The Fate of Africa by Martin Meredith

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At nearly 800 pages, The Fate of Africa by Martin Meredith is overwhelming in scope. Subtitled A History of Fifty Years of Independence, the book attempts to capture the histories of all the countries on the African continent. Yet, such an ambitious subject cannot adequately be captured in less than 800 pages: each country has its own complexities. The history of the myriad of countries and people in Africa cannot be adequately explained in one book. Meredith neglected some countries’ histories while others were well drawn. In short, The Fate of Africa gave me a good grounding in some countries but left a gap in my understanding of others.

Nevertheless, I read The Fate of Africa to get a better context and understanding of the African continent today, and for that it delivered. Because I was regularly referencing the maps at the beginning of the book, I feel I know the continent: if you gave me a blank map, I probably could label the majority of the countries! That is something that I could not do a few months ago. I also have a pretty good understanding of some specific recent events in Africa: the Rwandan genocide, Zaire’s turbulent past, and so forth. It’s quite sad to read of so many countries being overtaken by military dictators: after independence, there was so much hope for democracy among the people.

One other concern I have with The Fate of Africa is the author’s purpose. It seems Martin Meredith is a primarily a journalist, rather than a historian. It makes the book easier to read (no worries about academic mumble jumble here; it’s easily accessible). Yet, there are plenty of opinions. One that stood out, just for an example: “the “psychopathic Serbs fresh from the killing fields of Bosnia” who come to aid in the Rwandan genocide (page 535). Psychopathic, really? Is this a medical diagnosis? Although it is rather disturbing that anyone would participate in genocide, such descriptions certainly inserted Mr. Meredith’s own opinions into the history of Africa. I should note that although there are not footnotes for each page, the book does include a lengthy list of books referenced.

I can’t tell you much about the countries in Africa in the past fifty years. After finishing the large tome, I find all the histories blend together. I enjoyed the book, despite Meredith’s obvious bias toward drawing a depressing picture of Africa. (Don’t get me wrong: it seems Africa’s most recent past is rather depressing. But Meredith was obviously writing with that agenda in mind.)

As I read African fiction, I believe I’ll find myself referring to this book to make sure I understand the context. I’m glad I read The Fate of Africa, despite the flaws.

Reviewed on November 24, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • Great review, and so true. For me I found the book to be a great start and I liked that it was a bit of information on each book, but certainly leaves a lot more to learn. But it kind of pointed me in a few directions where I know I want to learn more, and others where I might hold off. Since then I’ve gotten distracted, but I do look forward to going back to it and the referenced books at some point!

    • Amy, Sorry for the delayed response. I do think THE FATE OF AFRICA was a good start but not the only place to go for info, given the bias! I’m glad I own it so I can reference it again…

  • Um, the “psychopathic Serbs fresh from the killing fields of Bosnia” would get to me as well. I was very willing to read this until you showed that quote. Now I’m not so sure. I feel I really need some sort of overview as an introduction to reading more about some African countries, but I am not sure if I’d want my introduction to contain such opinionated views.

    • Iris, Sorry for the very delayed response! I think it’s a nice-ish introduction to contemporary African history but if one has a hard time separating bias from the text, it could be dangerous, I suppose. It’s a journalistic approach to history…which means opinions will be there.

  • I know a depressingly small amount of information about modern African history, I’m afraid, so this is exactly the kind of thing I’d like to read. I wish I could find something similar (or a group of similar books about various countries) but lacking the obvious bias. One phrase like “psychopathic Serbs” makes me twitchy about relying on any other expressions of opinion in the book. :/

    • Jenny, sorry for the delayed response. Yes, there are expressions of opinion in the book — but I’m glad I read it for the general overview of African history it gave me. I knew very little too, unfortunately.

  • I read this ages ago, and I remember being surprised by how much he focused on the Maghreb, while I was expecting more on SS Africa. But I liked it in general…I wonder if nowadays the biases would drive me crazy.

    • Eva, sorry for the late response. If you ever do revisit THE FATE OF AFRICA, I’d be curious to know if the bias does drive you nuts. It wasn’t overly obvious — which I personally think it a bit more dangerous…because you don’t realize how your own opinion is being shaped.

  • I am glad you quoted that bit about the Serbs. I started your review thinking this was just the sort of book to give me a deeper understanding of Africa, but I think I’ll try to find something a little less biased. So thank you for your honest review!

  • Those who do not find Africa depressing are definitely not honest in what they observe there or they have never gone there!

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