Continental Drift

By John Reader
Knopf, 801 pages, $35

John Reader's Africa: A Biography of the Continent starts slow, with the basics, and proceeds at a glacial pace through the geologic formation of the continent before moving on to the human cultures that emerged there. This mythified and mystified place deserves, by now, some good, hard-headed rethinking, though you will probably want to hurry him past the rocks to get to the people. You will be disappointed, though you will learn a great deal along the way.

Reader's love for the hard facts and big picture reveals some common false impressions of Africa. We think of the tropics as rich lands, but as a result of climatic conditions, "extensive layers of deep fertile topsoil are rare" in Africa. And though we think of the rainforest as a great tropical grocery store (among other things), it yields very little of African agriculture, most of which comes from the savannah. Also, in this low-fat age, Reader reminds us that animal fat is critical to the survival and health of our species. "Lean meat alone is poison," he writes; "animal fat is the proper measure of affluence."

Reader does a good, painstaking job with Africa's famous (and not-so-famous) firsts: She claims first evidence of mammal, primate, knapped stone, musical instrument (a bone whistle), agriculture, coffee, monotheism, mass graves. He takes his microscope and British fussiness to the fossil record of human evolution. If you have spaced out on this stuff since freshman biology, Reader's book is as good a refresher as you will find. He effectively summarizes the findings of evolutionary geneticists that the DNA of an Englishman and a person from New Guinea were more alike than the DNA of two individuals from Nigeria. The conclusion: "a greater time-depth of mutation was preserved among people in Africa, while everyone else shared a predominance of mutations which had accumulated in the relatively recent past." The theory that emerges: Relatively few -- and possibly very few, as few as 50 -- individuals left Africa, where humanity evolved, and eventually colonized the rest of the world.

This would make modern African history, in Reader's pithy summary, "the story of an ancient continent and its inhabitants trying to accommodate the conceits of modern humans whose ancestors left the cradle-land 100,000 years ago, and who came back 500 years ago, behaving as though they owned the place." Not surprisingly, the trans-Atlantic slave trade plays a large role in Reader's account of this story. He provides good documentary evidence, and humane analysis, of the more controversial aspects of the trade, such as African involvement in it, and Africa's own forms of slavery. His evidence turns up one surprise. One thinks of European slave raiders and traders and African slave-raiding and -trading kingdoms, but Reader shows us a forgotten figure, the small-scale, freelance African slave trader.

His history of African colonialism and revolution is mostly a case study of the Belgian Congo and its aftermath. For independent Africa, we get a series of chapters on South Africa and another series devoted to Rwanda, leading to a detailed and compassionate background of the genocide. I don't detect much attempt to extrapolate to the whole continent from the examples chosen. Most people will learn from Reader's every page, but given the grandiose aims of the title, the bits of history he provides can hardly help but feel spotty. He also has some narrative habits that start to annoy: He loves academic research projects and reports their machinery in unnecessary detail. Overall he takes a certain fussy joy in tedious mechanical details, be it lactose digestion, mosquito proboscis technique, even how camels screw.

Reader is principally a photojournalist and knows Africa firsthand through his experience in that field. His photographs are distributed throughout the book. They are powerful, though often oddly situated; the history of Portugese slaving is illustrated by a solar eclipse in Kenya. He does his best -- and often breathtaking -- work with natural features and animals: hazy mountains, lake-sipping flamingos, wildebeest in the rain. When he captures people effectively, it is usually as part of a pattern in the frame rather than a portrait, and he has the infuriating habit of photographing, for example, a man and a sword and writing the caption about the sword.

Though his narrative makes mention of "histories of communities transcribed directly from the mouths of living representatives," he seems to have done no work of that kind. Oddly, for a book by a man who has traveled throughout the continent, I don't think he quotes a single individual African with whom he came in contact. African literature gets one quote (from Achebe); music gets hardly a mention; the only folklore is a tidbit from slave days, Africans believing that Europeans made cheese from their brains and wine from their blood. The only ceremony that gets extended mention is a grisly one from Ghana involving human sacrifice. Perhaps what limits his book most is its complete ignorance of spirit. We needed to see once again the hard rock under African feet. I don't see why that means we have to lose sight of African eyes, or what they saw in the earth and sky around them.

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