Roadblocks

Jeremy Harding

  • Fishing in Africa: A Guide to War and Corruption by Andrew Buckoke
    Picador, 227 pp, £17.50, May 1991, ISBN 0 330 31895 0
  • Africa: Dispatches From a Fragile Continent by Blaine Harden
    HarperCollins, 333 pp, £16.99, April 1991, ISBN 0 00 215889 2
  • The Soccer War by Ryszard Kapuściński, translated by William Brand
    Granta, 234 pp, £2.99, November 1990, ISBN 0 14 014209 6

Two of these books are by real journalists – Blaine Harden for the Washington Post, Andrew Buckoke for the Financial Times and others. The third is by a writer, Ryszard Kapuściński, who spent many years masquerading as a correspondent for the Polish news agency, PAP. In covering epic misfortune of the kind one reads about in Africa, all three have learned to talk straight from the shoulder, although Buckoke’s is slightly hunched under the white man’s burden and Kapuściński’s is often set to the wheel of invention, which makes much of his plain speaking deceptive. Only Blaine Harden keeps a respectable posture throughout and can even be quite sanguine in adversity – mostly other people’s.

Between them, Harden and Buckoke cover 13 countries on the continent; Kapuściński fewer, because this collection of work also contains material from Latin America and the Middle East. Buckoke thanks his newspapers for picking up the tab as he travels Africa with a fishing-rod. Harden praises his for letting, him ‘bounce around in trucks with rebels and take the time needed to write well’. (Is it the book or merely this particular judgment that seems a trifle hasty?) Kapuściński sounds a different note about his providers, recalling chiefly how a PAP apparatchik rounded on him for his failure to grasp ‘the Marxist-Leninist processes that are at work in the world’. The difference widens as Buckoke and Harden, on the one hand, and Kapuściński, on the other, take to the road.

As bona fide journalists, Harden and Buckoke are vigorously dismayed by corruption and dictatorship on the continent; both express scepticism about the virtues of Western aid. Buckoke argues that it should be used as a form of leverage to force democracy on recipient states: that thanks to Western guilt even independent aid agencies provide succour to tyrants in Africa and the wars they prosecute. If you are ‘really upset’ about Sudan, say, he suggests the following: ‘Get a job with an aid agency where you can salve your conscience at the same time as having an adventure and earning a lot of money. But beware of the contributions you are making to the war, if you have a real conscience.’

Buckoke deplores modern African leader ship. What he advocates – who doesn’t? – is multi-party democracy; and indeed the strongest popular expression of the last year and a half has been the challenge to entrenched power – most recently, to Moussa Traore in Mali. Harden, who has offended at least one African dictator, is also interested in African democracy. Like Buckoke, he sees constraints everywhere – not least, in the archetypal African head of state:

He insists on being called ‘doctor’ or ‘conqueror’ or ‘teacher’ or ‘the big elephant’ or ‘the number one peasant’ ... He scapegoats minorities to shore up popular support. He bans all political parties except the one he controls. He rigs elections. He emasculates the courts. He cows the press. He stifles academia. He goes to church.

Neither African misrule, nor famine, nor land degradation, nor the spread of HIV, nor any of the miseries touched on by Buckoke and Harden seems to interest Ryszard Kapuściński. Disruption and suffering on an unimaginable scale invite judgment, mostly prescriptive – the very thing that he conceals or defers for the sake of a good story. This is one of the reasons The Soccer War is easy to read. Another, of course, is that Kapuściński’s material is drawn from the past, during a time of upheaval but also of promise. Two decades later, in Harden’s Africa, that promise is discernible, but fainter; at best the future looks ‘confused and terrifying and limitless’. In Kapuściński, the ground is firmer and the scope is narrower. The Soccer War contains no ‘Biblical’ events – a word Buckoke likes, and which now evokes the last major Ethiopian famine, as covered by Michael Buerk, rather than the plagues visited on Egypt in the Book of Exodus.

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