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Blaine Harden
Blaine Harden
Africa: Dispatches From a Fragile Continent
ISBN: 0393028828
Africa: Dispatches From a Fragile Continent
Blaine Harden spoke of his four year tenure as Washington Post sub-Saharan bureau chief, which is the basis for his book, Africa: Dispatches from a Fragile Continent. The book's format focuses on individual people and their life experiences in different African nations, including Zaire, Ghana, Kenya, Sudan and Nigeria. Mr. Harden described Africa as being "a painful part of the world for Westerners to come to grips with." He contended that Westerners "weep for it more out of pity than understanding." The book's purpose is to give the problems of Africa a human face that will bring Westerners a better understanding of what it means to be African.
Africa: Dispatches From a Fragile Continent
Program Air Date: November 11, 1990

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Blaine Harden, author of "Africa: Dispatches from a Fragile Continent." Why is it a fragile continent?
BLAINE HARDEN, AUTHOR, "AFRICA: DISPATCHES FROM A FRAGILE CONTINENT": Well, it's fragile because it had a very brief exposure to colonialism, probably the briefest in world history. The colonialists came into most of the continent in 1880, 1890 and, by and large, they were out in terms of controlling most of the territory of the continent by 1960, 1963, 1964. The place had a very short and rather violent exposure to modernity in terms of nationalism, in terms of the way it's divided. And it is in the process -- slow, jerky process of learning how to grow into the national grid that was imposed on it from -- from Europe.
LAMB: When were you there?
HARDEN: I was there from 1985 till 1989. I went for the famine in Ethiopia. I parachuted into the famine in Ethiopia, which was, luckily, the worst thing I saw in the continent because a million people were in the process of starving to death from famine-related illnesses -- dying. And I left in 1989.
LAMB: What were you doing there?
HARDEN: I traveled across the region -- sub-Sarahan Africa, 45 countries. I made it to about 26 countries -- I think 26. But I went to the big countries a lot. I went to Nigeria a lot, I went to Zaire, I went to Sudan 12, 13 times, Ethiopia, Kenya, Zambia. I was there to try to explain the politics and the economics of the place.
LAMB: Writing for?
HARDEN: Writing for The Washington Post.
LAMB: Did you enjoy it?
HARDEN: I loved it there, and the reason it was so good for me because I'm a feature writer and there wasn't a whole lot of news going on -- news as it's defined by The Washington Post. So I was given enormous freedom to travel, to do what I want. I spent three and a half weeks doing a story on the Zaire -- going down the Zaire River across Zaire. I spent a couple weeks being in a truck with rebels in southern Sudan. I went up-country in Ghana to see the family of a sociologist and to talk about the webs of the extended family in Africa and how it helps to hold the continent together when the governments don't work so great.
LAMB: What are you doing now?
HARDEN: I cover Eastern Europe. I went to Eastern Europe last year in July and I studied Polish for two months, and then I started chasing revolutions all across the region, and now I'm in the process of writing about adjustment, how do you convert from socialized -- from social, state-owned world to a privatized world, and it's a slow, painful process.
LAMB: How big is Africa -- the total of Africa in population?
HARDEN: It's about 670 million to 700 million. The population is hard to count and some countries don't like to count because they come up with more Muslims than the Christians want, more Christians than the Muslims want. That's particularly the case in the largest country in the region, which is Nigeria, and its population is anywhere between 100 million and maybe 125 million. They haven't counted for at least a decade.
LAMB: How many countries are there in Africa?
HARDEN: Well, in my region, there are 45, and as I said, most of them were carved out of the region by Colonial powers.
LAMB: But the other regions, what's the total number you have?
HARDEN: Total number? I don't know. There are five or six above the Sahara, and then there's South Africa.
LAMB: But you're talking about countries not included, like Egypt and Tunisia and Morocco and...
HARDEN: Yeah. Those weren't part of my region, no. That's part of the Islamic Muslim world.
LAMB: And South Africa was not a part of your region.
HARDEN: Was not part of my region. We -- my newspaper has someone there -- has two people there full time covering that country. And the middle is one person.
LAMB: In the area you covered, what percentage of the population was black?
HARDEN: The whole population was black except for aid donors and diplomats and in eastern Africa there is a large Asian community, Indian and Pakistan, who've been there for decades, and I think they may amount to 3 or 4 percent of some the countries -- Kenya, Tanzania -- maybe less than that.
LAMB: Before you went there to report on that part of the world, had you ever been there before?
HARDEN: No, I hadn't been. I'd always wanted to go, but I've never been there.
LAMB: How did you change your thinking about what Africa was? What's the difference between before and after?
