CLASSIC DALRYMPLE: Not As Black As It’s Painted (1987)

This is the first installment of what will be a recurring feature at The Skeptical Doctor: the posting of classic but mostly unknown Dalrymple writings organized around specific topics.

Perhaps the most prominent subject of Dalrymple’s early writing was Africa. Three of his first six books (published under his real name, Anthony Daniels), as well as many of his earliest periodical pieces, focused largely or exclusively on the continent: Fool or Physician recounted his experiences as a young doctor in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa; Zanzibar to Timbuktu detailed his East-to-West journey across the African continent by means of public transportation; and Monrovia, Mon Amour documented the scale of destruction of the Liberian capital and analyzed the causes and effects of the country’s civil war.

On January 31, 1987 the Spectator published the following essay, in our view one of his best early magazine pieces, following a series of reports he filed from Africa using the psuedonym Edward Theberton as protection from the many African dictators he criticized.

Not As Black As It’s Painted
Anthony Daniels, who wrote as ‘Edward Theberton’ on Africa, sums up his experiences
The Spectator – January 31, 1987

EX Africa semper aliquid novi — except, of course, good news.

For the last 20 years the news from Africa has been unremittingly bad. It is the playground of the Four Horsemen, the continent where Malthus may yet be proved right. It is the only region of the globe where per capita food production has declined over the last two decades. Desertification is advancing more rapidly than industrialisation. Forests are being hacked down with no thought of replanting, the population is doubling relentlessly every 25 years (unless checked, that is, by the spread of Aids). In some countries, there is hardly an animal, except a goat, to be seen. Perhaps most depressing of all, one is now grateful for a president who, however dictatorial, does not actually eat his opponents.

Expressing pessimism about Africa is therefore the order of the day. Another fashionable pastime, righteous indignation being what it is, the most gratifying of emotions, is finding someone, or something, to blame for the present lamentable state of Africa’s affairs.

Africans themselves tend to blame the World Economic System which, they say, also brought them colonialism. They point out that, in general, the terms of trade have moved consistently against them: it now takes much more of their produce to buy a tractor (or a Mercedes) than it once did. They forget the world has moved on while they have not. Besides, it is less than luminously clear what is the ‘just’ price of, say, a personal computer, calculated in pineapples or peanuts.

They are no doubt right when they allude to the nefarious practices, such as transfer pricing, of multinational companies. However, as several nations have found to their cost, there is only one thing worse for an African country than being exploited by a multinational, and that is not being exploited by a multinational. And even if it were true the World Economic System were entirely to blame for the present mess in Africa, it would be a sterile discovery. As I remarked, no doubt cruelly, to several young African radicals, even if Africa were to unite economically, it would still scarcely amount to Switzerland. Politics is, or should be, the art of the possible.

Visitors to and foreign residents of Africa, on the other hand, tend to blame the Africans themselves: indeed, African incompetence is to their small talk what the weather is to English conversation. Certainly, there is no shortage of grounds for castigating the collective laziness, rapacity, stupidity and corruption of African officialdom, from the highest to the lowest. It makes little difference whether the leader of the country is a cheap plaster saint like Nyerere or an out-and-out villain like Mobutu. Almost the only way to assure oneself of a decent standard of living in Africa — at least, one which allows the consumption of western goods — is by joining the pigs at the trough.

Governments have consistently favoured the urban, parasitic classes at the expense of the rural, productive ones. The reason for this is quite simple. If the modern history of Africa teaches anything, it teaches that he who controls the capital controls the country. Maintaining its own power has, not surprisingly, been the chief preoccupation of every national elite (and explains, incidentally, the Organisation of African Unity’s principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of member states).

An overvalued currency, that has disastrous economic effects which are then not automatically corrected by the imperative IMF devaluation, has been one of the elite’s favoured mechanisms. No less an authority than Nyerere admitted as much when asked why he refused to devalue the Tanzanian shilling. ‘There would be riots on the street,’ he said, ‘and I would lose everything I have.’ In response, the peasants tore up their coffee bushes — at a time of record world prices — and grew maize for their own consumption. Meanwhile, there was no money to pay for the shipment of oil, let alone for the oil itself, while the Central Bank resorted to filching private accounts.

There are, no doubt, purely economic constraints on Africa’s advance. If all of Africa were to produce tropical commodities as efficiently as possible, supply would so far exceed demand that prices would fall catastrophically. And there is little hope of industrialisation. Africa is so technically backward that it would be cheaper to ship things from Mars than to produce them on the continent. An arms embargo on South Africa has produced an arms industry; an arms embargo on the rest of Africa would produce bows and arrows.

