Category Archives: Classics

The Barbarians (Still) at the Gates of Paris

No doubt many of us (especially we francophiles) are thinking of the people of Paris today. It seems like a good time to re-post this:

…imagine yourself a youth in Les Tarterets or Les Musiciens, intellectually alert but not well educated, believing yourself to be despised because of your origins by the larger society that you were born into, permanently condemned to unemployment by the system that contemptuously feeds and clothes you, and surrounded by a contemptible nihilistic culture of despair, violence, and crime. Is it not possible that you would seek a doctrine that would simultaneously explain your predicament, justify your wrath, point the way toward your revenge, and guarantee your salvation, especially if you were imprisoned? Would you not seek a “worthwhile” direction for the energy, hatred, and violence seething within you, a direction that would enable you to do evil in the name of ultimate good? It would require only a relatively few of like mind to cause havoc. Islamist proselytism flourishes in the prisons of France (where 60 percent of the inmates are of immigrant origin), as it does in British prisons; and it takes only a handful of Zacharias Moussaouis to start a conflagration.

CLASSIC DALRYMPLE: Sweet Waist of America, excerpt (1990)

It’s been far too long since we posted another Dalrymple classic, and the last chapter of his fifth book, Sweet Waist of America, certainly qualifies. Summing up his 8-month stay in the country after the conclusion of its extraordinarily brutal civil war, he finds universal themes of progress, intellectual dishonesty, and the search for meaning in the particulars of one of Latin America’s most violent conflicts.

For anyone who has lived in Guatemala, other countries, by contrast, are lacking in savour. The problem confronting the people who want to promote a prosperous tourist industry is how to take out this over-strong flavour so that only the safely picturesque remains.

-Norman Lewis, The Volcanoes Above Us

I had spent eight months in Guatemala, and it was time to leave. The longer I stayed, the less certain was I that I understood the country I had chosen to write about; I left before the increasing intricacy of what I found there sapped my confidence altogether. Indeed, I began to wonder what it meant to understand a country. Did it mean to have a nodding acquaintance with all its social classes, to have interviewed its president, to know its past, to predict its future? Suppose a Guatemalan were to write a book about England after a stay of only seven months: should I not laugh at his errors, were I not angered by the presumption of his enterprise? Continue reading

CLASSIC DALRYMPLE: Why religion is good for us (2003)

Christopher Hitchens and Tony Blair conducted a debate on religion last month in Toronto. In a discussion on this debate in, of all places, the Huffington Post, someone posted this old Dalrymple piece from the New Statesman. It’s probably the best, most concise summation of Dalrymple’s religious views that he has written:

Over the years, my attitude to religion has changed, without my having recovered any kind of belief in God. The best and most devoted people I have ever met were Catholic nuns. Religious belief is seldom accompanied by the inflamed egotism that is so marked and deeply unattractive a phenomenon in our post-religious society. Although the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are said to have given man a more accurate appreciation of his true place in nature, in fact they have rendered him not so much anthropocentric as individually self-centred.

CLASSIC DALRYMPLE: Gooseberries (1999)

Commenting on the New Criterion post directly below, reader Flossie called attention to this older essay, the source of the quote below about Dalrymple’s father. In fact, the essay contains more biographical information about his father than probably anything else he has written.

I want to say that it is one of his best works, but I say that too often. (Funny how almost all of Dalrymple’s essays seem to be one of his best.) It is a comment on the importance of appreciating the beauty in the everyday:

Adriaen Coorte’s minutely observed and portrayed gooseberries are not, therefore, a trivial or contemptible subject matter for art. The sprig of the bush on which they grow teaches us to observe the play of light upon the foliage, to take delight in the variety of shades of green to be seen in the various leaves–no, even in a single leaf. As for the translucency of the berries themselves, so miraculously beautiful, and captured so tenderly by the artist, one feels like exclaiming, as T. H. Huxley did on reading Darwin’s Origin of Species, “How stupid of me not to have thought of that!”

So now I am thoroughly reconciled to gooseberries as a fruit, and will never again think of them as sour and distasteful. They are, after all, an instance of the beauty of the world.