HARDEN: Well, what I learned slowly was how different Africa is than the United States. I flew into Africa for the famine, and I begin this book by talking about an interview I had with a mother whose baby had just died in one of these camps in the Highlands. And I talked to her about where her husband was, how she came to have no food, what were her prospects for the future. And she stood at attention with her dead child beside her in the arms of a hospital attendant and wept and she would have stood there all day if I'd asked her to. She thought I was a doctor or a policeman. I was this strange white man with sunblock on my face and a blue baseball hat. And the distance was really the same distance, I think, that one has in looking at Africa from the living room of your house. And what I tried to do in my time in Africa was to bridge that gulf by getting to know the people and getting to know the systems that organized their lives -- their extended families, their tribes -- and to understand how the government, how the leaders of the government have not really served their interests very well. That was the major political thrust of my time there, was to understand how the big man, dictatorial style of rule works, why it exists and why it must be changed for the continent to have a chance.
LAMB: This is a very general question, but how were you treated during your four years there?
HARDEN: Well, I was banned for life from Samuel Kenyon Doe's Liberia. My life has lasted longer than his, so I can go back there now. I was thrown out of Kenya for about eight hours until President Daniel arap Moi had better ideas and decided to give me a reprieve, and I stayed for two more years after that. I was ordered out of Ethiopia, and there was also a reprieve on that order. And the reason I was banned or ordered out was because I wrote stories that challenged the government, and in almost all the countries, with the exception of Nigeria and Botswana, you cannot criticize the leadership in any way that's known to Western reporters. If you do, you're labeled as a servant of foreign masters, an enemy of the people, and you're tossed out.
LAMB: If you had to pick a spot to go visit again, one spot, what would be your first choice?
HARDEN: It would be Kenya, because Kenya is beautiful and I know I have friends there. Unfortunately, I think with the publication of this book, I will not be welcome in Kenya because a lot of it is critical of the current president there.
LAMB: What's your biggest criticism of that president?
HARDEN: He has a country that has a future. It has an infrastructure, it has educated people, it has a huge tourist industry. It has many resources that could be built on to build a modern nation. It could be a manufacturing base for all of east Africa, but Moi is a typical big man, and he needs to buy or coerce loyalty to stay in power. Consequently, new investors -- everybody who has money has to pony up to him a percentage -- to him and his system, the system that he creates, in order to survive there. So the future's being stolen from the country. Kenya has this extraordinary population growth rate that was measured a couple years ago at 4.1 percent.
LAMB: How big is the country?
HARDEN: It's now 22 million. It will be 44 million in 17 years. And so there's a narrow window of opportunity in Kenya, and it needs to develop its courts, its legislature. It needs to have a civil society, which it, in fact, was building prior to Daniel arap Moi's coming to power. He has sickened that civil society, weakened it, and I think that the future of Kenya is very dim unless there's a change there.
LAMB: How did he get power?
HARDEN: Well, he was chosen by his predecessor, Jomo Kenyatta, because he was considered to be not very bright and he was considered to be a person from a small tribe that would not interrupt the tribal balance in the country. The major tribe there is Kikiyu, which was Kenyatta's tribe. The second largest is Luo, which was a tribe of traditional opponents of Kenyatta. Moi was chosen because he was from a small tribe that was not a factor. But Moi is very cunning. He has a great gut instinct for the political realities, how to balance and play off tribes against each other, and he has survived for -- now it's 11 years.
LAMB: In the 45 countries that you covered, how many of them have democracies?
HARDEN: Well, I think that there's one right now, Botswana.
LAMB: What kind of a democracy is it?
HARDEN: It's a democracy it's a lucky country. It sits on a mountain of diamonds, probably the largest mountain of diamonds in the world. It has one ethnic group, so it's homogeneous. It's not densely populated, but it's...
LAMB: What's the ethnic group?
HARDEN: It's the Botswana people. They have a tradition going back into the ancient times of listening to criticism and responding to it in the traditional tribal councils. Leaders, elite have to listen to be respected, to continue to hold their position. And all those things -- wealth, tradition of democracy, homogeneity of ethnic group -- makes it possible for that country to have real democratic elections, real representation and an equitable use of the resources of the country. There are small projects in which pastoral people are helped with extension services -- - health care is universal and good. Schools are good there. It is a country with an unlimited future, and it also has money. Most of these countries do not have those kind of resources.
LAMB: What's the population of Botswana?
HARDEN: Oh, it's small. I think it's just over a million.
LAMB: Are any other countries of the 45 even close to democracy?
HARDEN: Yeah. The most important point I make in the book is that it's not impossible for Africa to build a civil society where people have respect for the law, where people believe in the law, where people believe in institutions of democracy, where there is a level field for business to operate on. It's not impossible for that to happen and it's, in fact, happening slowly and hesitantly and sometimes it seems to completely disappear, but then it comes back. In Nigeria, the biggest country with 110 million, 120 million people, whatever it is, they had the catharsis of a terrible civil war, where it was more or less accepted by the people that tribal identity, tribal hegemony will not work. It costs too much. It ruins the economy and kills too many people. So that's been accepted there. They've gotten over that hurdle. Nigeria is a major world-class oil exporter. It sits on one of the largest seas of natural gas in the world. They have resources. They have the beginnings of a democratic culture. They have enormously energetic and enormously talented people, many of whom, with the oil earnings of the '70s, received educations from some of the best universities in the world. Things are happening in Nigeria that are hopeful.
