In the landscape of Eden
A outstanding synthesis of the human history and natural history of the oldest continentBy John Ryle • July 1998 • Los Angeles Times • Africa: A biography of the continent by John Reader • Expanded • Posted 2016 • 2,597 words
In January I was driving through north-eastern Zaire—now the Democratic Republic of Congo—along the road from Goma, a town on the northern shore of Lake Kivu, to the headquarters of the Virunga National Park. Virunga is well known among conservationists in Africa for its population of elephant and hippo; but the park headquarters is currently an army camp; and many of the hippo have been killed for food. The road to the park follows the floor of the Western Rift, one of the most spectacular landscapes in Africa, a fifty-mile wide valley flanked by steep escarpments and forest-clad volcanoes, the habitat of the last remaining groups of mountain gorillas. Up above, among bamboo thickets and giant heather—in the heart of the continent—is the meeting point of Congo, Uganda and Rwanda, three of Africa’s many troubled countries.
Ten or fifteen miles along the road from Goma, beyond an army checkpoint, are the ruins of an extensive settlement—thousands of stone huts spread over a lava flow, their low tufa walls roofless and overgrown with vegetation, like a tropical Pompeii. But this ruined settlement is not the relic of some earlier culture; it is an artefact of modernity, the remains of the refugee camp where Rwandan Hutus fled when the present regime in Rwanda took power following the genocide of 1994.
Two years after that, in 1996, the camps were attacked and emptied of their inhabitants by the Rwandan army and the forces of Laurent-Désiré Kabila (now President of the Democratic Republic of Congo) in a joint operation designed to flush out the Hutu génocidaires who had taken refuge there. Tens of thousands of Hutu were driven west into the forests of the Congo basin; many were massacred during Kabila’s subsequent advance on Kinshasa. At the time of my visit, units of Rwandan and Congolese soldiers, billetted in the former headquarters of the Virunga Park, were combing the forests for those that remained.
Humanity—prodigal child of Africa
The prospect of the Western Rift offers a range of archetypal images of Africa: sweeping vistas of rainforest and savannah, endangered animals, hapless refugees, and marauding men with guns. The vulcanism that has given rise to its geological features is paralleled by political volatility that fuels recurrent outbreaks of ethnic violence. On the Congo side today civil administration is tenuous: one kleptocratic dictatorship has given way to the increasingly unstable regime of another (President Kabila is a former gold smuggler, a not inappropriate occupation since mining companies are the only investors willing to risk capital in Congo’s war-ravaged economy). The new regime increasingly resorts to brutality to hide its basic illegitimacy. In Rwanda, meanwhile, the murderous conflict continues between the Tutsi-dominated government and the Hutu extremists regrouping along the border. Even in Uganda, a country which enjoys, some would argue, a more enlightened leadership and a more or less stable government, there are seemingly unquenchable insurgencies in the north and west.
This region of the world—this landscape of Eden—scene of the worst mass killing in recent memory, is the place where we began, where man was born. As John Reader shows, fossil evidence now points unambiguously to an African origin for the human species, and laboratory analysis, in present-day humans, of mitochondrial DNA (the most enduring form of genetic material) appears to confirm our descent from a single female ancestor somewhere in East Africa or the Horn. In this sense the Great Rift Valley, which splits the continent from Mozambique to the Red Sea, creating, en route, the depressions that form the Great Lakes (where Kivu, Goma and the Virunga Park are situated), marks a rupture, not just in the geology of the tertiary period, but in the relation of hominids to the earth itself.
Somewhere here, or further towards the Indian Ocean, in the Eastern Rift, was the location of the evolutionary spark that led to our present, risky domination of nature, to the global conflagration of natural resources under human auspices. Bipedalism, symbolic communication, face-to-face mating, the domestication of fire, the manufacture and use of tools–whatever you choose as our distinctive, species-specific feature—it began in the Rift. Humanity is the prodigal child of Africa. For the first hundred thousand years or so of our existence, as Reader establishes in a judicious summary of the archaeological evidence, we were confined to this landmass, to the oldest of the continents. From here anatomically modern humans spread to Asia and thence to Europe, to return after another hundred thousand years—now with firearms—to recolonise Africa and its inhabitants, the fellow descendants of our common ancestor, and intensify the violent exploitation of primary resources—of animals, forest products, minerals and men—the exploitation that has helped bring the continent to its present pass.
