- Meredith, Martin — The State of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence (736 pages)
Page count: 736.
Finally! Okay, so I finished it about 3 weeks ago, thereabouts, but still— I'm a bit embarrassed that it took me till March to finish my first book of the year. But this book was worth every second I spent on it!
I've had The State of Africa for a couple of years, long before I knew I was going to Africa. I even read the first 30+ pages back when I bought it and meant to read it piecemeal over the course of the year, because I am fascinated by the subject. It didn't happen, for various reasons.
Of course, when I knew I'd be going to Kenya, I realized this was the perfect opportunity. Additionally, I'd had a (rather large) book by a Kenyan novelist on my shelves for almost as long, and I decided that the time had come to read that book as well but that, before I read that book (or any other book by an African or set in Africa), I needed to arm myself with background information.
I knew practically nothing about Africa, as it gets hardly any mention in American schools. I wanted a general and comprehensive introduction to the continent, and Meredith's book couldn't have been better suited to the task. The focus is post-colonial Africa, with just enough background to have a sense of what preceded independence. The approach is semi-chronological, beginning with Ghana's independence, but each chapter focuses on a different region. Meredith explains in depth the various events and trends — cultural, political, sociological, economic, historical, linguistic, etc. — that shaped each story. There is certainly no lack of information, the textual information enhanced with maps and photos; I won't remember all the specifics — data overload! — but all the information serves to give a very complete impression of the different regions, regimes, and conflicts.
I know I've just scratched the surface, but I feel like I've gone from knowing nothing to attaining (a bit of) expertise. In Kenya I felt comfortable talking about Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi, about the Kikuyu and the Mau-Mau revolution. I feel I can talk semi-intelligently about Kwame Nkrumah, Léopold Senghor, or Nelson Mandela. I better understand the controversies surrounding Ken Saro-Wiwa or Robert Mugabe, the depravity of a Charles Taylor, the depths of corruption all over Africa and especially how it exacerbated the famines in Ethiopia, the extent of tragedy in the Rwandan and Congolese genocides, how clan traditions in Somalia and Cold War politics in Angola fueled those conflicts, the effects of the AIDS epidemic on policy in the region, and so much more.
This is not a cheerful book, but it is an extremely important book. I recommend it without the least reservation to anyone interested in Africa. No, more than that. I urge you to read it, because I think it's important we all understand Africa a little better.