LAMB: Chapter six, The Good, The Bad and the Greedy -- you mentioned earlier the big man. I want to read some of how you label the big man, but what is a big man?
HARDEN: A big man is a non-elected leader who stays in power by coercing or buying loyalty.
LAMB: Let me read a little bit of what you wrote. `His face is on the money. His photograph hangs in every office in his realm. His ministers wear gold pins with tiny photographs of him on the lapels of their tailored pinstriped suits. He names streets, football stadiums, hospitals and universities after him. He carries a silver inlaid ivory mace or an ornately carved walking stick or a fly whisk or a chiefly stool' -- I can go on. `He's called doctor, conqueror, teacher, big elephant, wise old man.' How many big men are there in Africa?
HARDEN: Almost every country has a big man, with the exception of the two I mentioned. There are a few others. Mauritius, which is an island in the Indian Ocean, does not have a big man and they've actually had elections where the person in power has lost. That hasn't happened anywhere else in the continent. It is the pattern when the Colonial powers that divided up Africa left states that were run from the top down, although the people who took over in the '60s and the late '50s espoused ideals of democracy -- in fact, enshrined them in their constitutions. They ran their nations in the same way, from the top down.
LAMB: There's more here. "His every pronouncement is reported on the front page. He sleeps with the wives and daughters of powerful men in his government. He shuffles ministers without warning, paralyzing policy decisions as he undercuts the pretenders to his throne. He scapegoats minorities to shore up popular support. He bans all political parties except the one he controls. He rigs elections." Sounds like somebody you want to get to know. Did you know any of them?
HARDEN: My closest encounter with one of these men was with Daniel arap Moi in Kenya. He made a visit to the United States in 1987, and while he was here, I wrote a story that was on the front page -- the top of the front page of The Washington Post that said "Torture Alleged in Kenya." And it went on to detail how enemies of Moi, people that he said were problems, were arrested, were kept in rooms where they were tortured; they were kept without clothes in rooms that had about this much water, no bathroom facilities, and they were taken out every few days for interrogation, beaten with sticks and whips and clubs and chairs. And the story also contained an anecdote about a woman whose husband had been killed by the police and even his death was not reported to her.

This was an incredible embarrassment to the president of Kenya when he was in the United States. It had been the first time he'd been here for a number of years, and the Kenyans, who remain a major recipient of American aid, were looking for some more money when they came -- Moi was looking for some more money. So this story humiliated him. He took it personally and he basically short-circuited his trip and came home. He arrived in Kenya and he said, "There are certain newspaper writers who are using dirty words about the country. They don't respect the hospitality." This is when an order was written to toss me out of the country. The order was not executed for about two months. I don't know why. I think because he'd been advised by the people who give aid to Kenya that it's not a good idea to toss out American reporters or Western reporters. In any case, I was given this order and Moi reprieved me.

The next day I went to work, and I got a call and it was Moi on the phone. And he said, "Moi here. Do you know where Statehouse is? Would you come by tomorrow at 8:00? Can you find the place?" And I said, "I can find the place." And he laughed and hung up the phone. And I went there the next day and in my encounter with him, I saw a bit about how he runs his country. I knocked on the door at 8:00 sharp and he opened it -- double doors, leather-covered -- and he let me in. He looked at my notebook and grimaced, and he said, "Sit down." And I sat down and he said, "Would you like to stay in Kenya?" And I said, "Yes, I would very much like to stay in Kenya. I like it here." And he said, "OK." And he picked up the phone and he said, "Get me Ncharo," who was a man who was the principal immigration officer, who signed my expulsion order. And the man came on the phone in about a quarter of a second and Moi said to this man, "Mr. Harden, you know the one you were throwing out, give him one year." And I held up my fingers like this, and he said, "Give him two years from me," and he hung up the phone, and this is how decisions were made about immigration policy. And then I said, "May I ask you some questions about torture in your country?" And he said, "Yes. There's never been a torture in my country. I am a much more moderate and tolerant man than Mr. Mobutu in Zaire or Mr. Museveni in Uganda." And I said, "Well, why are you so critical, so sensitive of criticism from the outside?" "I am not sensitive to criticism from the outside," he said. And after about 15 minutes of my questions and his blanket denials, he was getting angrier and angrier, and he said, "That's it. Goodbye." And I left. But I stayed for two more years in Kenya.
LAMB: Did you write tough stories about him?
HARDEN: I wrote as tough as I could. I was convinced, the longer I was there, that what he was doing to Kenya was terrible. Kenya -- the legislature there is a very interesting example. Under Kenyatta and in the first years of the country, the legislature worked. Political scientists -- African political scientists wrote many papers about how it was possible -- if you didn't represent the interests of your people in the coffee-growing area or the pineapple-growing area, you were tossed out. In some years, as many as 64 percent, 65 percent of the sitting members of the legislature were tossed out. The ballots were, by and large, fair. Kenyatta, who was president at the time, ran the country as he wanted to do. The legislature did not dictate foreign policy or the way the budget worked, but local government and a representative national body of local interest worked.

