<i> 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</i>

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.

That’s the short version of a very long story. Even Reader’s 800-page account is short when you consider the scale of things: 500 million years of geological history; 8 million or 9 million years of hominid development; five centuries of written records; 30 million square kilometers of land (representing 22% of the Earth’s surface); and 700 million inhabitants--about 12% of the people in the world. Writing an account of Africa that embraces, as this one does, land forms and life forms, earth science, environmental history and the span of human evolutionary and social development is a huge undertaking. It is more ambitious, even, than a comparable history of the Americas or Europe, more like writing a history of Eurasia from Ireland to Siberia, from the Paleozoic to the modern era.

But there are aspects of Africa that lend themselves to this approach. South of the Sahara, monumental architecture is rare. The continent is poorly endowed with ruins. Abandoned settlements are rapidly drawn back into the cycle of decay; hence the striking sight of the deserted refugee camp at Goma. Yet the remotest regions of the continent hold something more valuable than ruins: living traces of earlier forms of human life. Pastoral societies in Sudan and the Horn, hunter-gatherer groups in the rain forests of the Congo and in the Kalahari desert offer an indication of how the entire population of these regions once lived. Furthermore, most Africans--more than 70% of them according to Reader--still live in villages, not towns; and these villages, though they are linked to the world economy by trade and migration and mass communications, are not wired into it as rural areas of industrialized countries now are, so there remains, in such places, a sense of how the world was before urbanization and industrialization. These aspects of Africa have encouraged primitivistic fantasy on the part of European and American writers. But “Africa: A Biography of the Continent” cannot be accused of romantic primitivism; the force behind Reader’s narrative is a lively and dispassionate understanding of environmental history; he deftly combines firsthand descriptions of present-day modes of life in Africa with synoptic accounts of historical and paleoanthropological research to indicate the successive stages in the relation of man to the land. In the modern era, he concentrates on the underlying economic realities, the relations of land and labor and capital. His analysis is permeated by a sense of the beauty of the land and the grace of its human and nonhuman inhabitants, which is reflected in the photographs that illustrate the book.

The tropical environments of Africa, Reader reminds us, have seen the evolution of the greatest diversity of life forms on Earth: not just the emergence of man but also that of other big, handsome mammals--elephant, hippo, rhino, lion--charismatic megavertebrates, as waggish zoologists are apt to refer to them. It is a measure of the transformation of man’s relation to nature in the present century that until quite recently, elephants, with their voracious need for forage, were, in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, the main constraint on agricultural production. That, of course, is no longer the case. Guns have seen to the elephant pest, as they formerly saw to African resistance to European conquest. Big game, to use the white hunter’s term, is now confined, increasingly, to parks like Virunga, where it is now vulnerable to civil disorder as much as human populations are.


With this great natural wealth, how has Africa fallen so far behind in the global race for prosperity? How come the continent is a byword for war and hunger? In the first place, African climates, unfortunately for humans, are uniquely hospitable to other life forms--smaller but more dangerous and less vulnerable to weapons technology. Viruses, bacteria and other pathogens thrive on civil disorder. Mosquito-borne malaria, the world’s biggest killer, is rampant in Africa; so, in many rural areas, is bilharzia. The tsetse fly, which is found only in Africa, causes sleeping sickness in human beings and is a major constraint on livestock production. Furthermore, despite the great fecundity of the continent, African soil is thin. Much labor is needed to make a living from the land. Food supply is the main constraint on the development of centers of population and on the political and economic development that flows from urbanization. The early humans who migrated to Asia and the Middle East found a more healthful climate there with better soil and were able to create the agricultural surplus necessary to establish big towns. The edge this gave to Eurasia meant that when Europeans returned to Africa, they did not meet on equal terms. African societies, lacking strong central political administration and industrial technology, were unable to resist them. At the Battle of Omdurman in 1898, the British killed 10,800 Sudanese soldiers; their own losses amounted to just 49 of their men. As Hillaire Belloc put it, the European powers were secure in the knowledge that

Whatever happens we have got

The Maxim gun, and they have not.

