‘Continental Shift’, by Kevin Bloom and Richard Poplak
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Continental Shift is not a book you would turn to for answers, at least not simple ones. Instead of a pat thesis about whether Africa is rising or falling, succumbing to China or creeping towards consumerism, it offers a colourful, sprawling and picaresque insight into “Africa’s twenty-first century binaries”. Part road trip, part serious analysis, the book presents interlocking stories about a continent in flux.
The authors are South African whites of Jewish descent, a perspective that gives them a twin sense of attachment and detachment. They are, for example, less outraged by Robert Mugabe’s seizure of white land in Zimbabwe than western writers might be.
Returning white veterans from the second world war seized black land, they point out, just as Ndebele people, moving from the south, had long ago driven Shona from their pastures.
Their research over nine years took them to 16 countries. While some readers will be frustrated at their self-confessed lack of an overarching thesis, others will see their “fumbling” — their word — as welcome nuance.
In 2012, they write, Africa claimed “six of the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies”, yet it was also responsible for four of every 10 refugees. While per capita wealth had nearly doubled in just over a decade, one in four people remained malnourished. If 100,000 Africans own 80 per cent of the continent’s wealth, as one report found, can the continent really claim to be on the move, they ask? In a chapter on vast but thinly populated Namibia, they query the idea of the growing middle class.
Simeon, a young man, has scraped together the cash to buy a Chinese battery-powered machine, the Aculife, which through pulses and shocks is said to help with maladies in the body.
In a country bereft of formal healthcare, Simeon has used the contraption — both by offering $2.50 consultations and by recruiting salespeople — to improve his standard of living. Still, his house would “barely qualify as shelter in the west” and Simeon, part of a new, supposedly inspiring clan of entrepreneurs, typifies not so much a growing middle class as a “high-tension toggle between the formal and informal sectors”.
In Botswana, the authors find the same ambiguity, this time in a supposed model of democracy and development that has forged an ambiguous pact with Chinese dam builders.
In Nigeria, they explore a genuine “made in Africa” story. Nollywood is a low-budget film industry that pumps out movies to rapturous audiences.
But they wonder if Nollywood can make it to the next level and whether economic diversification can really be built on such foundations.
The writing is sometimes evocative, sometimes overdone. Nevertheless, there is the odd delicious phrase, such as when Lagos is described as a “city that brings to mind sucking on the tailpipe of a MiG”.
The conclusions, when they exist, are to be taken with a grain of desert sand. The description of Zimbabwe, whose currency has been supplanted by the Yankee dollar, as “the only truly liberated country on the continent” is dubious to say the least. Still, this book is more about the journey than the destination. And in those terms, it succeeds.
Continental Shift: A Journey into Africa’s Changing Fortunes, Kevin Bloom and Richard Poplak, Portobello Books, £14.99
The reviewer is Africa editor at the Financial Times
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