The court system, an inheritance from the British, worked as well. The British sent judges there. And the judges taught African British common law, and British common law was enforced and there was a certain degree of equity in the way civil society worked and the rules for the operation of business. Under Moi, the courts were bastardized. Probably the best example of that is what happened with the principal judge of the court system. This man, Cecil Miller, was appointed by Moi to make sure that there were no decisions that went against the interest of the presidency. The chief justice was a drunk. He was a poor lawyer, to say the least.

And at one moment, while I was living in Nairobi, he came to work very drunk, got up, left his office, went out into the hallway, assaulted one of the guards in the hallway, ran out in the parking lot, took off his pants below his knees and was trying to get them off, and he was screaming (Swahili spoken), which was the philosophy, which is the Swahili name for -- the slogan of -- President Moi, which is "Footsteps." And a senior official in the government came down and got him into the back of a car and drove him home. And this is the man who's in charge of the legal system in Kenya. And this is after the legal system was really one of the best in Africa, and the court system -- I mean, the legislature now is such that those who are thought to have views opposing Moi don't win. They simply don't win. The free ballot, the secret ballot in primary elections, has been replaced by the queuing ballot, which Moi says is a more African way of voting. But in the queuing, you have to stand up in public behind the candidate of your choice. And in doing so, you're subject to tremendous pressure from the government. The government knows how you voted, and it can punish you accordingly or, more importantly, can make you think that you will be punished accordingly. And so the legislative debate has become absurd and empty. People get up and talk at great lengths about what a gifted, child-loving, brave man President Moi is.
LAMB: Blaine Harden, author of "Africa: Dispatches From A Fragile Continent." Where did you grow up?
HARDEN: I grew up in Moses Lake, which is a small town in central Washington state.
LAMB: Where did you go to school?
HARDEN: I went to school at Gonzaga University in Spokane, which is about 110 miles away from Moses Lake. I went to graduate school at Syracuse.
LAMB: Studying what?
HARDEN: Studied philosophy and political science at Gonzaga, and at Syracuse I studied journalism.
LAMB: And what did your parents do?
HARDEN: My father is a retired construction welder, a member of the Plumbers and Fitters Union. He worked on Grand Coulee Dam, Hanford Atomic Works, those kind of places. My mother was a grocery clerk and a mother.
LAMB: Where did you get your interest in all this?
HARDEN: Well, I went to school -- -I went to college, and I read and I got interested in faraway lands. I remember as a kid, in college, I didn't believe that they existed. I really didn't. I sometimes would go to bed thinking that Walter Cronkite and these other people were putting together a big elaborate deception; that they were photographing sets. And the world outside of what I knew wasn't there. And I always wanted, particularly in Africa, to go to see if it was there.
LAMB: When you left Syracuse, where'd you go to work?
HARDEN: At the Trenton Times, which is owned by The Washington Post. And then I came to The Post about two years later.
LAMB: How long have you been at The Post?
HARDEN: Eleven years.
LAMB: Other than Africa and now in Eastern Europe, where have you reported from?
HARDEN: The United States.
LAMB: Strictly the United States?
LAMB: You mentioned that Kenya would be your favorite country to go back to in Africa. Of the 45 in sub-Saharan Africa, which would be the one you could care less if you ever see again?
HARDEN: Well, I don't think I could say I could care less if I see any of the countries I was at where I got to know the people and understand some of the way they lived. I would not particularly want to go to Liberia now, because it is incredibly dangerous and chaotic and the future of the country seems to be very dark for many years. Sudan, which is the largest country on the continent, which has this split between an Arab Muslim north and a black Christianized south, has terrible problems right now. It has a government that is strongly Islamic, strongly confrontational with the Christian south. And the civil war there, which began in the early '80s, continues, and there's a threat of really severe famine in southern Sudan in the next 12 months, as severe as Ethiopia was. And it's very difficult to move in that country as a Westerner because you're followed, you're arrested. I had a colleague from the Financial Times who was recently jailed for several weeks there. So I wouldn't want to go there, although I would love to go there to see what's going on.
LAMB: In your book -- I think this is -- at least for Americans a famous Sudanese, this gentleman right here. Is he from Sudan?
HARDEN: Yes. He's from southern Sudan.
LAMB: Who's the guy with the basketball in his hand, by the way?
HARDEN: A short balding guy from Moses Lake. I'm 6'1", and Manute Bol is considerably taller than I am.
LAMB: Manute Boll.
HARDEN: Yes. He is 7'6 3/4". He's a Dinka from southern Sudan, from near the town of Gogrial, and he was about 19 years old and tending cows for his father and for his family, when a cousin, who played basketball in Khartoum, the capital, saw his picture in a paper. A local politician had gone to the town, and the picture appeared in the Khartoum paper. And the cousin thought, `Any cousin of mine who's that tall should take an interest in basketball.' And over the next two years, they taught Manute how to play basketball. The first time he dunked a basketball -- because it isn't a very big jump if you're 7'6 3/4" -- he caught his teeth in the net, ripped out two of them, and that piqued his interest in the game. And he continued to learn. And besides being tall, he is a good athlete in the sense he has terrific timing for blocking shots. And over the course of the next three years and in Khartoum, he absolutely dominated basketball. You couldn't score -- you simply could not score a point if he was being alert.

