Inventing Africa

Caroline Moorehead

  • Fantastic Invasion by Patrick Marnham
    Cape, 271 pp, £6.50, May 1980, ISBN 0 224 01829 9
  • Images of Africa by Naomi Mitchison
    Canongate, 139 pp, £5.95, April 1980, ISBN 0 903937 70 0

‘We owe much to your country,’ the Anglican archbishop of Uganda told Patrick Marnham shortly before being shot in 1977. ‘We need you, and not just your knowledge; we need your fellowship. Most people here know this. What we have become, you made us.’ The tragedy of this statement suffuses Fantastic Invasion, the record Patrick Marnham brought back with him from a series of visits to West and East Africa. That, and Marnham’s own judgment: ‘We fear Africa, because when we leave it alone it works.’

Fantastic Invasion is a sad and horrifying book because it is about absurdity. It conjures up a monstrous vision of human folly and ineptitude, so devastating in its consequences as to be almost unbearable. The aid technicians, the tourists, the building contractors and the doctors, French, Russian, Chinese, American, Dutch, who range about the continent are wreaking havoc wherever they go. It is not so much their hypocrisy and greed that is terrible, as the hypocrisy, greed and corruption which their presence, and their legacy, promote.

The anecdotes in the book, of which there are many, make compelling reading, perhaps because so much material which elsewhere would be concrete – boundaries, facts, circumstances – here shimmers away in chaos and apathy. The game parks of East Africa provide Patrick Marnham with a first rich vein of absurdity. In Kenya, he met a party of zoologists who had come out to a game reserve to study the animals. They were annoyed to discover that the wilder animals had dispersed, upset by the busloads of photographers who had taken to pursuing the carnivores law-lessly about the park. So they decided to study how zebras feed in the midday sun. Here, too, they were baulked. Zebras, they discovered, do not feed at all in the midday sun. So the zoologists turned to monitoring the behaviour of the tourists on their headlong rushes about the reserve. Eventually, the game wardens intervened. But only to stop the zoologists following the tourists: their note-taking was disturbing them in their hunt for lions.

In Uganda Marnham visited the remote Northern area which had been declared a game reserve by the colonial governor in 1958. The trouble was that the ‘wild, thirsty plains’, so perfect for tourists, were also the hunting-grounds of a tribe called the Ik, immortalised for theatregoers in Colin Turnbull’s gruesome play. There was a plan to ‘translocate’ the entire tribe to Southern Uganda and turn them into farmers, but that never happened: the Ik were left to torment one another to death on the fringes of their old lands, conservationists having deemed it more beneficial to consign the tribe to extinction, the better to preserve wildlife.

Certainly the most chilling spectacle, because the most hopeless, is that of the West African Sahelian countries in the clutches of international aid. The second of this book’s three sections is devoted to West Africa. Before independence, the colonial governors of these countries – most of them French – had a very simple method of getting their public works carried out: they used forced labour. After independence, forced labour vanished; in its place came development programmes, aimed to help both donor and recipient. Donors have usually done well out of the deal, foisting onto unresisting countries the sort of aid that most boosts their own needs and economies – the new telephone exchange for Mali, long-planned and staggeringly expensive, is mainly designed to ensure that the four thousand or so Western technicians and diplomats can remain closely in touch with one another. But the recipients do not always fare so well. With the aid to West Africa, for instance, came veterinary surgeons and irrigation engineers who effectively helped to swell the great nomadic herds. Countries came to depend on this growing reserve of meat. But the ever vaster herds ate up the pastures, so that when a drought hit the area, as it did so calamitously in 1973, there were no dry-season grazing areas left. Several million cattle died. So did many thousands of people.

The catastrophe of illogical aid is not lost on those who receive it. Nor is the dreadful irony of what goes on. One night during a stay in Mali I was asked to dinner by the deputy head of the United States Agency for International Development programme. It was something of an occasion. Several Malians had been invited, among them a Minister in the Planning Office. The Russians and Chinese had recently increased their credit; the time had come to extol the virtues of American aid. The film of the musical Gigi, a scratchy print that was doing the rounds of the city, had been laid on in the garden for after dinner. There was an almost tangible feeling of seduction in the air.