I also like this witty description of recent improvement in English cuisine:

Meals in England in those days were treated as an ordeal that had to be gone through; nowadays, thanks to an increased awareness of the health implications of nutrition, they are more like medical procedures.

Though I can attest from personal experience that Dalrymple is an excellent cook!

(h/t Flossie)

CLASSIC DALRYMPLE: The Wilder Shores of Marx, excerpt (1991)

In 1989 Theodore Dalrymple managed to join up with a group of British communists on its way to the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students in North Korea:

The British ‘delegation’ was fixed at 100 and I was accepted as a member because, though neither a youth nor a student, I was a doctor who had practiced in Tanzania, a country whose first President, Julius Nyerere, was a close friend and admirer of Kim Il Sung, Great Leader of DPRK (as the country is known to cognoscenti). It was therefore assumed I was in sympathy with what was sometimes called, rather vaguely, ‘the movement’.

The ensuing trip, one of five to communist holdouts in 1988 and 1989, was recounted in his 1991 book The Wilder Shores of Marx (published in the U.S. as Utopias Elsewhere). Throughout two weeks in July of 1989 Dalrymple witnessed an imprisoned nation, attended a mass rally addressed by Kim Jong-Il, and was transfixed by what he saw at Pyongyang Department Store Number 1…

I went several times during the festival to Pyongyang Department Store Number 1. This is in the very centre of the city. Its shelves and counters were groaning with locally produced goods, piled into impressive pyramids or in fan-like displays, perfectly arranged, throughout the several floors of the building. On the ground floor was a wide variety of tinned foods, hardware and alcoholic drinks, including a strong Korean liqueur with a whole snake pickled or marinated in the bottle, presumably as an aphrodisiac. Everything glittered with perfection, the tidiness was remarkable.

It didn’t take long to discover that this was no ordinary department store. It was filled with thousands of people, going up and down the escalators, standing at the corners, going in and out of the front entrance in a constant stream both ways – yet nothing was being bought or sold. I checked this by standing at the entrance for half an hour. The people coming out were carrying no more than the people entering. Their shopping bags contained as much, or as little, when they left as when they entered. In some cases, I recognised people coming out as those who had gone in a few minutes before, only to see them re-entering the store almost immediately. And I watched a hardware counter for fifteen minutes. There were perhaps twenty people standing at it; there were two assistants behind the counter, but they paid no attention to the ‘customers’. The latter and the assistants stared past each other in a straight line, neither moving nor speaking.

Eventually, they grew uncomfortably aware that they were under my observation. They began to shuffle their feet and wriggle, as if my regard pinned them like live insects to a board. The assistants too became restless and began to wonder what to do in these unforeseen circumstances. They decided that there was nothing for it but to distribute something under the eyes of this inquisitive foreigner. And so, all of a sudden, they started to hand out plastic wash bowls to the twenty ‘customers’, who took them (without any pretence of payment). Was it their good luck, then? Had they received something for nothing? No, their problems had just begun. What were they to do with their plastic wash bowls? (All of them were brown incidentally, for the assistants did not have sufficient initiative to distribute a variety of goods to give verisimilitude to the performance, not even to the extent of giving out differently coloured bowls.)

They milled around the counter in a bewildered fashion, clutching their bowls in one hand as if they were hats they had just doffed in the presence of a master. Some took them to the counter opposite to hand them in; some just waited until I had gone away. I would have taken a photograph, but I remembered just in time that these people were not participating in this charade from choice, that they were victims, and that – despite their expressionless faces and lack of animation – they were men with chajusong, that is to say creativity and consciousness, and to have photographed them would only have added to their degradation. I left the hardware counter, but returned briefly a little later: the same people were standing at it, sans brown plastic bowls, which were neatly re-piled on the shelf.

I also followed a few people around at random, as discreetly as I could. Some were occupied in ceaselessly going up and down the escalators; others wandered from counter to counter, spending a few minutes at each before moving on. They did not inspect the merchandise; they moved as listlessly as illiterates might, condemned to spend the day among the shelves of a library. I did not know whether to laugh or explode with anger or weep. But I knew I was seeing one of the most extraordinary sights of the twentieth century.