And he came to the United States not speaking a word of English, never having gone to school, having a tenuous grasp of Arabic at the time, speaking only Dinka well, not being able to write his name in any language. But Manute Bol, who's now playing in the NBA, recently traded to the '76ers. He is an exceptionally talented, exceptionally bright and wonderful guy. And his trajectory, out of the swamps in southern Sudan to the NBA, to making $1/2 million a year, whatever he makes now, there's really been nothing like it in the history of Sudan and really nothing like it in Africa, because the way he grew up -- he did not have any education. He did not have any preparation for getting out of there, and he was just tall, and he lucked out and he came out. He is so smart that he's managed the transition.

When I came and interviewed him, I went to Atlanta with Manute in a plane, which is an interesting experience because he fits very uncomfortably in any plane, in any seat, any class. We went to do a chicken commercial for Church's Fried Chicken in Atlanta, and we walked through the airport and it was a shocking sight to be with him, because people would just curse under their breath when they saw him because his height -- his height is breathtaking. But he took it in stride. He has taken it in stride, but at the same time, he was incredibly lonely. He did not have a wife at that time. Attempts at matchmaking had failed in Dinka land, and he told me that American girls don't like to clean and that he was ashamed as a Dinka man that he was unmarried and didn't have any children. He has since gone back to Sudan a couple times and, with the help of a good friend, he met a Dinka girl who does like to clean, apparently, and they're married and they have at least one child now.
LAMB: Is it usual to be 7'6" tall in Sudan?
HARDEN: Well, it is. Dinkas are tall. They're probably the tallest people in Africa; 6'5", 6'7" is common. Seven feet is not unusual. I mean, it's not remarkable, but 7'6 3/4" is as tall as any Dinka that I ever met said that they could ever remember seeing anybody. But he's an extremely tall person by Dinka standards.
LAMB: Why did you pick him to write about and feature in your book?
HARDEN: Sudan is a very hard place to come to grips with. It's huge. Its problems include...
LAMB: What's the population?
HARDEN: Twenty million to 25 million. But it is vast. It is as big as the United States east of the Mississippi. Its problems include -- I covered everything there from famine, to flood, to infections -- to infestations of locusts, to civil war. Its major exports include gum arabic, the basis of chewing gum. It's really one of the essentials, along with camel meat. It has oil, but the civil war in the south prevents the oil from being exploited. It really never has been pumped out of there. It's a potentially rich, potentially fertile place that could be the breadbasket of the Arab world. And, in fact, that phrase was used oftentimes, but its political problems are such that that has never been exploited. I use Manute because he is a fairy-tale counterpoint to what's happened to his country. His extraordinary success is inversely proportional to the extraordinary suffering of his country. He got out of there at a narrow window of time between civil wars. He never would have survived -- if he had left southern Sudan two or three years later, he couldn't have left. There was a civil war. He would have been a very tall target.
LAMB: I know this isn't a book about sports, but it is interesting what you write about him, once he got in this country, and he couldn't speak English. Not a word of English?
HARDEN: He said, "I was not speaking English, not one word." And he learned English very quickly. He went to Cleveland, the University of Cleveland -- no, Cleveland State. He went to Cleveland State and studied English, but since he had never gone to school and could barely read and write and could barely speak English, he was not a good candidate for college admission. He studied there for a number of months and then transferred to the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut.
LAMB: All along, they're trying to get him onto a basketball team.
HARDEN: Right. He went there, and he got enrolled.
LAMB: Bridgeport.
HARDEN: Bridgeport. Somehow he got enrolled. I don't know how much he learned. But he started playing basketball, and he became an unbelievable presence for that team. I talked to the coach; he said that "Nobody has had a greater impact on sports at my college than Manute." He was blocking 15 to 18 shots a game, average, which means that he's totally dominated, and they did very well. But he couldn't stay there for very long because the NCAA started to investigate and say, you know, what is this guy doing? He's not really a very educated person. So he left after one year, and he joined the Providence Seagulls, I think, for a year, and then he was drafted by the Washington Bullets.
LAMB: You say that he gave a lot of his money back to the people in Sudan?
HARDEN: Yeah. It's very important to understand that it's so typical of what is a necessity of life in Africa. Manute earned -- he probably is the highest-paid Dinka in the history, and because his people -- his family have been dislocated by the war, by the fighting in his region, they are homeless. They don't have the cattle, which is the basis of wealth. He has built two homes in Khartoum -- or purchased two homes, and he has many people living in those houses -- his relatives and villagers and tribesmen. And I talked to his manager about a year ago, and he said that Manute sends home a good part of his money to keep these people alive. And he said that this is his responsibility, and "We Dinka tribe, we stay together," he says. And, you know, he's making a lot of money, but he is still a Dinka.
LAMB: How'd you get around Africa?
HARDEN: Mostly by airplane. When I drove, it sometimes took a very, very long time.
LAMB: Were you by yourself most of the time?
