THE AFRICANS By David Lamb. 363 pp. New York: Random House. $17.95.
WITH ”The Africans” David Lamb has produced a timely and valuable work that cuts through many of the distorted images propagated by Africans themselves, by the continent’s apologists and by its detractors. Mr. Lamb spent four years as the correspondent for The Los Angeles Times in Nairobi, Kenya. During that time he logged 300,000 miles through 48 African countries, covered wars and coups and managed to preserve some hope. That is no mean achievement.
”The Africans” invites comparison with John Gunther’s ”Inside Africa,” published 30 years ago, when the countries covered in Mr. Lamb’s travels were largely under colonial rule. Significantly, some of the conclusions are the same: that the West must not ignore Africa, and that what the continent needs most is not guns but education. The coincidence is depressing testimony to the failures of three decades of political change and economic decline. And it also points up a fundamental contradiction in Mr. Lamb’s book: With time, he concludes, Africa will find itself and assert itself; yet the evidence presented in his book – of personalized power at the top and popular lethargy in the nether regions of society – would seem to indicate that Africa’s time, so far, has been as wasted as its vast agricultural and mineral resources.
Unlike John Gunther’s study. with its country-by-country approach, Mr. Lamb’s combination of travelogue and analysis is much more impressionistic. Written with humor, sympathy and a journalist’s verve, it cuts back and forth from personal anecdotes (a spell with Idi Amin’s goons, an Ethiopian air raid in the disputed Ogaden) to portraits of individual nations and essays on the larger themes: the role of Marxism, the roots of economic decline, the colonial heritage. His analysis of the blighted Organization of African Unity provides an excellent rejoinder to the overblown rhetoric that shrouds that particular hodgepodge of nations. From the viewpoint of a fellow correspondent, ”The Africans” is highly readable, uncluttered by statistics and marked by many an insight for the newcomer and more seasoned hand alike. Scholars may find that its very scope precludes detailed analysis of any one particular subject, but Mr. Lamb has nonetheless contributed to the relatively slim library of works that are essential reading for an understanding of modern-day Africa.
The continent, Mr. Lamb observes, is still in transition from colonialism to self-rule, and nowhere is that more evident than in the changes that have taken place in the few years since he left black-ruled Africa in 1980. Kenya, held up in ”The Africans” as a model, has since transformed itself into a one-party state, and its stable, peaceable image was irretrievably lost last August in an attempted coup. In Zimbabwe too the picture does not seem so bright as it did two years ago. Predictions, as Mr. Lamb acknowledges, are a perilous pastime in Africa.
MR. LAMB’S perspective is a broad one, in that he essentially castigates Africa’s elitist leadership, sympathizes with the ordinary people and seeks a solution to the continent’s problems through the establishment of responsible leadership and a middle class to provide the backbone of a new society. To some radical Africans, that solution will clearly be a contentious point, but ”The Africans” will undoubtedly provoke other debates as well. If, for instance, as Mr. Lamb asserts, the West should provide a ”Marshall Plan” for Africa, rather than pour in undirected aid, how will that differ from the paternalism that has added to the disincentives characterizing the first two decades of the era of independence? Africa’s salvation, surely, can come only from the Africans themselves. Expatriates, as Mr. Lamb points out, have played a critical role in those nations that have recorded economic successes -but where does the foreign involvement come to an end, and when does the buffer of outside support fall away to force the Africans to help themselves?
There is, I believe, one significant gap in Mr. Lamb’s work. ”The Africans” provides not only a catalogue of issues but also a valid portrait of ordinary Africans themselves. But as a chronicle of modern history, it lacks sufficient reference to postcolonial, black-to-white racism. There is, for instance, no interpretation of the 1978 rebellion in Zaire’s Shaba province, as bloody an uprising as any. Nor is the murderous, racial aspect of Zimbabwe’s war of independence covered in depth. This is a pity: Both events contain powerful lessons for the foreign nations and people -whites in particular – involved in Africa.
The bloodshed in Zaire raises the question of just how secure the foreigner’s tenure is in present-day Africa. Once the white technician, his presence supported by a distant government interested in economic gain, becomes identified by disconsolate Africans with an oppressive regime, then neutrality is forfeited and the outsider’s frail immunity is shattered. The foreigner becomes the target of a wrath that could have been avoided had those same distant governments used their influence – as Mr. Lamb suggests they should – for the common good, not the perpetuation of an elite. In Kenya’s abortive uprising, the lesson was the same: Racism (in Nairobi, directed against the Asian community) becomes a powerful and signficant force once a class of a different color is associated with the wealth that is shared by the elite and not by the great, often inert, mass of Africa. The issue is important, and it will become more so as African living standards decline while those of foreigners supported by their own economies in faraway Europe and America are maintained.
THE outsider’s view of Africa is perennially troubled by the conflict between the rose-tinted perception held by some Africans and the glaring evidence that things are not as they would depict it. Furthermore, there is often a distortion in the perceptions of the way both blacks and whites rule Africa, with the result that white minority rule is inherently seen as bad, while black elitist rule is forgiven, particularly by Africans themselves. Mr. Lamb has avoided both those traps. He has, perhaps, underplayed the importance of the infrastructure bequeathed to Africa by colonialism – the roads and bridges and dams and railroads, the mines and the estates. And he is perhaps too optimistic in his belief that the eventual holocaust in South Africa will leave any spoils to be shared. But his picture of a continent is an honest one, which will give pause to many.