That’s the very short version of a very long story. Even John Reader’s 800-odd page account is short when you consider the scale of things: five hundred million years of geological history; eight or nine million years of hominid development; five centuries of written records; thirty million square kilometres of land (representing twenty-two per cent of the earth’s surface); and seven hundred million inhabitants —about twelve per cent of the people in the world—a population that is currently spread between some sixty nation states (albeit a number of them, such as Somalia, states only in name). Writing an account of Africa that embraces, as this one does, landforms and life forms, earth science, environmental history and the whole span of human evolutionary and social development is a huge undertaking. It is more ambitious, even, than a comparable history of the Americas or Europe would be—more like writing a geological and ethnopolitical history of Eurasia, from Ireland to Siberia, from the Palaeozoic to the modern era.
There are some aspects of Africa that do lend themselves to this approach. South of the Sahara, monumental architecture is rare. The continent is poorly endowed with ruins. Abandoned settlements are rapidly drawn back into the cycle of decay; hence the striking sight of the deserted refugee camp at Goma. But the more remote regions of the continent hold something more valuable than ruins: that is to say, they preserve living traces of earlier forms of human life. Contemporary agro-pastoralist societies in Sudan and the Horn or hunter-gatherer groups in the Congo rainforest and the Kalahari still offer an indication of how the entire population of these regions once lived. Furthermore, most Africans—over seventy per cent of them according to Reader—still live in villages, not towns; and these villages, though they are linked to the world economy by trade and migration and mass communications, are not yet fully wired in to it. There still remains, in such places, a sense of how the world was before mass urbanization and industrialization.
These aspects of Africa have generated a wide range of primitivist fantasies on the part of European and American writers. But Africa: A Biography of the Continent cannot be accused of romanticising Africa; the force behind Reader’s narrative is a lively and dispassionate understanding of environmental history; he deftly combines first-hand descriptions of present-day modes of life in Africa with synoptic accounts of historical and palaeoanthropological research to indicate the successive stages in the relation of man to the land. In the modern era, he concentrates on the underlying economic realities, the relations of land and labour and financial capital. His analysis is permeated by a restrained sense of the beauty of the land and the grace of its human and non-human inhabitants, which is reflected in the photographs that illustrate the book.
The tsetse fly and the Maxim gun
The tropical environments of Africa, Reader reminds us, have seen the evolution of the greatest diversity of life forms on earth. Not just the emergence of man, but also that of other big mammals—elephant, hippo, rhino, lion—charismatic megavertebrates, as waggish zoologists sometimes refer to them.
It is a measure of the transformation of man’s relation to nature in the present century that until quite recently elephants, with their voracious need for forage, were, in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, the main constraint on agricultural production. That, of course, is no longer the case. Guns have seen to the elephant pest—as it appeared to smallholders—in the same manner as they formerly saw off African resistance to European conquest. Big game, to use the white hunter’s term, is now confined, increasingly, to parks like Virunga in the Congo, where it is vulnerable to civil disorder as much as human populations are.
With this great natural wealth, how come Africa has fallen so far behind in the global race for prosperity? How come the continent is a byword for war and hunger? In the first place African climates, unfortunately for humans, are also uniquely hospitable to other life forms—smaller but more dangerous, and less vulnerable to weapons technology. Viruses, parasites and their vectors are organisms that thrive on civil disorder. Mosquito-borne malaria, the world’s biggest killer, is rampant in Africa; so, in many rural areas, is bilharzia. The tsetse fly, which occurs only in Africa, causes sleeping sickness in human beings and is a major constraint on livestock production. Furthermore, despite the great fecundity of the continent, African soils are thin. Much labour is needed to make a living from the land. Food supply is the main constraint on the development of centres of population and on the political and economic development that flows from urbanization. The early humans who migrated to Asia and Europe found a healthier climate there to the North, with better soils, and were able more easily to create the agricultural surplus necessary to establish big urban settlements.
The edge this gave to Eurasia meant that when Europeans returned to Africa they did not meet the indigenous inhabitants on equal terms. African societies, lacking strong central political administration and industrial technology, were unable to resist them. At the Battle of Omdurman in 1898, for example, the British killed 10,800 of the Mahdi’s soldiers; their own losses amounted to just 49 men. The Europeans were secure in the knowledge of their superior firepower. As Hillaire Belloc famously put it:
Whatever happens we have got
The Maxim gun, and they have not.
