“A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy & Hope of Africa”

Howard French‘s penultimate January Series lecture couldn’t have been more different than that which preceded it. Where Frank Deford offered light-hearted stories, French dug deep into the issues facing Africa and its portrayal in the West. Where Deford had a light, informal stream-of-consciousness approach, French read from a script in a manner that was often hard to follow, but rewarded careful attention.

French’s style was hard to follow. A Senior Writer for the New York Times, he demonstrated very clearly the skill with prose and clear grasp of critical issues that won him that position but was much more impressive when questioning took him away from his script. Nevertheless, his topic was a vital one and I sincerely hope he made the impact it deserved.

Probably the closest thing to a left-leaning speaker the series has thus far presented (he spoke in the wake of Frederica Mathewes Green‘s naive call for single-issue voting on NPR this morning) French highlighted hypocrisies in Western approaches to Africa and was particularly impressive when making an impassioned response to a question as to whether African problems aren’t Europe’s responsibility rather than America’s. His two-pronged argument that America was complicit in imperialism even if not an imperial power, and that anyone who believes in humanity has a responsibility to care for a continent facing so many trials, received a strong round of applause. Personally I bristled at his positive casting of US involvement in Latin American politics, another area where the US government has not lived up to its freedom rhetoric, but I suspect given more time he might not have made that generalisation.

French was also good at making clear that we must look beyond the headlines to see what is happening in Africa beyond the crises. He cited the growth of democracy in Mali as one positive sign neglected by the press, as well as similar moves in a number of other countries. As a significant player in the media he was critiquing, he didn’t entirely own the problem but encouraged his audience to hold the media to a higher standard in its coverage of Africa.

The talk was clearly rushed and didn’t provide the clarity of thought on how we should respond that might be hoped for. French’s talk of the need for reform of international trading practices fell on receptive ears here, but it would have been good to hear more on how we could enact change there, and for all the use of the word ‘debt’ and criticism of the lending practices of the richest nations in past decades, too little was made of the ongoing debt crisis. Nevertheless, another interesting contribution that I hope fosters further debate.

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