During dinner our host grew lyrical. He talked about the wonders of various irrigation schemes in the North; he described a recent investment in a factory in another African country. At last, sweating slightly despite the air-conditioning, his round face puckered up with bonhomie, he lent forward and, lowering his voice confidentially, announced: ‘We did great things in Laos, Cambodia, Korea. We really put their economies on their feet. I mean, some of these guys are now doing so well they’re going to compete with us.’ Then, pensive: ‘Yes, I think you could really say we invented Korea.’ there was a moment of silence. The USAID man, sensing his phrasing had not been fortunate, flushed. And then the Minister for Planning, the guest of honour who had himself trained at Harvard for eight years and could be thought to owe America so much, spoke up softly. His voice was pleasant, a low American drawl. ‘Perhaps’, he said, pausing for effect, though he did not need to, ‘perhaps you could invent us.

Patrick Marnham’s book is really a chronicle of the grotesque, and he returns to it again and again, as if there were no getting away from it. There is Wolfgang Dourado, a London-trained barrister who is not only the state prosecutor for Zanzibar but also its defence counsel; there is the country of Gambia, where the British ambassador, searching for a project to support with a grant, and being told that the hospital was short of funds, donated some cricket equipment. Since independence, Marnham reports, the quality of medical care has fallen steadily. This is not because of lack of funds, nor because there are not enough qualified doctors. Rather, it seems to come down to a pervading, almost sickly lack of interest, the apathy that afflicts all who come in touch with modern Africa. Drugs are not properly stored, and go bad. They are given out almost at random, as if their efficacy lay in luck, not in systematic application. Patients are brought in to be X-rayed: the machine is not working; the man in charge of it is asleep; it’s a Saturday. By the time the break is diagnosed, the bone has to be broken again. Nothing works. Good intentions evaporate into the surrounding hopelessness; money continues to pour in as the West struggles to mould an entire continent. ‘By destroying natural immunity to malaria among Africans,’ Marnham concludes, ‘Northern medicine substitutes dependence on its own pills and vaccines. If that dependence were ever to become widespread, and natural immunity destroyed, the people of Africa would be incapable of withstanding even the threat of withdrawal of the medicine, unless they were prepared to risk a calamity that would far outweigh the slave trade in its destructive effects on their society.’

Fantastic Invasion remains a book of description: there is no very great attempt to probe deeper, to speculate what sort of future these countries could have, to try to understand why everything goes wrong, why Western solutions acquire a hopeless irrelevance when transported to this enormous continent. To state baldly that ‘when we leave it alone, it works’ is not enough: it is too late to leave Africa alone. The Western Sahelian countries, with their ruler-drawn boundaries, and their enormous deserts, their dependent economies and their precarious existence on the edge of perpetual crisis, are so profoundly without hope that they cannot be left alone.

What the author might perhaps have added is something about the relationship between African and international technician, the modern equivalent of the old settler. In that unhappy symbiosis there is much rewarding material. He might, too, have visited an African airport at the moment of the weekly departure for Europe. Because of the heat, the big jets depart before dawn. During the night the young Africans bound for aid-sponsored education in the capitals of the West gather in the departure lounge, surrounded by silent relatives, nervously joking friends. It is on these faces, where expectation is mixed with apprehension and envy, that the tragedy of the African predicament is visible.

There could be no better complement to this sad book than Naomi Mitchison’s Images of Africa. The images give the other picture, the African side of things, expressed in tales and fables. In ‘The Coming of the New God’, one of the more bitter tales, Protestant missionaries offer to protect villagers’ lands from encroaching white farmers; in return they demand monogamy. There is not just loneliness among the cast-off junior wives, but confusion and disarray in an entire society. ‘I have tried ... to build bridges of understanding with those parts of Africa with which I have been in sympathetic contact,’ explains Naomi Mitchison. To read these two books together is to understand the enormity of the task.