In This Review

Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles
Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles
By Richard Dowden
PublicAffairs, 2009, 592 pp

A "whither Africa?" book seems to be de rigueur for a print journalist who has spent any time reporting from the continent. The genre demands a combination of evocative anecdotes, pithy portraits of African politicians, and as many excessively broad generalizations about the region as references to its diversity. Despite the limitations of the genre, Dowden, a longtime British correspondent on the continent, has written a humane and thoughtful book, with much sensible analysis. It alternates chapters of broad reflections on Africa with more specific ones focusing on individual countries, usually in the throes of civil war or collapse. The best chapters are those in which Dowden writes from personal experience, where he excels at describing the people and the action around him. Chapters on the civil wars in Angola and Somalia are particularly striking, as is Dowden's harrowing account of the genocide in Rwanda. One unifying theme is the continent's resilience and optimism despite its manifest failures. Of course, Dowden's beat as a journalist has focused on the parts of Africa that have failed in some way, and they tend to be overrepresented in a book that barely mentions peaceful, democratic countries, such as Botswana or Cape Verde. Only in the last chapter does Dowden note that the last decade has actually been reasonably good for the region, with the end of several long-standing conflicts and a period of sustained economic growth.