgis’ incisive new analysis of corruption on the continent, The Looting Machine, dispels these dangerous myths.

For starters, corruption is mistakenly believed to reign supreme in every country on the African continent. (There are 48 nations in Sub-Saharan Africa, with a combined population of more than 800 million.) Of course, it’s true that some African countries rank very low on Transparency International’s “Corruption Perceptions Index” (CPI) — after all, Somalia merits the very lowest score, with Sudan and South Sudan not far above it — but only Eritrea and Guinea-Bissau rank at all close to them. In between them are many other countries: Middle Eastern, Central Asian, Caribbean, South Asian. And three Sub-Saharan African nations rank in the top third of the 175 countries in the CPI: Lesotho, Namibia, and Rwanda, with Ghana close behind. Ghana scores better than Greece, Italy, and several other European nations.

Second, corruption in Africa is viewed as intractable. It’s widely believed that nothing can be done about it. Nonsense! One of the largest and most potent sources of the cash that fuels corruption is foreign aid. Institutions like the World Bank, USAID, and other national and international agencies direct most, if not all, their support to governments. This, despite the obvious evidence on the ground that a huge proportion of this aid goes straight into the pockets of the ruling elites. If foreign aid were doled out more selectively to community-based organizations, local agencies, and NGOs with grassroots operations, the picture might be very different. As things stand, only a trickle of foreign aid gets to the people who need it most: the poor.

Lastly, and most significantly, too many observers characterize African corruption as a uniquely African phenomenon that grows out of ethnic rivalries and the failure of European colonists to establish stable native governments. Those factors, while present, are only part of the story. Equally, if not more, consequential is the role of foreign investment — principally from China, the US, and Western Europe — in exploiting the continent’s abundant resources, often paying through the nose for the privilege. Corruption is a two-way street: briber and bribee need each other. And those Western investors include some of the world’s biggest US- and European-based multinational corporations — most prominently, Big Oil and the major mining companies. Chinese companies are even worse because they’re not constrained by legal restrictions at home. Prominent foreign aid cheerleaders like Jeffrey Sachs of Columbia University do the African people no favors by advocating huge increases in official aid, rationalizing that some of it will actually do good. Just ask the first ten Africans you meet on the street in Lagos or Nairobi or Luanda. Unless you happen to run into a member of the privileged elite, you’ll get an earful about Western-enabled corruption.

The Looting Machine spotlights this two-way street, with an emphasis on commerce. The role of foreign aid receives little attention. The principal source of corruption in Africa, Burgis contends again and again, is its wealth of natural resources: oil, gas, gold, diamonds, copper, iron, and many other materials essential to the rich nations’ consumer economies. Citing an analysis by McKinsey, he reports that “69 percent of people in extreme poverty live in countries where oil, gas, and minerals play a dominant role in the economy and that average incomes in those countries are overwhelmingly below the global average.” This is one of the most tragic consequences of what economists refer to as the “resource curse.” Burgis asserts that “An economy based on a central pot of resource revenue is a recipe for ‘big man’ politics.”

It’s no accident that the resource curse finds its fullest expression in Africa: the continent accounts for 13 percent of the world’s population and just 2 percent of its cumulative gross domestic product, but it is the repository of 15 percent of the planet’s crude oil reserves, 40 percent of its gold, and 80 percent of its platinum — and that is probably an underestimate.”

The scope of the corruption this cornucopia of resources makes possible is difficult to comprehend. For example, “When the International Monetary Fund examined Angola’s national accounts in 2011, it found that between 2007 and 2010 $32 billion had gone missing.” That’s billion with a “B.” And this, in a country of just 21 million people — a population roughly equivalent to that of Sao Paulo, Seoul, or Mumbai.

If you want to gain perspective on poverty, war, and corruption in Africa, read this book.

The emphasis in The Looting Machine is on those countries Burgis knows well: Angola, Nigeria, Congo, with less intensive reporting from several other nations.

Tom Burgis has worked for the Financial Times in Africa since 2006, covering business, politics, corruption, and conflict. On his LinkedIn page, he describes his reporting as encompassing “Oil, mining, terrorism, the arms trade, corporate misconduct, intelligence, money-laundering, the underbelly of the global economy, forgotten warzones, tales of the human soul.” He is currently the Investigations Correspondent for the Financial Times, no longer limited to Africa.