It is above all the cultural condition of Africa that prevents economic expansion. There is little in traditional African culture that is compatible with a modern economy, and much that is inimical to it. The early missionaries, who wanted to change Africa, understood this. They may have been intolerant, but they were surely not wrong. They merely underestimated grossly the power of formal education to change deep-rooted patterns of thought. No doubt the award of the Nobel Prize for literature to Wole Soyinka is a legitimate cause for pride: but an award to an African in physics or chemistry would have been of far greater import.

The cultural impact of the West on Africa has been, in the main, disastrous. It has caused confusion and disarray, and awakened aspirations that cannot be met. Chinua Achebe, with regard to Nigeria, has written of a cargo cult mentality, in which Nigerians believe that one day, without any creative effort on their own part, all the good things of the world can and will be theirs. In one form or another, this mentality is present throughout Africa and is by no means discouraged by Western efforts at assistance.

Very few Africans have — can have — the faintest notion of the depth of the cultural and scientific tradition necessary to produce a Mercedes, or even a simple light bulb. For them, education is simply an obstacle course to a government post, from which they will be able to extort happily for the rest of their lives. (Failure to do so would be regarded as both foolish and reprehensible, insofar as it would be a failure to do the best for one’s family, village, clan etc.) The idea of trade exists in Africa, but the idea of developing products does not. Industry, except of a very second-rate kind, will not be possible in Africa for a long time to come. The trouble is, Africa does not have a long time.

Yet all this is profoundly misleading if it is taken to mean that Africa is a continent of unrelieved gloom and misery. To that extent, the proponents of the New World Information Order, who want the world’s press rendered safe for dictators, have a point.

The pictur
e I have painted of Africa — surely by now a commonplace one — may injure the amour propre of the deracinated African elite, but it is far from capturing the whole of African life. We too easily assume that poverty, even increasing poverty, equals misery. We also assume too easily that what would make us unhappy must make African peasants unhappy.

But two years in an African village, and thousands of miles of travel through Africa, during which I reported for obvious reasons, under the pseudonym of Edward Theberton, have convinced me this is not so. Within very wide (but not infinitely wide) limits of governmental incompetence and mismanagement, people in Africa are capable of leading lives whose major concerns are not the large questions of economic or political philosophy, but the small change of everyday existence. Perhaps I can best illustrate what I mean by reference to the life of Alice, my housegirl in Tanzania.

Alice was very poor. Before she came to work for me she had no monetary income of any description. She lived with her aged mother in a mud hut through the cracks in whose walls daylight was visible. Alice was, well, receptive to the charms of men, all of whom left her the moment she became pregnant. She had four children, all by different fathers. The first child was called Bahati, which means Luck or Fortune; the fourth was called Matatizo, which means Problem. The six of them lived off a little piece of land, growing maize, beans and bananas, and with a chicken or two. As soon as the children were able, they worked; they fetched water from a stream half an hour away and weeded the fields.

Alice was a charming woman and completely honest. She laughed whenever she caught your eye. Simple things delighted her: she once spent a week’s wages on Polaroid pictures of herself and her family. On returning from England I brought her a stereophonic headset. I have never seen anyone derive such pleasure from a material object: she went round the house squealing with happiness. The batteries were exhausted in a day and she was devastated, until I gave her some more. Thenceforth, she wore her headphones even when she had no batteries, just to increase her status in the village. Chocolates made her laugh for joy. She asked me for a loan to buy fertiliser but, discovering it had sold out, used the money for a kanga, a piece of cloth the Tanzanian women use for a skirt, instead. How could I be angry? When there was fertiliser again in the village shop, I gave her more money.

One day she brought little Matatizo to me. He had stepped on a puff adder and it had bitten him. His leg had swelled and she was worried he would die. I put him to bed, gave him a paracetemol, and in a few days he was better. She was convinced I had saved his life.

Not long afterwards, I found her deep in acrimonious discussion with a man whom I discovered to be her current lover. (In two years she had two pregnancies aborted by a village wise woman, resulting in horrible infections.) She was in the process of breaking with him. Two days later she came to me in a state of great agitation: her erstwhile lover had planted some stolen goods in her fields and had denounced her to the police. She was soon to be arrested.

I rushed off to the police station with her and testified to her honesty. Looking back on it, it seems extraordinary that the police should have dropped the matter merely because I told them to. However, in Tanzania police cases are rarely decided by strict evidence, so I had no hesitation in using my prestige as a doctor in defence of someone I knew to be innocent.

Her lover, however, took his revenge. While she was at work, he went to her hut and in full view of the children cleared it out of her few possessions, even taking from the walls the pictures she had gleaned from advertisements in my magazines. Naturally, she was very upset: her lover decamped for another part of the country and personal identity being a very fluid thing in Tanzania, there was no hope of catching him.

