African Studies Quarterly

The New Africa: Dispatches from a Changing Continent. Robert M. Press. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1999. Pp. 380. Cloth: $24.95.


A century ago, the travelogue - anecdote-rich adventure books by European explorers, missionaries, hunters, and early colonial administrators - constituted the most widely-read genre on Africa, helping to shape (and misshape) Western public perceptions of the continent. Over the past two decades, Western journalists appear to be assuming a similar role. Journalists have been eyewitness to the rolling wave of democracy that has swept much of Africa, the dramatic end of apartheid, and the rise of Africa's bloody complex emergencies in Somalia, Rwanda, Liberia, and elsewhere. Given the gripping nature of these events, it is not surprising that many journalists have felt compelled to write a book summing up their experiences. Indeed, the number of journalists' books on contemporary Africa is now large enough to constitute a distinct "journalist's dispatch" genre on Africa. Consider just a partial listing: David Lamb's "The Africans; Sanford Ungar's "Africa;" Joseph Lelyveld's "Move Your Shadow;" Allister Spark's "The Mind of South Africa;" Keith Richburg's "Out of America;" Karl Maier's "Into the House of Ancestors;" Michael Maran's "The Road to Hell;" and Robert Kaplan's "The Ends of the Earth."

Some of these books, such as "Move Your Shadow," have earned a well-deserved place as classic works on the continent. Others, such as "Out of America," have succeeded in generating heated controversy. As a group, journalists' books on Africa enjoy a vastly wider readership than even the most important academic studies on Africa, and hence have a much more powerful impact on the general public's understanding of Africa. For this reason alone, the genre merits close attention.

The most recent addition to this collection is "The New Africa: Dispatches from a Changing Continent" by Robert M. Press, a former correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor. On the surface, Press's book appears to follow the successful formula of the genre - lots of gripping stories and anecdotes from the field, structured around chapters devoted to countries which the journalist knows best (invariably crisis zones, and Kenya, where the journalists are usually based). But a closer look reveals that Press sets out to carve a distinct niche in this crowded field. He does so by responding to two of the most common criticisms of the "journalist dispatch" genre - first, that such books are ahistorical, anecdotal, and disconnected from important academic studies; and second, that these books tend to be unrelentingly pessimistic and overly-focused on the disaster zones of the continent.

"The New Africa" sets itself apart from other journalistic books on Africa in three ways. First, Press attempts to place his journalistic accounts within an academic framework, citing academic analysis of the slave trade and colonialism, political philosophy, African literature, and other bodies of research as a prelude to each chapter. This is without doubt the most innovative part of the book. This approach works best in the first chapter, which concerns freedom and the wave of democratization in contemporary Africa. Unfortunately, this technique does not always succeed in other places. In some instances, the shift from his summaries of academic literature to his rich journalistic anecdotes or personal profiles is abrupt and awkward. The two are not so easily married, and one feels the author struggling to meld them. In an effort to keep the book to a reasonable length, some of the references to academic, historical, and philosophical works are pared down so much that it leads to oversimplification - a one page summary of the debate over the slave trade's impact, for instance, simply cannot deliver an adequate explanation. Overall, this attempt to integrate academic research with a journalistic account is a good idea that meets only mixed success.

A second approach, which sets the book apart from most (but not all) journalistic accounts of Africa is Press's explicit goal of making the book upbeat and positive as an antidote to the Afro-pessimism so prevalent in journalistic accounts on the continent. He does this not by willfully ignoring the horrific catastrophes much of Africa has suffered in the past ten years - an approach which would have doomed the book - but rather by highlighting the many acts of courage, resilience, and common decency of individual Africans whom he has met and interviewed over the years. This gives the book an upbeat, intensely personal and hopeful tone, and helps put a human face on crises like Rwanda's genocide, which in other hands can become numbingly statistical. Occasionally Press's agenda can come across in the text as contrived or naïve, but in general the author succeeds in spinning a hopeful portrait of average Africans managing and overcoming difficult problems. This alone makes the book a worthwhile read for students whose received knowledge about Africans is often little more than a stereotype of passive victims of drought and war. The one problem Press could not overcome is the fact that the cases he knows best and writes most about - Rwanda, Somalia, and Kenya-are all examples of things going badly wrong, and tend to work against his hopeful thesis.

The third distinct aspect of "The New Africa" is its rich collection of over 100 photographs, in both color and black and white, taken by Betty Press, the author's spouse. Betty Press is an accomplished photographer who also worked for the Christian Science Monitor, and the inclusion of some of her best snapshots from Africa gives this book an unusual added visual dimension. In keeping with the theme of the book, most of the photos are of individual Africans. The photo gallery nicely supports the book's theme that we must view Africa with a human face. Instead of a collection of crisis zones, the book portrays individuals trying to do the right thing in very difficult circumstances.

Compared to other journalists' accounts of contemporary Africa, "The New Africa" ranks in the middle of the pack, which is not bad company. It is not as brilliantly written as a work by Lelyveld, Sparks, or Maier, nor will it capture the public's imagination in the way that Richburg's controversial polemic was able to do. However, Press does succeed in carving out a distinct and hopeful niche within the journalistic genre on Africa, and his book will be remembered for that.

Ken Menkhaus
Davidson College
Davidson NC