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Motherland

AFRICA: A Biography of the Continent.\o7 By John Reader (Alfred A. Knopf: 802 pp., $35)\f7

July 19, 1998|JOHN RYLE | John Ryle is a columnist on the Guardian in London and consultant to U.N. agencies and nongovernmental organizations in Africa. He is co-writing a book on the role of information in complex emergencies

In January I was driving through North-eastern Zaire--the Democratic Republic of Congo--on the road from Goma, a town on the northern shore of Lake Kivu, to the headquarters of the Virunga National Park. Virunga is known for its population of elephants and hippos, but the park headquarters is currently an army camp and many of the hippos have been killed for food. The road to the park passes through the Western branch of the Great Rift Valley, one of the most spectacular landscapes in Africa, a broad, wooded plain flanked by steep escarpments and forest-clad volcanoes, the habitat of the last remaining mountain gorillas. Here, among bamboo thickets and giant heather, in the heart of the continent, is the meeting-point of Congo, Uganda and Rwanda, three of Africa's most troubled countries.

Some miles along the road from Goma, beyond an army checkpoint, are the ruins of an extensive settlement--thousands of stone huts spread over a lava flow, their low tufa walls roofless and overgrown with vegetation, like a tropical Pompeii. This ruined settlement is not, however, the relic of some earlier culture; it is an artifact of modernity, the remains of the refugee camps established for Rwandan Hutus who fled to Zaire after the present regime in Rwanda took power following the 1994 genocide. Two years after that, in 1996, the camps were attacked and emptied of their inhabitants by the Rwandan army and the forces of Laurent-Desire Kabila (now president of the Democratic Republic of Congo) in a joint operation designed to flush out the Hutu genocidaires who had taken refuge there. Tens of thousands of Hutus were driven west into the forests of the Congo basin; many were massacred during Kabila's subsequent advance on Kinshasa. At the time of my visit, units of Rwandan and Congolese soldiers, billeted in the headquarters of the Virunga Park, were combing the forest for remaining rebels.

The prospect of the Western Rift offers a range of images of Africa: sweeping vistas of rain forest and savanna, endangered animals, hapless refugees and marauding men with guns. The vulcanism that has given rise to its geological features is paralleled in recent history by political volatility that generates recurrent outbreaks of inter-ethnic violence. On the Congo side, civil administration is tenuous: A kleptocratic dictatorship has been defeated, but Kabila, a former gold smuggler, has proved inept at foreign relations, even relations with mining companies, the only international investors inclined to risk capital in Congo's ravaged economy. In Rwanda, meanwhile, the murderous conflict continues between the Tutsi-dominated government and the Hutu extremists regrouped along the border. Even in Uganda, the country with the most enlightened leadership in East Africa and a more or less stable government, there are seemingly unquenchable insurgencies in the north and west.

This region of the world--this landscape of Eden--scene of the worst mass killing in recent memory, is the place where we all began, the place where man was born. As John Reader shows in "Africa: A Biography of the Continent," fossil evidence now points unambiguously to an African origin for the human species, and laboratory analysis of mitochondrial DNA--the most enduring form of genetic material--confirms our descent from a single female ancestor somewhere in East Africa or the Horn. In this sense, the Great Rift Valley, which splits the continent from Mozambique to the Red Sea, creating on its way the depressions that form the Great Lakes, marks a rupture not only in the geology of the tertiary period but also, as the jumping-off point for human culture and technological development, in the relation of hominids to the Earth itself.

This region was the location of the evolutionary spark that led to our present risky domination of nature, to the current conflagration of natural resources under human auspices. Bipedalism, symbolic communication, face-to-face mating, the domestication of fire, the use of tools--whatever you choose as our distinctive species-specific feature--began in the Rift. Humanity is the prodigal child of Africa. For the first 100,000 years or so of our existence, as Reader establishes in a judicious summary of the archeological evidence, we were confined to this landmass, to the oldest of the continents. From here, anatomically modern humans spread to Asia and thence to Europe, to return after another 100,000 years--with firearms--to recolonize Africa and its inhabitants (fellow descendants of our common ancestor) and intensify the violent exploitation of primary resources--of animals, forests, minerals and men--that has brought the continent to its present pass.

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