Still, she soon recovered and was even able to laugh about it. I visited her some time after I had left the area when once more she had no monetary income. I found her with her children shelling beans outside the hut. They were talking and laughing when I arrived. She seemed very pleased to see me and ordered Matatizo to fetch their only chair for me to sit on. Then the children came one by one to touch the top of my head as a gesture of respect. Alice gave me a chicken (a considerable gift in the circumstances) and I gave her some money, which she would have spent at once on some conspicuous trifle.

The simple point of this banal story is that while Alice’s life was far from easy, it was by no means miserable. It had its ups and downs, but these were not related to the operation of the London commodities market. She was a simple woman who could barely read, but this did not deprive her life of meaning. I think her lot was on the whole more tolerable than that of the unemployed in the north of England.

So I am both pessimistic about Africa in the sense I believe it is unlikely to develop economically fast or far, and optimistic about it in the sense this does not necessarily entail utter wretchedness for the great mass of the African population. There is as much misery in Geneva as in Kinshasa. Life in Africa, as everywhere else, is more complex than the schemata of intellectuals, or even of political journalists, would have us believe.

Copyright 1987 Anthony M. Daniels. Reprinted with permission.

29 thoughts on “CLASSIC DALRYMPLE: Not As Black As It’s Painted (1987)

  1. Vernon Talbot Wriotheseley, III

    Thanks, I’m very much looking forward to future installments of this series.

    Did “Edward Theberton” elicit a smile from anyone else?


    Thanks for bringing this article.
    You’re right. It really is good. I hope you can manage to bring more.
    The only things I hear about of Africa are Red Nose, Band Aid Oxfam type appeals e.g “These poor poor people please help them” etc. Not that I am belittling their suffering or saying people shouldn’t help them. I’m just expressing how I often hear about them.
    The other way I hear of them is people talking about evil colonialism and the slave trade of the past and apartite and Aids. civil war or racism in a lefist slant.
    TD’s books is one of the few times I first got to hear about Africa outside those terms.
    I wish the mainstream media would write about Africa more in this way. BTW – I’m not black myself. Just interested to learn about other places.

  3. Clinton

    Glad you liked the article, Rachel. One of the things I like so much about his writings on Africa is that he writes about Africans without a trace of condescension. To Dalrymple, Africans are neither savages nor innocent, helpless victims requiring salvation from Westerners. Those who depict Africans in the latter way, while well intended, are really treating them as children. Of course, this attitude is in keeping with Dalrymple’s treatment of poor people everywhere. He holds them to high standards because he believes they are capable of meeting them.

    But he does often say how amazed he is at the ability of Africans to endure hardship with, as he says, “the most astonishing dignity”. Many of them experience great privation, and sometimes violent repression by brutal dictatorships, but they somehow keep their work ethic and human kindness intact.

    Thank you for your comments, which we always enjoy reading.

  4. Clinton

    Glad you enjoyed the article, Vernon. Rest assured that we have some extremely interesting things coming, as part of our series on Dalrymple’s Africa writings, in the next few days. The next one in particular is very powerful.

  5. Russell

    Terrific article. Daniels is at his best when he illustrates a point using his own experiences.

    It’s telling that many more famous commentators are singularly lacking in his experience but claim to have a greater (and very different) insight into the workings of the world.

  6. George

    Dalrymple always makes us think, even if we don’t always agree entirely with his analysis. However, I’m a bit puzzled by the following:

    “The early missionaries… merely underestimated grossly the power of formal education to change deep-rooted patterns of thought.”

    Surely he meant to say that they OVERestimated the power of formal education?

  7. Mark

    As with many such commentaries one is left with the question; what to do about it? And of course any number of remedies (largely from Western economic development thought)have been bandied about over the years. Two works are worth reading here. Reality and Rhetoric by P. T. Bauer (1984) and current articles, particularly in The Economist, about how communities in Africa are being transformed by the mobile phone revolution. I would add that in the west we underestimate the importance of family and tribal groupings in the whole of Africa. I recall one of our cocoa telling me back in the 1980’s when millions of Ghanaians were being deported from Nigeria that whereas the western press was heralding this as a catastrophe the individuals involved only had to say where they had originally come from in Ghana and who they were to be absorbed in any village they happened to be in at the end of their journey. And indeed this is what happened. Africa is not going to be a China any time soon but it can develop in its own way given half a chance.

  8. soin

    Nicely presented information in this post, I prefer to read this kind of stuff. The quality of content is fine and the conclusion is good. Thanks for the post. soin.

  9. smuccadrart

    This is such a great resource that you are providing and you give it away for free. I love seeing websites that understand the value of providing a quality resource for free.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.