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Tales of Africa - and Africans - at the edge

Squandering Eden: Africa at the Edge, by Mort Rosenblum and Doug Williamson. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 308 pp. $19.95. Why is Ethiopia headed into its second major drought in less than three years? Why are millions of people in Africa in need of emergency food? Why have many traditionally self-sufficient African countries become dependent on imports?

And what can the Western world do to help?

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These are the questions journalist Mort Rosenblum - in ``word for word'' collaboration with scientist Doug Williamson - seeks to answer in ``Squandering Eden: Africa at the Edge.''

Like many others, they found it easy to document what is wrong: Page after page of observations details the travesty that Africa's leaders and foreign diplomats, financial institutions, and development agencies have engineered in the name of ``development.''

Answering the second question is more difficult. Already, the authors note, efforts to arrest this situation have been grand: ``The trees slain in the service of printing advice to Africa,'' says Rosenblum, who wrote the text, ``if restored to life, would likely stretch from Mauritania to Mozambique.... Eighty thousand foreign `experts' help in Africa ... at an annual cost of $8 billion.... Some do hard, essential work. Many do not.''

Rosenblum and Williamson build a sound case for environmentally based solutions driven by the Africans themselves, with limited help from foreigners, by painting a panorama of the natural devastation and human meddling that have disturbed the continent's natural cycles and brought it to its knees. Together, journalist and scientist weave a tale of earth, wildlife, and man bound into one delicately laced whole.

This duo has produced a compelling blend of scientific analysis and human drama. And, unlike reams of Western-financed documents, their book does not get bogged down in historical, technical, or financial treatises. Nor does it oversimplify or localize issues.

Their tales of Africa are full of warm, perplexing, tragic characters. Among the most heart-wrenching are the nomadic peoples: Through Nax, a San (bushman) of the Kalahari, Rosenblum shows how dependent these people are on the natural resources that are being destroyed around them. And through Mohammad ag Hamed, one of the noble ``Blue Men'' of the desert, Rosenblum describes how ``desperation has overcome dignity'' for so many of Africa's peoples. In the end, he says, ``man's tampering with nature'' has doomed them ``to squat at the side of a road and wait for food relief trucks.''

As senior foreign correspondent for the Associated Press, Rosenblum has been posted to Africa off and on since the 1960s, and although he is now based in Paris, he spends the greater part of his time in Africa.

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``It doesn't matter that the world is tired of hearing about hunger in Africa,'' he said in a recent telephone interview. ``The issue [for the West] is not help or don't help. Anything you can do, you do.''

The book provides a description - though very brief on some of the smaller countries - of the challenges each nation faces, followed by key topical discussions. Initially, this seems logical. But because so many of the nations are experiencing the same devastation, at times the book seems repetitive. This repetition leaves an indelible impression on the reader, but it can also be wearying.

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