I decided to buy something – a fountain pen. I went to the counter where pens were displayed like the fan of a peacock’s tail. They were no more for sale than the Eiffel Tower. As I handed over my money, a crowd gathered round, for once showing signs of animation. I knew, of course, that I could not be refused: if I were, the game would be given away completely. And so the crowd watched goggle-eyed and disbelieving as this astonishing transaction took place: I gave the assistant a piece of paper and she gave me a pen.

The pen, as it transpired, was of the very worst quality. Its rubber for the ink was so thin that it would have perished immediately on contact with ink. The metal plunger was already rusted; the plastic casing was so brittle that the slightest pressure cracked it. And the box in which it came was of absorbent cardboard, through whose fibres the ink of the printing ran like capillaries on the cheeks of a drunk.

At just before four o’clock, on two occasions, I witnessed the payment of the shoppers. An enormous queue formed at the cosmetics and toiletries counter and there everyone, man and woman, received the same little palette of rouge, despite the great variety of goods on display. Many of them walked away somewhat bemused, examining the rouge uncomprehendingly. At another counter I saw a similar queue receiving a pair of socks, all brown like the plastic bowls. The socks, however, were for keeps. After payment, a new shift of Potemkin shoppers arrived.

The Department Store Number 1 was so extraordinary that I had to talk to someone about it. But the young communist from Glasgow to whom I described it simply exclaimed: ‘So what! Plenty of people go to Harrods without buying anything, just to look.’ Nevertheless, I returned twice to Department Store Number 1 because, in my opinion, it had as many layers of meaning as a great novel, and every time one visited it one realised – as on re-reading Dickens or Tolstoy – that one had missed something from the time before.

Department Store Number 1 was a tacit admission of the desirability of an abundance of material goods, consumption of which was very much a proper goal of mankind. Such an admission of the obvious would not have been in any way remarkable were it not that socialists so frequently deny it, criticising liberal capitalist democracy because of its wastefulness and its inculcation of artificial desires in its citizens, thereby obscuring their ‘true’ interests. By stocking Department Store Number 1 with as many goods as they could find, in order to impress foreign visitors, the North Koreans admitted that material plenty was morally preferable to shortage, and that scarcity was not a sign of abstemious virtue; rather it was proof of economic inefficiency. Choice, even in small matters, gives meaning to life. However well fed, however comfortable modern man might be without it, he demands choice as a right, not because it is economically superior, but as an end in itself. By pretending to offer it, the North Koreans acknowledged as much; and in doing so, recognised that they were consciously committed to the denial of what everyone wants.

But the most sombre reflection occasioned by Department Store Number 1 is that concerning the nature of the power that can command thousands of citizens to take part in a huge and deceitful performance, not once but day after day, without any of the performers ever indicating by even the faintest sign that he is aware of its deceitfulness, though it is impossible that he should not be aware of it. One might almost ascribe a macabre and sadistic sense of humour to the power, insofar as the performance it commands bears the maximum dissimilarity to the real experience and conditions of life of the performers. It is as if the director of a leper colony commanded the enactment of a beauty contest – something one might expect to see in, say, a psychologically depraved surrealist film. But this is no joke, and the humiliation it visits upon the people who take part in it, far from being a drawback, is an essential benefit to the power; for slaves who must participate in their own enslavement by signalling to others the happiness of their condition are so humiliated that they are unlikely to rebel.

Copyright 1991 Anthony Daniels. Reprinted with permission.

NOTE: Monday Books has made this book available on iTunes and Amazon as an e-book at a very generous (to you) price. There is so much more of interest in the book than this story. Read how Dalrymple gets arrested and struck with truncheons for photographing an anti-government demonstration in Albania, smuggles banned books to dissidents in the Romania of the Ceaucescu era, and much else.

CLASSIC DALRYMPLE: The Perils of Activism: Ken Saro-Wiwa (2000)

Dalrymple’s New Criterion essay on his friendship with executed Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa is the final installment of our series of his classic writings on Africa. But we have by no means exhausted the list of his wonderful treatments of the continent. We highly recommend Zanzibar to Timbuktu, Monrovia, Mon Amour and especially Fool or Physician.

The New Criterion has graciously made this essay, normally viewable only with a subscription or by individual purchase, available for free. (Thank you, Gabbe!) We strongly suggest you subscribe to this enriching journal of culture and the arts. What an impressive publication.