HARDEN: Most of the time. I did travel with a colleague, a German newspaper reporter from Suddeutsche Zeitung. And we did some of our longest trips together, and it was great company.
LAMB: How are the airlines?
HARDEN: Well, Ethiopian Airlines, ironically, is a superb airline. It keeps its schedule. It has new equipment, Boeing 767s. It does very well. Other airlines are frightening. Kenya Airlines, which had been one of the best -- probably the best in east Africa -- has a terrible problem with maintenance, and I remember trying to go to Sudan several times and getting an hour or two out of the airport, and the old 727 started to rattle and they turned back and went home. I never was on a plane that crashed. My successor, Neil Henry -- I think his first flight to Sudan, his plane made a crash landing in Addis.
LAMB: Why do you do this?
HARDEN: Well, for one thing, I'm not a big person on risking my life, and it wasn't dangerous. It wasn't dangerous.
LAMB: Well, let me jump in and ask you -- I mean, being with President Moi in Kenya...
LAMB: ...wasn't risking your life?
LAMB: Not a chance.
HARDEN: No. President Moi is not a great person, but he's a smart man, and he knows, as any leader in Africa knows, that you cannot take the life of an American journalist and continue to get money from the Western world. And Moi's government is absolutely dependent on Western tourists and on Western aid. It's about 66 percent of the income of the country, hard currency income.
LAMB: Say that again.
HARDEN: It's about -- 66 percent of the hard currency that flows into Kenya comes from aid and tourists. And to do anything dangerous, other than to scold, any Westerner is very bad policy.
LAMB: What's...
HARDEN: And I have that shield. I mean, The Washington Post is a wonderful shield to have in Africa or anywhere.
LAMB: What are the living conditions for someone like you as you moved around in those 20-some countries?
HARDEN: Well, they went from very good in Nairobi, which has this long Colonial tradition of comfortable living and a Highland climate surrounded by flowering trees and big lawns and all that stuff. It was very nice there -- telephones that worked, nice sweet water to drink, to truly, truly terrible. I remember sleeping in the highlands of Ethiopia during the famine in a room that was about the size of a closet, and the walls were crawling with bugs, and the bed was broken. And I had a colleague from Belgium, and we were sharing the same broken bed. And it was very cold, and there were no blankets. And that's about as bad as it got. But that was just for one night. Usually, the accommodations were better than that.
LAMB: What about the expense? I think you wrote at one point in the game, Nigeria's the most expensive country in the world or...
HARDEN: Yeah. It was. Nigeria -- because of its oil wealth, in the early '70s, the Naira was really worth a lot of money, because it was sort of a manifestation of $100 billion coming into a government-controlled economy. So the Naira was worth about $1.30, really, in real-world value. Over the years, as that oil money was frittered away -- most of it -- $100 billion 10 years later turned into $18 billion of debt, which is shocking. But at the same...
LAMB: Well, where did it go?
HARDEN: It went into the pockets of a lot of people. It built some highways, and it built some universities. It provided education to the Nigerian elite, which is useful now. But a lot of it was stolen, as the Nigerians will admit, will curse themselves for having stolen it. It was a precious inheritance, which will probably never come in the same size again. And they frittered it away. And I forget what I was just saying.
LAMB: You were talking about the cost of living -- for, you know, a tourist in...
HARDEN: The Naira was immensely valuable, OK, but then as the economy went to hell, it became one of many overvalued African currencies, but the Nigerian manhood was somehow embodied in their currency, and they wouldn't devalue it for a long time. And when I first went there, the situation was absurd. The legal exchange rate was one Naira equaled $1.30. The black market was one Naira equals about a quarter. So if you were changing money legally and going into a restaurant to buy something that had a foreign component to it, like Chinese food -- a Chinese restaurant, at the legal exchange rate, could cost you $125. A Chinese meal at a Chinese restaurant with one beer could cost you $100, $80 to $125, depending on how much fish you had or that sort of thing. A hotel room was very expensive. A cab across town could be 50 bucks. And it really was the most expensive city in the world.

They have been blessed with some better government. Some intelligent economic changes have happened there. They're privatizing such things as their oil industry, which is incredible, considering this is the major earner for the country. They're starting to play it straight, and because wages are cheap in Nigeria, it can grow food, it's now one of the cheaper capitals in Africa. Good value for your money there now.
LAMB: Eastern Europe, where you are now...
LAMB: Where are you stationed?
HARDEN: In Warsaw.
LAMB: Compared to Africa, better story, more fun, less fun? What's...
HARDEN: Well, it's interesting; Eastern Europe is so much more developed than Africa, and Americans who are looking at -- you know, they follow the news and they think, "Well, this is another troubled part of the world." Eastern Europe's problems are not even in the same ballpark as Africa's. My feeling is that Eastern Europe will have problems over the next decade, but they will climb into a certain kind of Western European prosperity over the next decade, where that's not going to happen in Africa for 50 or 60 years, I don't think. As far as the story's concerned, of course, last year during the extraordinary spate of revolutions, it was exhilarating and unbelievable, historic, as we kept writing in our stories. But Africa, for me, has a place in my heart, and it's also more interesting as a writer. In this book, I tried to do a little bit more than just talk about politics and government and stuff. I try to give a sense of what the people are like and how they live. And in Africa, because it is exotic, it's different, and it's accessible, you walk into someone's house, and they'll tell you what they're doing, how they live, what they believe in. You can do a lot of sociological journalism there without a whole lot of difficulty.
