Out of Africa -- Thank God

American blacks should stop romanticizing Africa. It's a nightmare of violence and corruption, says the Washington Post's former Africa bureau chief.

Published February 19, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

one of the most corrupt leaders of modern times sent warplanes against his own people this week. Rejecting United Nations pleas for negotiations, Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire ordered the bombing of civilians in the town of Bukavu, held by rebels dedicated to ending his despotic 32-year reign. The mineral-rich country in the heart of Africa is a ruin. Mobutu, it is estimated, has billions stashed away in foreign banks. His own troops are pitiful and half-starved, most of them fleeing battles without a fight. Mobutu has hired mercenaries and threatens bloodshed on a large scale.

The turmoil in Zaire is echoed in neighboring Rwanda, the site of a major genocide in 1994 and where tribal killings have resumed between ethnic Hutus and Tutsis. Across the rest of sub-Saharan black Africa, countries are sinking under a rising tide of mismanagement, corruption and human rights violations. This is not a picture that accords with the stated beliefs of many African-American intellectuals and leaders who view the continent as a place where blacks can walk with dignity and pride.

Keith Richburg was the Washington Post's Africa bureau chief in the early 1990s, covering the continent's worst crises, in Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, Liberia and Zaire. In his new book, "Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa" (Basic Books), Richburg recounts scenes of unspeakable savagery in the continent he covered and angrily rejects efforts to place Africa at the center of American blacks' identity.

Salon spoke with Richburg, now the Post's bureau chief in Hong Kong, about present-day Africa, the appalling things he witnessed and the difficulties of relating it, especially to black Americans.

Zaire had the potential of being the richest country in Africa, indeed one of the richest in the world. Now, it's a symbol of Africa at its worst. What went wrong?

Pure and simple, 30 years of greed, corruption and incompetence, with one man, Mobutu Sese Seko, raping Zaire's coffers blind. Estimates of his personal wealth range from a low of $1 billion to a high of $10 billion. I've seen estimates even higher. Some of his official titles include things like "The man who moves from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake" and "The cock who has plundered a thousand hens." He is the quintessential African "big man," in the sense that he is so obsessed with his own image that he really does cross the line from the sublime to the ridiculous. He would be laughable, were it not for the fact that he raped and destroyed this potentially great country.

Which now seems on the verge of disintegrating. If that happens, if Mobutu is overthrown, what sort of impact will that have on the rest of sub-Saharan Africa?

It will have a tremendous impact. Zaire is the third biggest country on the continent. It borders eight or nine other countries. If you have instability in Zaire, you have instability in Sudan, in Uganda, you'll have refugees flooding into the Central African Republic, into Congo. Angola borders on the south.

Zaire's importance to Africa cannot be overstated. For example, it's got the hydroelectric potential to provide power to the entire continent and Western Europe. If Africa is going to pull itself out of its problems, a country like Zaire is a key factor. But it's one of the places that has constantly been on the "if" list -- if they had good government, if they could marshal their resources, if there weren't so much corruption.

Which extends to the army.

It's not an army. It's a disorganized rabble that's always existed mainly to plunder and loot. If you arrive at the airport in Kinshasa (the capital) itself, for example, the soldiers shake you down by demanding $100 to take you safely through customs and to your hotel. That's what soldiers have been reduced to. They've never been paid, especially the troops stationed out in the eastern provinces, far from Kinshasa. Mobutu's strategy always has been to make sure his elite presidential guard were well-paid and well-equipped, while the regular army was basically left to rot.

Next door, in Rwanda, we're seeing reports that the Hutus, who carried out the genocide of Tutsis in 1994 and who now have returned to Rwanda, have begun killing Tutsis again. What's going to happen there?

What's obvious is that there is not going to be any national reconciliation there for a very long time. And without national reconciliation, there's not going to be peace. So we're looking at yet another refugee crisis and yet another civil war somewhere down the road.

People forget that the Tutsis who took over the country in 1994 were people who had been displaced to Uganda during a civil war a generation earlier. These were the refugee kids coming back. So all we're seeing is history repeating itself. There will be this low-boil guerrilla war until the Hutus are able to arm themselves and come back. You might even see them displace the current government again. It's cyclical. These two tribes can't live together, and what the international community is trying to do is force them to live together through some kind of national reconciliation. And it's just not happening. There's too much hatred, too many massacres.

What brought you to have such a negative view of Africa today?

The violence -- although that's what we journalists cover. I would have been covering the same stuff if I had been in Yugoslavia. What stuck with me about Africa and what depressed me about the place were the stories of the simple people, women who would tell me how they lost their entire family, the husband and all their children, killed. And not just killed, but killed in front of them.

I heard this kind of stuff all across Somalia and Rwanda. I remember going to a hospital in one small town in Rwanda. I interviewed small children, many of whom had hands or parts of their faces chopped off by a machete, and they described to me how all of their brothers and sisters and their parents and their grandparents had all been hacked to death. And the only reason these poor kids had survived was because their attackers thought they were dead.

You walk away from that with just a kick in your gut. And it goes on and on. There were hundreds of stories like that that just came to a slow boil inside me. I wish I could say there was one epiphany that turned me off to Africa. But it was the accumulation of the little stories. Like the guy who walked into my office in Nairobi (Kenya) who had been wrongly imprisoned for doing nothing but trying to form an independent labor union. He had been a college professor. By the time I saw him he was a broken, beaten man. He'd been in prison for several years, subjected to very harsh treatment, forbidden to go back to university after he got out. He wasn't able to work, he had nothing to eat, he was hungry. And here was this brilliant man, made to suffer just because of the arrogance of one man, the president (Daniel Arap Moi), who didn't want anyone standing up to his authority.