Essay excerpt:

Saro-Wiwa was the best of company: anecdotes poured from him without cease. In his presence, it was impossible to feel anything other than that life was infinitely interesting, varied, and enjoyable. But in turning to practical politics, it seemed to me that he betrayed his own insight: for the singlemindedness of his mass movement represented an impoverishment rather than an enrichment of life. It also contradicted the message of his own first book, Sozaboy (Addison-Wesley, 1995), which is one of the great antiwar novels of the century, by which he would have been remembered even had he not met so dramatic and gruesome a death.

Read the essay

CLASSIC DALRYMPLE: Fool or Physician, excerpt (1987)

This second installment of our series of classic Dalrymple writings on Africa, excerpted from his beautifully written, unrecognized classic Fool or Physician: The Memoirs of a Sceptical Doctor, illuminates the colorful and provocative life of one of the Western world’s greatest thinkers and writers. In 1976, having spent six months working in a hospital in Rhodesia and several months traveling through Mozambique and substituting for an alcoholic doctor in South Africa (an experience which is itelf replete with anecdotes), the 27 year-old took a position in a hospital in the misnamed, violence- and poverty-ridden black township of Edendale, near Pietermaritzburg in South Africa’s Natal Province.

Unlike the other doctors, who had flats or houses in town to return to after the day’s work was over, I lived on the premises, over the shop as it were. I was therefore isolated and lonely, enclosed in the dismal embrace of an institution, unable to leave it at night for fear of the violence in the unlit township. I had no means of my own to travel the nine miles to the city centre, and had therefore either to walk in the hope that someone would stop to give me a lift, or to travel on a black bus ― that is, a bus reserved for blacks ― where my presence was nothing if not conspicuous. Indeed, it created a sensation among the other passengers, and caused not a few drivers’ heads to turn dangerously as they drove past. No doubt my presence on the bus was construed in some quarters as a political gesture, subversive or brave according to taste; in fact, I was only trying to get to the best restaurant in town.

At the weekend, and during daylight hours, I ventured into the township. It was then perfectly safe. At first I was apprehensive, fearing I might be met with hostility, for whites were uncommon visitors (it was illegal for them to go without a permit), and usually they went only on some mission of oppression. But I was either ignored or welcomed with smiles, my demeanor not being that of a policeman, secret or otherwise. One Sunday morning I was walking along a dirt road, finding even the bleak landscape of the township under the open sky a refreshment after a week in the entrails of the hospital, when I was attracted to some choral singing in Zulu coming from a Methodist church, a simple construction of brick and tin. I entered quietly from the back, hoping not to be noticed. The altar at the far end of the church was a simple table, covered with a snowy white cloth lovingly embroidered with a floral border. On the altar were two jamjars filled with flowers, a tribute to the beauty of God’s creation not easily come by in Edendale.

As though somehow sensing my arrival through the backs of their heads, the entire congregation stopped singing and turned to stare at me. Their astonishment was plainly written on their faces. Blushing, I sat on the rear pew. With the habit inculcated by a lifetime in the townships, and necessary for their survival, they sized me up and, deciding I was harmless, resumed their hymn, if anything with greater gusto. They were dressed in the chiffon finery of two decades before, when no woman went shopping without her white gloves. It was here once again that the bourgeois virtue of good orderliness seemed not ridiculous, which as a member of the intelligentsia I had always considered it, but heroic. Were these the same people that I saw daily in the casualty department?

The hymn, as it happened, was the last of the service. I had thought to slip out unnoticed after the service was over, already feeling awkward at having interrupted it; but the preacher, the moment the last strain died away, rushed forward to welcome me. It was a great moment, he said; and he wondered whether I should do them all the honour of attending a little feast and ceremony they were about to hold in the adjacent hall. His manner was ingratiating, obsequious almost, but it was clear that my acceptance gave him genuine pleasure.

I was ushered into the hall with great ceremony, and immediately sat at the head table as guest of honour. I was dressed casually while they were all in their finest; I had come idly, drawn by their singing, while for them it was an important day; and yet, purely by virtue of my race, I was the guest of honour. Such were the rewards and pleasures of being a white liberal (this was a year before the great Soweto riots). It spoke eloquently, I thought, of the deep longing of the blacks to be recognized and treated as fully human by the whites for whom, despite themselves, they had a kind of abject respect. Things, I believe, are different now.

