Richburg's Africa

Out of America:
A Black Man Confronts Africa

By Keith B. Richburg
(Basic Books, 1997)

Reviewed by Bob Press

The Journal of African Travel-Writing, Number 3, September 1997 (pp. 93-95).

1997 The Journal of African Travel-Writing

[Press covered Africa for the Christian Science Monitor from 1987 to 1995, which included the three years Richburg was there. Press knew Richburg then.]

Keith Richburg is a courageous reporter, candid, and very good at highlighting the details that make scenes come alive. His compassionate writing distinguishes him as a journalist who cares deeply about the individual, despite his admitted cynicism which becomes quite apparent in this book. Unfortunately, his account of Africa today is unbalanced and lacks depth; it catches the horrors of a few countries and ignores the progress of many. Instead of a weighing of the facts, it is the latest in a genre of writings, along with those by Robert Kaplan and others, that predict doom and let their authors' own views shape their outlooks.

But there is much worth reading in this book, which describes Richburg's personal encounter, as a black man, with Africa. He begins with his days growing up in the Detroit area, then discusses his initial experiences as a reporter. He gives his prior impressions of Africa, then his disillusionment when he got there and covered the sites of two of the continent's most recent tragedies, Somalia and Rwanda. He tells his story with honesty, not glossing over his own fears, doubts, and difficulties. His accounts of the killing and dying in those two countries make gripping reading; he does not mince words or descriptions, and the reader comes away with vivid, horrifying images.

If he had told the readers that his goal was simply to portray the worst of Africa, to tell what he had seen on the dangerous streets of Mogadishu and in Rwanda, this would be a good book for that purpose. But he goes on to try to establish broader conclusions based on limited examples.

Somalia to me became post-Cold War Africa. . . . As Somalia went, so might go a host of other African countries, teetering between strongman rule and violent anarchy. Africa was, in that sense, a series of Somalias waiting to happen: in Zaire, in Sudan, in Nigeria, maybe even in Kenya. . . . Somalia, then, became the prism through which I came to view the rest of Africa. It was to become the metaphor for my own disillusionment.
But judging Africa by Somalia is a little like judging life in America based on the Oklahoma City bombing. Somalia, one of more than fifty African nations, is not typical. Neither, thank God, is Rwanda, where up to one million people were slaughtered in just three months in 1994.

Richburg practically overlooks progress in Africa, including the democratic movement that has steadily grown since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Seeing examples of its failure, he writes, "The great promise of African democracy lies largely in ruins." Yet Freedom House in New York has tracked a gradually growing number of countries deemed "free" and "partly free" since 1989 when only a few countries held democratic elections. Freedom House uses broad criteria, not just elections. In their latest count, nine (or seventeen percent) are free, and twenty (or thirty-eight percent) are partly free. Twenty-four (or forty-five percent) are still not free. The democratic movement in Africa today is a meandering one, with many setbacks and some reversals, but it is a trend. Even if it were somehow crushed across the continent, which is unlikely, the stories of the individuals who have courageously challenged authoritarian rule--for whatever motive--are worth telling.

It is well to note failures, but a reporter, at least in my view, is also supposed to note achievements--and the ambiguity in both. Richburg blasts black Americans who try to defend the good of Africa. His quotes from a few black leaders from the U.S. refusing to denounce the military government in Sierra Leone are revealing. What he may have accomplished is to force would-be and actual defenders of Africa to look more closely at both the terrible and the good that are present in various parts of Africa and come up with a realistic assessment. But given the widespread negative impressions many people already have of Africa, his book is likely to reinforce those impressions at the expense of a more accurate view.

"Africa," says Richburg, "has consistently been held to a double standard, an 'African standard.' There's a reluctance [on the part of 'Africa experts'] to push too hard, too fast for reform. There is a tendency not to want to criticize too openly, too harshly." I agree. The reluctance was also evident among most Americans in the diplomatic corps in Africa. I once literally chased a U.S. ambassador in West Africa up the stairs in the embassy, trying to elicit from him a statement in favor of democratic rule in a country that did not have it.

Richburg provides little to help the reader understand the origins of the conflicts in Somalia and Rwanda, the countries he tackles in the most depth. The war in Somalia is described by him, as it was by many reporters, soldiers, and diplomats, as a struggle between two rival faction-leaders. Where is mention of the history, the culture, and the web of clan relationships that played key parts in the war? What about the other war between rival factions, one over farm land in the South, that helped shape much of what happened in the rest of the country?

After years of warnings to remember the Holocaust so that genocide would never happen again, it did happen again, in Rwanda, and the world mostly watched. Richburg presents details of the genocide, which the world is too quickly forgetting. But without an understanding of the Europeans' racial myth-building of Tutsi superiority, the Hutu-Tutsi conflicts in the nineteen-fifties and -sixties, and the behind-the-scenes efforts of the U.S. to keep any troops from trying to stop the genocide, the story of the killings alone leaves us with much emotion and little understanding.

Richburg tells us some of the worst of Africa. Fortunately, that is not the whole story of a changing continent.