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Book Review

Out of America - by Keith Richburg, New York, 1996

by Fr. Joseph Caramazza, MCCJ ( 720 words)

Richburg is a journalist. Stationed for three years in Nairobi as the Africa correspondent of the Washington Post, the author became disillusioned with Africa. It was not a pleasant experience, especially for somebody who looked at Africa as the "motherland". Richburg is a black man, a fact that, much to his surprise, would be against him in the land of his ancestors.

The author's presence in Africa coincided with some of the worst tragedies of the continent: Rwanda, Zaire, Somalia. And the book starts just by recounting one such experience. Standing on a flimsy bridge on the Kagera River, accompanied by other foreign correspondents, Keith counts the bodies carried down by the current. And the count goes on and on. His reflection brings him to say the unthinkable: "Thank God my ancestors were brought to America". Yes, he says, I cannot agree with slavery, but it is slavery that gave me, and thousands like me, the possibility to live in America.

Chapter after chapter, the involving prose brings the reader to a sad analysis. Almost nowhere in the book there is a positive remark on Africa or on the Africans.

Certainly, the experience of a reporter, so often called to cover wars and disasters, cannot be compared to that of a normal person living in a normal environment and participating in the worries and joys of life of normal people. On the normal people what Richburg has to say is that "they have replaced the Queen with the Big Man... for the ordinary, decent, law abiding suffering African, precious little has changed." The Big Man, whatever country he guides, is somebody filled with "excuses for failures and hypocrisy." Richburg tries to understand why Africa is so. He comes to three conclusions, and a proposal.

Africans lack discipline. This is why even the best plans are not implemented. Discipline means planning and evaluation, means to work the extra hour for the good of the project, means an in-built honesty towards the common good.
Africans must admit that the enemy is within. Tired to hear the endless lamentation against the "colonialists", supposedly the source of all African troubles, Richburg asks himself why other countries like Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, that have also suffered under colonial rule, have thriving business, and are so much ahead in technology, are on the way to join the "First World".

The conspiracy of silence. Many times, he says, he heard people accusing the White Man of a conspiracy against Africa. Indeed there is a conspiracy, Richburg claims, but it is the conspiracy of the Africans keeping silent in front of corruption, of the causes and of the perpetrators of the tragedies.
All in all, Richburg's book is refreshing. Not surprisingly most African magazines reviewed it as racist and superficial. I see it rather as a broken promise. The analysis is clear and, in most part, correct. Where the book gets rusty is on the proposal.

Richburg sees the solution of Africa's problems in a redesigning of borders. He claims that a federal Africa, cut along tribal lines, would certainly respond better to the expectation of the people, would allow a new form of democracy to develop.

In my opinion this is a false dream. Which kind of people can we now identify? Certainly we cannot go back to the ancestral homes of the different African tribes. If Kenya is an example, where could there be peace in this nation when people have been overlapping for centuries? Richburgs proposal is the result of the no-hope approach he maintains throughout the book: since they cannot live together in peace, let them go back to their reserves!

As I agree with many parts of Out of America, I cannot accept a solely negative judgement of Africa. Richburg seems to overlook at the many who do work for a change, at the honest hard working people. He fails to see the seed of hope in the journey many groups, especially churches, are doing. Perhaps this is too much to ask of him.

I see this book as a good tool for us expatriate missionaries. It may help to focus better our experience. Yet we must depart from Richburg's analysis by giving something that is proper of us: the hope that Africa can see a new life; the hope that a change is possible.


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