What is it with Africa? What is it about it that drives some people, particularly Europeans, so completely deranged with greed and grabbiness? I admit I am obsessed with most of the continent, particularly from the DRC southwards, but why? It’s not greed or grabbiness on my part – I swear it! I do not want to enslave indigenous people or steal diamonds or cobalt. I do not have white saviour complex – I am sure of it!
One of my five visits to Africa, (to Namibia,) was with a charity and there I saw very clearly this white saviour complex in fellow travellers. Some were weirdly desperate for photos with cute children from the village, presumably because they really wanted to be able to stick up a photo of themselves on their bedroom wall, holding a little child, when they were back in the UK. Look how worldly I am, look how I love the little child. But this was a child, a Black child, they literally didn’t know the name of, had never seen before that moment and would never see again. I wasn’t in it for that – if I was I would have applied to work with people, rather than with fence-lines and animals – and that behaviour felt exploitative. So what was I in it for?
I don’t have an answer, but whatever it is lurks somewhere in the pages of The Poisonwood Bible, which is not a new book but one I have read recently. It is about an American missionary family who journey to what was then Congo, to a doomed remote village outposting in the “interior” (which broadly means the jungle). The time period is roughly late 50s and 60s and covers a rocky regime change, which precipitates what is referred to as “The Congo Crisis”. Barbara Kingsolver, the author, spent some time in Congo as a child, (her father was a philanthropic doctor), and she knows what she is talking about. It is a magnificent book – to my mind explaining very well the tragedy and wrong-headedness and brutality of European involvement in this continent, while also telling a page-turning, compelling story of a family.
I suspended my “no sad or dead children” rule for this book but I had to read a few pages from behind a cushion, not least because I am extremely scared of snakes. Anyway I am sure you have already read this book as it is a million billion bestseller but if not and you, too, have a thing about this part of the world, go for it. I often think sometimes that if there weren’t so many snakes, I would have already been living in e.g. Mozambique for twenty years by now. And yet, I have never been confident that there is a way to live authentically in any part of Africa as a European without it, somehow, being exploitation.
From European bungling in Africa to British bungling in Belfast, Say Nothing is another tongue-out, gripping account (totally factual) but this time about Northern Ireland. I have lately come to realise I am excruciatingly ignorant about basically everything. Only the other day Kitty asked me whose side Russia was on in the war and I confidently said “Ours!” for Giles to say “Not at the start, though,” and I said “Oh really?” and he gave me one of his “What fucking planet are you from” looks.
Anyway, away we go to Belfast. Say Nothing tells the story of this conflict through many viewpoints but predominantly through the stories of Dolours Price, a young firebrand member of the IRA, and Jean McConville, a mother of ten who was abducted and “disappeared” by that same organisation. The true genius of the author Patrick Radden Keefe is not only that he can collate and handle the spooling reams of information required to write a book like this but that he can sympathise with our newcomer status. He assumes no knowledge. Everyone is called Bobby or Seamus and Keefe takes care every time he takes you back to a character to remind you which Bobby or Seamus this exactly is. There are also mercilessly few acronyms and it’s all just very plainly spelled out. Books – usually by men, sorry – on conflicts often revel in the soup of acronyms and it renders them totally unreadable.
Keefe is also very good at emphasising over and over again the importance of the close-knit culture in Ireland generally, but in the North particularly, the deep hatred of grassing people up or being “a tout”. It is only in this culture that something like the IRA can work. The whole thing strikes me as a lesson not in the dangers of extremism but in the dangers of self-righteousness, a thing which is so endemic and dangerous on social media.
But that’s a digression. None of the main players come out of this book looking good but they are all afforded the air of deeply tragic characters: the innocent bystanders caught up in the violence; young idealistic people horribly bumped off by the organisation they set out to serve; the architects of the violence, left deranged with guilt, PTSD, depression, all the while thinking that they were doing these terrible things for a united Ireland only for that not to happen. The deeply damaged, weird Gerry Adams.
The only non-tragic participants are the British, who just stagger about being so British about everything, getting it all wrong. They really could have gone about things in a much smarter way. And do you know what? It’s partly the fault of this British army strategist Frank Kitson who learned everything he knew about counter-insurgency by his time spent in… wait for it… Kenya.