The African Predicament
French believes that in portraying the Tutsis as unalloyed victims, Gourevitch turned a wrenching history of intercommunal struggle into a facile morality tale--with serious implications for the American policy-makers who accepted it. "The Tutsi, unlike Europe's Jews," he writes, "were a small minority that had enjoyed feudal tyrannies in Rwanda and neighboring Burundi for centuries. In Burundi they perpetrated genocide against the Hutu three times in a generation, and in both countries they were committed to winning or retaining power by force of arms." French says that Gourevitch, whose girlfriend's brother was Clinton spokesman James Rubin, not only played an important role in selling Laurent Kabila to Washington but downplayed the Rwandan-backed slaughter of the Hutu refugees in Congo. French is not alone in his disagreement with Gourevitch. Indeed, it could be argued that Gourevitch's readiness to view the Hutu-Tutsi conflict through the prism of the Holocaust is but another version of the intellectual laziness French notes among so many Western reporters and others, who insist on defining Africa and its problems in Western terms rather than making the effort to learn enough about Africa to begin to understand it on its own ethnic and political terms. But I would add another reason for America's lack of interest in the Congo dead: In Congo, unlike in Rwanda, the murder, rape and mayhem continues to this day. With the need to act still apparent enough to tickle our collective conscience, we do not care to look too closely.
And, human nature being what it is, very few outsiders are ever going to care enough to put Africa's interests ahead of their own. Given this, one wishes that French had shared more of his thoughts about what Africans themselves can do to improve matters, regardless of what the West does. How can Africa rectify the weakness that has bedeviled its relations with the rest of the world ever since the days of the slave trade?
Early in the book, French retells the story of Affonso, the King of the Kongo, who wrote to the king of Portugal in 1526 to deplore "the monstrous greed" that led his fellow Africans to sell even members of their own families in exchange for Western goods. The king of Portugal's reply was "brutal in its simplicity," French writes. "Kongo," he said, "had nothing else to sell."
Brutal though it is, the king's reply still stands. The vast majority of Africans still lack the means to buy or make the goods they need and want, including such basics as rudimentary medicine, clean water and elementary schooling. Far too often, Africa's ruling classes are willing to kill or essentially enslave their fellow citizens or consign them to lives of misery in exchange for a shot at a few foreign luxuries. (We are quick to condemn such "vampire elites" even as we take entirely for granted the Western, middle-class lifestyle to which they aspire and see no other means of gaining.) Colonialism was sold to European and American publics as a humanitarian effort to deal with the wars, slave-raiding and economic exploitation that resulted in the late nineteenth century from this historic imbalance in Africa's terms of trade, internal and external. When that project failed to solve the underlying problem, the West erected African nation-states in its own image. Now these states are falling to pieces. The spectacular failure of both models has left us right back where King Affonso started: "Corruption and depravity are so widespread that our land is entirely depopulated."
But perhaps it is churlish to ask French to answer such questions when he has already told us so much in this book. By the time he fell ill with malaria in 1997, French, like so many others, was burned out. "I began to conclude that Africa was starting to kill me," he writes. "So many loves had kept me going here: the beauty and the unfussy grace of the people, the amazing food--yes, the food--music rich beyond comparison, the sheer immediacy of human contact, the pleasure of living by my wits. But the grim truth was that a single mosquito bite had contained enough deadly force to lay me very low indeed." One can only hope that after a period away, he regains his strength and returns for another round with Africa, in all her loves and her sadnesses, too.