LAMB: What's this picture?
HARDEN: That's Kwasi Odoro. He's a sociologist. My last year there I wanted to find out how the African family works. I went to Ghana. I talked to many people, and I found out that Kwasi Odoro was going home to see his folks. He lived up country, about 150 miles up in the cocoa-growing regions of Ghana. So I went up there with him and spent several days. And I got to know his parents, his first wife, his second wife, and all the hangers-on.
LAMB: What's this?
HARDEN: The people you see over on the right were the various cousins of a sort, as he called them, who were living in his house, paying no rent. He was a university professor, and that's his house there. That's his wife over in the corner on the left with the baby. These people had come several years before the pictures were taken and were still living there. He was giving them a piece of his prosperity, which is the way Africa works. If somebody has a job, if somebody has an income, they are honor-bound to share it. And in a country where the government afflicts rather than governs, it's a good way of redistributing wealth.
LAMB: Who's this?
HARDEN: That's S.M. Otieno. He is the central figure in what I think is probably the most interesting chapter in the book. He died of a thoroughly modern illness, hypertension and a heart attack. And then his tribe, the Luo tribe, came gunning for his body. The Luo believe that unless a member of their tribe is buried properly in accordance with tribal ritual, that they can be haunted for years, that they could have car wrecks and birth defects, dead animals, that people could drown in Lake Victoria. So they wanted to bury the body near the lake where he was born. The lady on the right with the scowl on her face is S.M. Otieno's widow, Wambui. She's the Kikuyu, the largest tribe. She comes from a very powerful, historically important family in Kenya. She wanted to bury the body in Nairobi.

She said that "We Africans are modern," that her husband had wanted to be buried in Nairobi, where he lived. And she could not come to an agreement with S.M. Otieno's tribal relatives. So there was a court case, and it was the most extraordinary court case while I was living there. It lasted for six months, and the fundamental -- the decisive point in that trial was when the young man there pictured, one of Otieno's sons testified in the court that the Luo people were primitive and lazy, which is what he said his father had told him. The court -- throughout this long trial, while S.M. Otieno's body was on ice in the morgue, the Luo packed the courtroom. They were by far more demonstrative and -- and emotional than the Kikuyu.

When he said this, that the Luo were lazy, the courtroom was filled with hatred, and even the judge, who is of another tribe, he was shocked by this. And I think that was the decisive moment in the trial. This young man had said that he belonged to what I think is an almost fictional brand of African, the non-tribal African, and he insulted his -- his elders to their face and with impunity. The judge couldn't tolerate that, and that was one of the reasons, I think, why the decision went against the widow -- that and the interference from President Moi, who didn't want the Luo to bust up Nairobi if they lost. And the body was taken back to Lake Victoria and buried. And the widow said, `I'm going back to Kikuyu land with a lot of bitterness.'
LAMB: As you've been promoting your book and traveling around, have you gone to a lot of cities in the United States?
HARDEN: No, I've just come back from Poland. I'm going on from here.
LAMB: Do you get any sense of the conversations you've had already what people are interested in here? And are they interested in Africa at all?
HARDEN: I think there is an interest in Africa. I mean, it's reflected in the popularity of movies like "Out of Africa" and in the continuing sales of Karen Blixen's books and the biographies of her stories about travels in the quote, "dark continent." There's a mystery about it and an exoticness to it that continues, I think, to fascinate people. What I tried to do in the book is to use that as a hook; it's there, it's wonderful and it's enchanting, but it's not the whole story. And I try to use that as the hook to tell people that Africa is quickly becoming a big country, a big continent full of freeways and mosques, breweries, toxic waste, and the problems of Africa are not likely to be all that much different from the rest of the Third World. And that's why it needs to have a governmental system that works.
LAMB: On Page 281, you stuck a little needle in Lance Morrow and Time magazine. Let me read a little bit here. You say, "Time magazine devoted its most extensive African coverage of the 1980s, 20 pages of purple prose and colored pictures, to an essay that rhapsodized about lions in the tall grass, sagacious pastoral warriors, and miles and miles of bloody Africa. Time essayist Lance Morrow wrote, "Africa is a comprehensive great birth, great death, the beginning and the end. The themes are drawn like the vivid abstract hide of the zebra in patterns of the absolute. The first question to ask is whether the wildlife of Africa can survive."' That bothered you.
HARDEN: Yeah. As I say in the next sentence, I think the first question to ask about Africa is: Can the people survive? When Europeans came to North America, there wasn't somebody from Time magazine asking, "Will the buffalo survive?" And I think there's some comparison there. The animals are a resource. They should be preserved. They should be used by the people there. They bring tourists. They bring hard currency. They bring industry. They bring development. If they're conserved and used properly, as has been the case, actually, in Kenya in many ways. It's been an important resource for the country. But they're not the fundamental essence of Africa. What's really interesting about Africa is its short exposure to Colonial influence, its rapid-fire conversion from a traditional society into a modern society.