There were horrendous stories like that, of individuals, good people who are trying to lead good lives and stand up for what they believe. Watching them get beaten down, watching the injustice and the savagery just wore on me after a while.

Did it have particular resonance for you because you were a black man watching all this happen on a black continent?

Exactly. It's black people doing it to each other, and that was obviously disturbing.

But is the savagery you saw in Africa any worse than the savagery in, say, the former Yugoslavia or the Middle East, or even the Persian Gulf? The U.S. may have killed from the air but still a lot of people got ripped apart.

In the Gulf War and in Bosnia, they dropped bombs on each other and it was gory and brutal. No question about that. But it takes a special mentality -- and I don't know where else you would see it in the 20th century -- to go into a house and chop off the limbs of everyone there and to pile the legs up on one side and the arms on the other and to leave your victim's torsos to slowly bleed to death.

It takes a certain kind of savagery to look your victim in the face and chop their Achilles tendons so they can't run and then torture them for a slow 20, 30 minutes, chopping off a limb here and there, watching them bleed, chopping off their nose, maybe leaving them on top of a pile of corpses to die, or in some cases, burying them up to their necks.

I know I'll get some criticism that my book only focuses on African tragedies, but there's something about the face-to-face brutality of chopping up your neighbor with a machete. We're not talking about the Taliban going into Afghanistan and hanging (former President) Najibullah. We're talking about if they had videotaped chopping Najibullah's ears off, having him beg for mercy and then chopping off another limb. There is a difference, and it makes me shudder. And it made me wonder: What is wrong with these people? How could human beings do this to each other? What kind of hatred is there in their hearts?

Not the kind of question that has endeared you to American blacks who view Africa through a more romantic prism.

Yes, but in fairness, it began before I wrote the book. I remember going to a convention of black Americans and African leaders in Gabon and meeting up with Payne Lucas, who runs an American aid group called Africare. I introduced myself and he stared at me for a moment and then asked, "So you're the one whose been writing all this bad stuff about Africa? You're black? I had no idea." It was as if, because I'm black, I shouldn't have been writing this stuff. The black magazine Emerge trashed my book, saying my articles about the dark side of Africa provided Congress with the fodder to cut aid programs to Africa. But then the review went on to say that it found the book "a sobering assessment of the critical issues facing Africa. It's a must read for those who regularly follow events there." In my view, the book's strongest point is that I've been there, and no one can knock down what I saw as some kind of fiction I'm making up.

Your accounts are not the first to suggest all is not well in Africa. How do you explain the romantic image American blacks still have of Africa?

Black Americans feel alienated in their own country, so for them Africa is this romanticized place where they can truly be in charge. On a basic level, it's a place where they don't have to worry about getting a taxicab at night or where women don't cross to the other side of the street because a black man is walking the other way. It's a reaction to racism in America, especially among the underclass. It's a different story with middle-class blacks. They want to see black countries succeed; they can hold their head higher in America because Nelson Mandela is president of South Africa.

The problem is, blacks are not walking around in Africa with their heads held high in dignity and pride. In most of these countries, the people are being suppressed and brutalized by their own police and dictators. What the L.A. Police Department does to blacks may be deplorable, but it's less deplorable than the way African police treat their own people in Kenya and Zaire.

But could one argue that while accepting the current grim reality, there is a certain cultural touchstone for American blacks to be found in Africa.

One might argue that, but I'm not sure what that cultural touchstone is. After three years of traveling around Africa, I found myself far more American. The culture of black Americans is American. They've contributed to music, to sports, to American literature and poetry and cinema. I'm not sure what is the African cultural touchstone that they see.

I liken my experience to that of some of my Chinese-American friends after they visit China. They go there thinking they're going to discover some long-lost roots, and they come back saying, "The place is dirty, my cousins live in shacks like peasants and I have nothing in common with them." Frankly, I think a black American and a Jewish American and a Southern white American and a Chinese American have more in common with each other than any one of them has with their roots overseas.

Perhaps one of the most controversial statements you make is when you essentially embrace the circumstances under which American blacks first came here. You write: "Thank God my nameless ancestor, brought across the ocean in chains and leg irons, made it out alive. Thank God I am an American."

I knew that would be a controversial statement to make, but it was well-thought-out. It's not something I wrote rashly. But as I wrote this book, I had to be honest, I had to ask myself whether, after having seen all the deprivations and brutality and horror in Africa, would I want to be born anywhere else but America? So yes, I'm glad I was born in America and not born in Africa, where the chances are that I would have been one of the forgotten victims. I think we lose sight of some of the liberties and freedoms that we do have here. We look at the deprivations of blacks in America but we don't look at the fact that blacks in America are still the most educated, the most free, the most affluent, the most powerful, the most represented of the blacks anywhere on earth. If you want to find the most black Ph.Ds, you don't look in Africa, you look in America. If you want to find most of the black journalists who can write freely, you're not going to find them in Africa. You're going to find them in America.

Are you concerned that right-wing groups will try to make you their poster boy?

That's my one great fear, that I will become the darling of the right wing. I can't help who is going to grab onto this. But the people who should be reading this book are on the opposite side of the spectrum. What I'm saying to them is: Don't romanticize this place where blacks can supposedly hold their head up high. You're already in the place where you can hold your head highest. I'm also saying to American blacks who want to segregate themselves from American society: Don't even think about it. That isn't going to do us any good.

At the same time, I'm saying to the right wing: You have to adopt blacks more into the American tapestry because we are part of America and we're not going anywhere else. And since we're not going anywhere, let's go back to the original dream of Dr. Martin Luther King. I hope that doesn't sound too hokey, but we really have to start being a multicultural country. That's the only way America is going to work.

By Jonathan Broder

Jonathan Broder is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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