The Europeans who conquered Africa had no idea that they were stumbling, Tarzan-like, on their own ancestral home. There was a sense, rather, of having discovered a treasure to be pillaged, a source of wealth, of cheap labour. As Leopold II, king of Belgium and later of the ill-named Congo Free State, announced, with transparent greed, it was needful to obtain a slice of this “magnifique gâteau Africain”. John Reader is illuminating on the contrast between the various European colonial regimes. The Belgians get the worst rating. Their brutal administration of the so-called Congo Free State set the scene for all the subsequent horrors of post-independence Zaïre. And their introduction in Rwanda and Burundi of compulsory identity cards showing ethnic affiliations, so that all citizens were compelled to classify themselves as either Hutu or Tutsi, was one of the factors that prepared the ground for genocide.
The impact of the European intervention
The European intervention, brief as it was, has had an incalculable effect on Africa. To take a single aspect, the countries Africans live in today are predominantly the invention of European powers. They include absurdities like the Gambia, a riverain ribbon development that cuts Senegal in half. The premature imposition of statehood on the emerging polities of Africa set the stage, at Independence, for a continent of looters, of local elites seizing control of the state, of despots and kleptocrats despoiling it, and of predatory foreign capital stripping it of its remaining natural resources. The firearms that delivered Africa into the hands of the colonialists are now transforming the lives of the even most sequestered communities in the continent, those now archaic forms of life that illuminate the past, making a biography of Africa something more than a history book. To understand the terrifying ubiquity of these weapons it is necessary to imagine a United States, say, where the use and ownership of guns is unconstrained by any effective system of registration whatever, where there is no government presence, and no legal or practical restraint on homicide, and where militias without clear allegiance to any civil authority are the powers in the land. This survivalist scenario is the situation in much of Africa today. The news is war: war in the Horn; war in Sudan; war in Algeria, war in Central Africa; war in Angola; war in Guinea-Bissau.
Optimists—and John Reader appears to be a guarded optimist—can point with some justification, to an exception to this general decline. The peaceful transition to majority rule in South Africa—the richest, most developed and best-armed country on the continent—is indeed cause for relief. Reader quotes Wole Soyinka: “Rwanda is our nightmare; South Africa our dream.” Soyinka’s own homeland, Nigeria, also appears, as of this month, to be looking up. You can argue, too, that people in Africa are good at recovering from disaster, good at reconciliation, good at forgiveness. The Biafra war in Nigeria is a case in point; it seems to have left no permanent scars on the body politic. But it remains to be seen if there can be peaceful resolution in Rwanda in the aftermath of genocide. If I strike a gloomy note here it is perhaps because I have most recently been in East and Central Africa, where things do not seem to be looking up at all.
The power of belief-systems
No one can girdle a world this vast in a single book, even a book of this size, and there are some aspects of the continent that are bound to go uncovered. When it comes to human history Reader is mainly concerned with sub-Saharan Africa; the lands to the north are peripheral. Ancient Egypt makes a brief entrance, but the cultures of Islamic North Africa are left out. This is a reasonable principle of exclusion: the Sahara is an ethnic and political divide of sorts as well as a geographical one; much of North Africa has more to do with the Middle East than with the lands to the South. But there is also very little in the book about Islam in East and West Africa, or even in the Horn, where it has often been the dominant political and religious culture. For Reader, it seems, the modern history of Africa is a dialectic between western capitalism and the autochthonous polities of the continent.
The European intervention is indeed the defining event in modern African history; but the West is not the only outside influence. For many African Muslims—and there are almost as many as there are Christians—their external reference point is the Arabian peninsula. For some, the continent has been, and still is, the site of spiritual warfare between Islam and Christendom. Reader’s ecohistorical vision, which is the backbone of his book, stresses the infrastructural; it engages only intermittently with the powerful belief-systems of the global cultures that vie for hegemony in the continent today. Criticism such as this pales, however, beside his very considerable achievement. The book is vibrant with affection for its subject, and measured in its judgments. It is hard to imagine a more lucid and balanced synthesis of the many disciplines that have cast light on the obscurities of the African past and the complexities of its present. ★