Every African has his roots in the village, and it's his true home -- or most Africans have their roots there. They're torn between the village values, the values of their parents, and the values of what they learned in school, between thinking about the ancestral influence, the spiritual influence of those who just died, the recently departed are very, very important in African traditional religion. And at the same time they read the Bible or the Koran. They have competing values inside themselves, all across the continent. And this process is working itself out day after day. The mess that one sees from a distance, the fact that Africa is the only region of the world to be poor 30 years -- it is poorer now than it was 30 years ago. Its health standards are lower. It's less free. You cannot say that about any other region of the world, any other broad region. It has experienced unique failure. But inside every African right now, they are wrestling with this incredible transition, and that's what the book is about.
LAMB: What, if anything, do the Africans who you came in contact with think about the black American now wanting to be called an African-American?
HARDEN: To tell you the truth, it's not an issue. I...
LAMB: Do they know it happened?
HARDEN: I think some of the people who read Time magazine or whatever have heard about it, but this is not an important issue. I think that it is as hard for black Americans to go to Africa and get to the bottom of what's going on there as it is for white Americans. I don't think you have a particular advantage by a color, because it is so incredibly different. And black correspondents from the United States have gone, and I think their problems in understanding are really not much different than mine.
LAMB: What language did you speak all throughout the coverage?
HARDEN: I speak English quite well, and I speak French really, really badly. I spoke it much better when I got there, but my first two years were covering famine in Ethiopia and Sudan, and I didn't really get into French Africa until I had forgotten a good part of it. So mostly I used English and a little of my idiot's French.
LAMB: How were the Africans in the English language? Did you have trouble with English anywhere?
HARDEN: No. No. In the countries where English is the national language...
LAMB: Where is that, by the way?
HARDEN: The most important ones are in Nigeria and Ghana, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Kenya, and it's widely spoken in most of East Africa and Zimbabwe. And French is the normal language in most of West Africa. What's happening in Africa is that English has been there long enough so that it's being used now with real poetic power. And there has been an emerging generation, actually. This is the second generation of Africans who write masterfully, and one of the things I began to do in my last two years there was read some of the fiction. I recommend, to anyone who hasn't read him, Jinowa Cheby, who's written three or four incredibly important novels about Africa about Colonialism, about this process of change that goes on inside their soul and which makes them unhappy. He is a great writer, and I actually quote him several times in my book.
LAMB: I can't believe it. I just looked up and saw we're almost out of time. This hour has gone too fast. Howard Simonds, deceased former managing editor of The Washington Post -- you write in the acknowledgment section that he twice helped you to the newspaper. "Once when I was out of college," and then you say, "the second time when I left the paper in a snit." I've got to ask you what that snit was.
HARDEN: I didn't get a promotion that I thought I deserved, and so I quit. And then I came crawling back about nine months later and said, "I want to go overseas. Please, please, please." And they took me back.
LAMB: Where did you go for those nine months?
HARDEN: I went to work for The Washingtonian magazine in Washington, which was a good job, but it wasn't being overseas, which I wanted to go.
LAMB: There's another interesting little note about his daughter, Anna, an anthropologist. This is Howard Simonds' daughter, Anna, an anthropologist who specializes in Africa. She had some impact on you.
HARDEN: She's a wonderful woman. She came to Nairobi. She was going to do work with the Rendilli up north, pastoral people. She ended up working with the Somalis. In any case, she showed me where a lot of the levers were in African literature and short-circuited my research for this book by six months.
LAMB: "Of enormous value in this book were a series of long, wonderful dinners in Khartoum, in Nairobi, with Abdul Mohamed, a good friend and energetic thinker who helped me understand what I was seeing in Africa."
HARDEN: Well, this guy is an Ethiopian, and he was kicked out of Ethiopia because of political differences with the leadership. But he's a scholar, and he read very widely of the African literature. And he read my stories, and he told me what was wrong with them, what he thought was wrong with them. And I learned how to conceptualize -- what you have to do in Africa -- it's very hard to understand what's going on, so you have to pick a broad theme and go out and try to fill it in, put human beings inside a broad theme. And he suggested various people to look at, various places to go. And I miss him.
LAMB: One last person I want to ask you about is Robert Kaputa.
HARDEN: Yes. He is a photographer for National Geographic and has been all over East Africa for the past 15 years. He took many of the pictures for the book. He traveled with me when I did the Manute Bol story. And he was very enthusiastic about this book in the beginning.
LAMB: Last question. What's the best thing about Africa?
HARDEN: The best thing about Africa is that people are warm and they love you.
LAMB: On that note, there is a lot more in this book, and I wish we had time to talk about it. "Africa" by Blaine Harden, reporter for The Washington Post, "Dispatches From A Fragile Continent." Thank you very much.
HARDEN: Thank you.
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