Out of America:
A Black Man Confronts Africa
By Keith B. Richburg,
New Republic/Basic Books
257 pp., $24
"Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa," by Keith B. Richburg, is a personal story of the author's journey from the suburbs of Detroit, through the horrors of the civil war in Somalia, to the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda. Side trips into the corruption-ridden states of Zaire and Liberia are also included.
In effect, it is a look at the worst of the African continent and the momentous period it is struggling through - but not a comprehensive one.
When I finally accepted what this book is not, I settled back for a good though still frustrating read.
Richburg's book, like too much foreign reporting from Africa, falls into the common trap of seeing mostly the bad while virtually ignoring the good.
The author gives short shrift, for example, to the major democratic reforms that have taken place in most African countries since 1989.
Richburg was based in Nairobi, Kenya, for The Washington Post from 1991 to 1994.
He was frequently assigned to cover the famine and civil war in Somalia. As a result, he did not cover many other stories elsewhere. Somalia was a dangerous place to work, and Richburg was among those brave reporters who got the story out to the world day after day.
"Somalia, then, became the prism through which I came to view the rest of Africa," he writes. "It was to become the metaphor for my own disillusionment."
It is unfortunate that one country's madness (more accurately, the madness of some groups in some parts of the country) became his prism for a continent. Somalia represented some of the worst human behavior.
Between Somalia and Rwanda, his other main assignment, it is understandable how he wound up "cynical ... fed up, burned out, ready to go home."
Richburg is deft at recording detail, and has a keen sense of irony and a searingly honest way of relating his own reactions to events, including the time he lay down on his hotel-room bed in Sudan and cried after learning of the death of a fellow reporter.
He reveals some of the pitfalls of being a black American reporter in Africa. The Detroit native is mistaken by some authorities for a potentially hostile African, rather than an international reporter.
Richburg's challenge to black Americans - to be sure their appreciation for Africa is based on fact, not illusion - is the best part of the book. He also writes well about his own encounters with race as a youth and as a reporter.
But the view that Africa is bad, and the writer wants no part of it, permeates the pages at the expense of a balanced portrayal of the continent today.
Richburg berates African-Americans who do not condemn corruption in Africa. While provoking, his challenge is not enlightening, because it is based as much on a one-sided, negative view of Africa as the alleged one-sided, myopic view he accuses some black American leaders of having.
To turn one's back on Africa because of its worst examples is like turning one's back on the US because of occasional urban riots.
Among other positive aspects of Africa he brushes over are the arts, family life, the stubborn progress of many small farmers, the courage of many African journalists, grass-roots development efforts, and the courage of African proponents of democratic reforms.
Greed and corruption have delayed or even reversed the reforms in numerous countries, but there have been many noteworthy efforts by individuals to try to keep the promise of these reforms alive.
Richburg left Africa feeling not at all "African," and "quietly celebrating the passage of my ancestor who made it out [as a slave]."
One wonders if his feelings might be different if his assignments had allowed him to make a more balanced assessment of Africa.
* Robert Press, who spent eight years as a Monitor correspondent in Africa, is writing a book about the continent's unfinished journey toward freedom.