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African Paradise Lost : SQUANDERING EDEN : Africa at the Edge by Mort Rosenblum and Doug Williamson (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $19.95; 291 pp.)

November 01, 1987|Michael Parks | Parks is The Times' Johannesburg, South Africa, bureau chief.

Truly terrible things happen in Africa, and the continent of man's origin appears often to be the one where his progress has been slowest and his prospects are dimmest.

Every day, over much of Africa, hundreds and often thousands of children die of starvation. The accelerating destruction of the environment in many parts of the continent and the breakdown of centuries-old social and economic patterns seem to ensure further and even worse famines. Development programs squander meager resources, perhaps enriching a few but prolonging the poverty of those they were meant to help.

African politics, moreover, are almost a disease rather than a way of ordering society and establishing a government to solve these problems. Corruption is the only glue that holds together many of the regimes on the continent. The coup d'etat has become endemic across Africa. And colonels and sergeants sometimes offer the only alternative to national collapse.

For Mort Rosenblum, a longtime correspondent in Africa for the Associated Press, the continent with its resilient people, its potential wealth and often idyllic beauty is not just a paradise lost through the ignorance and sins of man, but a Garden of Eden that is rapidly and often malevolently being laid waste.

With Doug Williamson, a South African lawyer-turned-naturalist, Rosenblum pulls together, with the sharpness and anger that come from watching children die and dictators grow fat, all those reports of disasters and tragedy, of wars and massacres, of disappearing wildlife and impending ecological collapse.

The result is a profoundly disturbing book--disturbing not only because of the terrible things that happen in Africa today, but also because they continue to happen on a scale and in ways that are truly unconscionable, however remote they seem.

"The evidence is plain, and it grows plainer by the season," Rosenblum and Williamson write: "Huge tracts of Africa are dying in stages. . . . The victims are not only the individuals who wither away waiting for food, but also entire societies, populations of game, prey and predators, and the land they lived on. Fiercely independent peoples who thrived for thousands of years in the world's harshest conditions now huddle in ragged bands by borehole wells, waiting for food trucks.

"Blame is laid on nature, which persists, year after year, in following its fixed patterns. But man is responsible. We sought to improve on nature in Africa, and we failed disastrously. Rather than repair the damage already done, we are racing full tilt to commit the same errors on an even grander scale. We will not escape the price."

Rosenblum and Williamson cite many of the villains responsible for all this--as unhappy a collection of politicians, generals, bankers, development officials, international bureaucrats and aid workers as found anywhere in the world--and castigate with equal vigor the other forces, principally colonialism and Marxism, that reduced proud people to beggars.

They sketch the broad problems and then, in a region-by-region rundown, focus on individual countries, relying on Rosenblum the reporter and Williamson the conservationist for the vignettes, anecdotes and interviews that give the book its immediacy, though often with unnecessary repetition and the loss of greater analysis.

"Africa could grow enough food for two or three times its population," they write. "It could have more wild protein, fish and livestock than it can eat or sell. And its people could be flourishing.

"Africa was most likely Eden, where man began. It was never a lush garden of food for the taking. Soils were mostly poor, and life was fraught with disease and danger. But there was great wealth and potential. In less than a century, at a steadily increasing pace, Eden has been squandered recklessly. Today, much of it teeters at the edge."

But Rosenblum and Williamson also have heroes: those few prescient enough to see the coming famines, those who battle the bureaucracies to help feed people, those determined to preserve Africa's rich and unique natural heritage, those who shun ideology to solve the continent's problems.

And they do harbor limited hopes for a continent where, so far, the agony has seemed endless.

While warning that the longer the delay in solving the continent's problems, the greater will be its eventual crisis, Rosenblum and Williamson urge the West in a concluding chapter to make greater efforts at understanding Africa in its own context, to stop imposing solutions from outside, whether by threats to cut off aid or intrigues with local favorites, and to pursue creative aid programs that not only do more to feed people today but that also promote long-term economic growth.

They similarly call upon Africans to take the lead in solving the continent's problems but, in doing so, to be realistic about the causes of the crisis there and to be self-sacrificing in working out solutions.

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