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Ambiguity and guilt: two views of the white experience in Africa

AFRICAN LIVES: WHITE LIES, TROPICAL TRUTH, DARKEST GOSSIP, AND RUMBLINGS OF RUMOR - FROM CHINESE GORDON TO BERYL MARKHAM, AND BEYOND by Denis Boyles New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. 225 pp. $18.95 THE VILLAGE OF WAITING by George Packer New York: Random House, Vintage Departures. 316 pp. $8.95 paperback

The history of whites in Africa is an ambiguous tale, a mix of high moral purpose and corruption, of good intentions and arrogance, of hopeful plans, improbable achievements, and elaborate failures. These two books suggest that in the modern variation, the ambiguity remains, even though colonial administrators may nowadays be relief agency directors, missionaries, perhaps Peace Corps volunteers.

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In ``African Lives,'' journalist Denis Boyles explores the white experience in Africa through a series of portraits, colonial and contemporary, skillfully juxtaposed.

In what was once Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Boyles moves from Cecil Rhodes's empire-building to Ian Smith talking himself out in an interesting interview.

In colonial Kenya, Boyles gives us Karen Blixen, Beryl Markham, the enterprising and accident-prone Lord Delamere. In the present day, Boyles draws a colorful portrait of Patrick (Gunner) Shaw - affiliated with an excellent boys' school, but famed, feared, and mythicized for his volunteer police work in Nairobi. (``He never sleeps,'' a diplomat tells Boyles. ``They cannot kill Patrick Shaw,'' says a student.)

In Sudan, Boyles depicts Maj. Gen. Charles George (Chinese) Gordon, an enigmatic, almost saintly figure, thought brilliant by some and mad by others in his own day and strangely maligned by posthumous biographers (such as Lytton Strachey in ``Eminent Victorians''). In today's Sudan, Boyles finds a modern version of Gordon: Staffan Domingo deMistura, director of the Sudan office of the United Nations' World Food Program, and ``either a high-living social butterfly, a wheeler-dealer, an egomaniac'' or ``a powerful antidote to official lethargy, a brilliant tactician with a genius for PR, a hardworking saint...,'' depending on whom you talk to.

``African Lives,'' Boyles says, is ``a mild blend of casual history, anecdotal anthropology, and personal journalism''; it thrives on gossip. But Boyles is well informed. In general, he handles the contemporary scene better than colonial territory, where the narrative tends to get swamped in detail. The modern portraits, supported by interviews, are fresher, more energetic, and the contemporary discussions more focused: His section on the ``Food Fight'' in Sudan is good, if disheartening.

These stories, years apart, suggest Africa still draws together white ``missionaries and managers,'' mavericks and misfits - a tradition he enjoys. The stories also suggest that among these enterprising whites, as in the past, intentions are often ambiguous, methods dubious, and influence hard to assess. It may be, as Boyles says, that Patrick Shaw is reminiscent of what was best in imperial society. The question remains: best for whom?

Resisting knee-jerk white guilt, Boyles writes in behalf of members of the ``white tribe'' in Africa - ``rivaled only by Asians in the antagonism they engender within the continent and unrivaled in the animosity they stimulate among those outside it.'' But he skirts a central issue: Whose interest does this tribe serve?

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Like Boyles, George Packer writes of white experience in Africa, in this case his own, as a Peace Corps instructor in the Togo village of Lavie.

Packer opens with his arrival in 1982 and closes with his abrupt departure in 1983. At one level, the book is a description of another culture and daily life within it. Step by step, evoking his own sense of discovery, he introduces villagers, customs, the world of Togo under the deadening influence of the dictator Eyadema. It is an absorbing narrative, informed by a fieldworker's knowledge, unencumbered by an anthropologist's constraints.

But at the heart of the book is Packer's personal story, his response to Africa and to his role there. An English teacher, he is appalled at what passes for education at school: Discipline takes precedence over learning, whipping is frequent. And the few who pass are unlikely to find jobs that use their intelligence or education.

Increasingly, Packer perceives villagers' lives as a monotonous round - ``You get up, you work, you sleep'' - with no chance for escape or improvement. He feels that the Togolese have been wrested from their traditions and have found nothing to replace them. As a white Westerner, he feels guilty for ``a century of promise and exploitation'' - a guilt exacerbated by the Togolese people's continued admiration for whites, their lack of blame or bitterness.

At the end of 1983, while on vacation in Barcelona before his last months of teaching, Packer meets a CIA agent who tells him that, of course, many CIA agents in West Africa are Peace Corps volunteers. The next day, Packer leaves for New York.

His story is skillfully written, neither melodramatic nor despondent. Other visions of what he saw - and other responses - are possible, but he conveys his own with honesty. Many who have done fieldwork in the third world may recognize elements of his experience, from the shock of cultural difference and doubting of one's purpose to rituals such as the BBC news at 6. Those who have not may come to understand why a young ``white foreigner who'd come on an enlightened mission, and once there managed to keep his eyes open, quickly lost his bearings in the face of it.''

Gail Pool teaches English at Emmanuel College.

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