RECENTLY, I got my hands on a copy of David Lamb’s seminal book “The Africans”.
Published in 1982, it’s a difficult book to find in print these days. This one was ordered for me by a friend of mine through his Amazon account from a library collection in the US, delivered to an address in the UK, and then brought over in another friend’s suitcase.
The trouble was more than worth it. Part travelogue, part contemporary history book, “The Africans” describes the state of the continent in the 1970s and 1980s – and it is the most stunning, surprising, tragic and funny book I have read in a while.
Written from the perspective of an American journalist bewildered by a continent he simply cannot grasp, granted, it’s dripping with stereotypes about lazy, primitive Africans who have waged war with each other for thousands of years.
Any African reading it today would instantly bristle at some of the motivations ascribed to Africans in the book, caricatured as a helpless, destitute, ignorant people.
The modern African state in Lamb’s eyes is merely a thin veneer of civilisation that keeps primeval bloodlust at bay – with the slightest provocation, machetes glint in the sunlight.
But if we are to be honest and self-critical, it’s not a surprise that the world thought Africa was a basket case.
Most of us know the stories of the notorious dictator-killer-madmen of that era, such as Idi Amin in Uganda and Jean Bedel Bokassa in Central African Republic.
But one incredibly ridiculous strongman that I had never heard of was Ali Soilih of the Comoros. His creative way of running his country to the ground would be hilarious, if it wasn’t so tragic.
Soilih came to power through a coup six months after Comoros gained independence from France in 1975. He was an atheist and a Maoist, determined to reform the island nation in the Indian Ocean along the lines of the Chinese revolution.
In Soilih’s vision, the youth were the only ones impressionable enough to carry through the revolution. So he lowered the voting age to 14, created a youth paramilitary group fashioned after China’s Red Guards, fired the entire 3,500-strong civil service, and replaced them with teenagers drawn from the ranks of this militia.
To really seal the deal, he legalised cannabis.
One day a West German diplomat flew to the Comorian capital Moroni to discuss a large agricultural grant that the Bonn government was considering for the Comoros.
He soon found himself in consultation with two high-ranking ministerial officials, both aged about 17, and illiterate. Needless to say, he was airborne within the hour.
You could argue that these kinds of extremely bizarre despots were not the norm on the continent, and you’d be right.
Most countries just had the “normal” kinds of dictators, I suppose; at one point in the 1980s, nearly every single country in Africa, with the exception of Botswana or so, was either a one-party authoritarian state, ruled by a military junta, or an exclusionist regime, like in apartheid South Africa.
Today, the median age in most African countries is still under 20. Forty percent of Africans are 14 or younger, and 34% of Africans are aged 25 to 29.
It means that most of us really have no sense of how remarkable the “Africa rising” narrative is – even if there is still so much hand-wringing and head-scratching about whether the rise is real, sustainable, diversified or inclusive enough.
In recent weeks, there’s been much to suggest that perhaps Africa is headed back to those dark old days.
In Burkina Faso, soldiers allied to ousted former president Blaise Compaore seized power in a coup, “kidnapping” the president and prime minister and placing them under house arrest. It didn’t help that the military spokesman who announced the coup was a wild-eyed, scary-looking fellow.
A fortnight ago, Ghana announced that its public debt levels were higher than they were when they obtained debt forgiveness under the Highly Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) programme.
Currencies around the continent are tanking, with the slowdown in China and a drop in oil and commodity prices making it look like there’s going to be some serious hard times in the future.
It’s easy for the sense of trepidation to give in to one of doom and despair. But you just have to step back a little, and see how far this fair continent has actually come.
For those of my generation, born in the 1980s and later, sit at the feet of an elder one day, or if you cannot find them, pick up a book that will tell you some stories (or, as in my case, have the elder give you a book).
You will realise that Africa is the most unbreakable place in the world, and this too, shall pass.