The ceremony and feast were to celebrate the graduation of a batch of black nurses from Edendale Hospital. The official presentation of diplomas had already taken place within the hospital: this was the proud tribute of the township to its new nurses.

Food was continually pushed towards me during the ceremony, the choicest morsels available. I was the only one eating during the speeches, but I consoled myself with the thought that it was evidently expected of me as the guest of honour. No sooner had I finished one chicken leg than another was pressed into my hand. I even listened to the hymns sung by the nurses’ choir with a drumstick suspended halfway between the table and my mouth. Then came an address to the audience by the man who would have been guest of honour had I not arrived.

He was dressed in a dark business suit with the exaggeratedly wide lapels that were the fashion of the time. A man at my side translated from his Zulu. First he extended a welcome to me, and said how honoured he was ― they all were ― that I should attend. But it was obvious to all, he continued, that I had neither been born in South Africa nor lived there long, or else I should not be sitting where I was now. Just let me stay a few years, however, and I should be indistinguishable from all the others. Turning to me, he appealed to me in Zulu to go home, if I wished to remain a decent man.

He went on to tell the nurses that qualifying was a great personal achievement, but they should use their education to serve the people from whom they sprang. It was strange to hear nurses spoken of as highly educated, but in Edendale they had joined an élite. He said they must never forget their diplomas were not the result of their unaided efforts, but of those of their parents and the whole of their community as well, who had made sacrifices that they might learn.

He spoke of a future that was coming, one in which the lion would, as it were, lie down with the lamb. He had just returned from a trip to West Germany where all men were equal, he said, and there was no apartheid. At this point an elderly man in a battered and grease-stained brown homburg hat jumped up and asked whether this meant that in Germany black and white sat next to one another in the cinema. This, for him, was the ne plus ultra of liberation. Certainly, replied the speaker. And had he been in such a cinema, asked the old man. Yes he had, only last week in fact. The man, half-incredulous, half-bewildered, removed his hat from his head the better to scratch it, and sat down.

The speaker finished what he had to say and the feast began. I was expected once more to eat as though I had gone hungry for days. I managed before long to make my excuses and slip quietly away: the other guests at the head table were constrained by the need, out of politeness, to speak English and to attend to my wants before their own. I left having exchanged assurances of high regard and in the afterglow, as I walked back to the hospital, I wondered why such meetings could not be expanded into political arrangements. It was naive even to wonder, of course: the township had as many tsotsis, as many nationalists of contending factions, as many police informers, as respectable Methodists; and as for the whites, there were probably only a handful who could even contemplate the prospect of sitting at the same table as a black without being overcome by nausea. Not everything can be solved by gestures of goodwill.

Feeling ever more isolated and dejected in the hospital I decided to leave. I manufactured a pretext – the illness of a close relative at home in England – and, to my shame, Mr Malan could not have been kinder or more considerate. As luck would have it, a friend of mine was visiting South Africa. His brother was a doctor in Zululand, with a practice in the lush green rolling hills that shaded blue into the distance. He lent us his pickup truck to travel the country, so that while I should have been going home to comfort my dangerously ill relative I was sojourning in the Drakensberg, the long mountain chain with saw-tooth peaks like a drag
on’s crest.

I was indeed fortunate, as I later discovered, to have left Edendale when I did. The day following my departure the Special Branch called for me. I had offended in some way. Perhaps they had heard about my bus rides into Pietermaritzburg; or there had been an informer in the midst of the Methodists; or they had read my letters home; or the Portuguese doctor was a police spy. To everyone in the hospital my fortuitous departure must have looked as though I had some knowledge of the Special Branch’s movements and was therefore engaged in some secret political activity. In fact, it was only the luckiest of coincidences. Several doctors were arrested that day, blacks amongst them. (So effective had been the segregation of doctors within the hospital that I was unaware until then that there were any black doctors working there.) So while I was enjoying the beauties of the Drakensberg, several of my erstwhile colleagues were enjoying the amenities of the prison service.

Copyright 1987 Anthony Daniels. Reprinted with permission.

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.