The Europeans, who conquered Africa in the 19th century, had no idea that they were stumbling, Tarzan-like, onto their own ancestral home. There was a sense of having discovered a treasure to be pillaged, a source of wealth, of cheap labor. As Leopold II, king of Belgium and later of the ill-named Congo Free State, said with transparent greed, “We must obtain a slice of this magnifique g^ateau Africain.” Reader is illuminating on the contrast between the various European colonial regimes. The Belgians get decidedly the lowest rating. Their brutal administration of the Congo Free State set the scene for all the subsequent horrors of post-independence Zaire. And their introduction in Rwanda and Burundi of compulsory identity cards with ethnic affiliations, so that all citizens were compelled to classify themselves as either Hutu or Tutsi, prepared the ground for the recent genocide.

The European intervention had an incalculable effect on Africa. The countries Africans live in today are the invention of European powers. They include absurdities like the Gambia, a riverine ribbon development that cuts Senegal in half. This premature imposition of statehood on the emerging polities of Africa set the stage for a continent of looters, of local elites seizing control of the state, of despots and kleptocrats despoiling the state and of predatory foreign capital stripping it of its remaining natural resources. The firearms that delivered Africa into the hands of the colonialists are now transforming the lives of even the most sequestered communities in the continent, those archaic forms of life that illuminate the past, making a biography of Africa something more than a history book. These days there’s a Maxim gun for everyone, or its modern equivalent, a Kalashnikov. To understand the terrifying ubiquity of these weapons, imagine an America where the use and ownership of guns is unconstrained by any system of registration, where there is no government presence and no legal or practical restraint on homicide and where militias without clear allegiance to any civil authority are the powers of the land. This survivalist scenario is the situation in much of Africa today. The news is war: war in the Horn; war in Sudan; war in Algeria, war in Rwanda; war in Angola; war in Guinea-Bissau; war in Senegal.

Optimists--and Reader appears to be a guarded optimist--can point with some justification to an exception to this general decline. The peaceful transition to majority rule in South Africa, the richest, most developed and best-armed country on the continent, is indeed cause for relief. Reader quotes Wole Soyinka, the Nobel Prize-winning Nigerian writer: “Rwanda is our nightmare, South Africa our dream.” In Soyinka’s own country, things currently hang in the balance after the deaths, in quick succession, of the military dictator who made Nigeria an international pariah and the elected president he had arrested and jailed. An optimist could point out that Nigeria has recovered from national trauma before. During the Biafra war, a government blockade against this oil-rich separatist state provoked a famine, allowing the rebellion to be crushed, yet Biafra was successfully reincorporated into the Nigerian federal system, and separatism no longer appears to be an issue there. It is arguable then, that the inhabitants of African countries, being so prone to disaster, are also better at recovering from it. It is hard, though, at the present time, to imagine a peaceful solution to Rwanda, the continent’s most grievous case of political pathology. If I strike a gloomier note than Reader does, it is perhaps because I have most recently been in this region, in East and Central Africa, where things are not looking up at all.

No one can girdle a world in a single book, even a book of this size, and there are some aspects of the continent that go uncovered. When it comes to human history, Reader is mainly concerned with sub-Saharan Africa; the lands to the north are peripheral. Ancient Egypt makes a brief entrance, but the cultures of Islamic North Africa are left out. This is a reasonable principle of exclusion: the Sahara is an ethnic and political divide as well as a geographical one; much of North Africa has more to do with the Middle East than with the lands to the South. But there is also very little in the book about Islam in East and West Africa or even in the Horn, where it has often been the dominant political and religious culture. For Reader, it seems, the modern history of Africa is a dialectic between Western capitalism and the autochthonous polities of the continent. The European intervention is indeed the defining event in modern African history, but the West is not the only outside influence. For many African Muslims--and there are almost as many as there are Christians--the continent has been, and still is, the site of spiritual warfare between Islam and Christendom. Reader’s ecohistorical vision, which is the backbone of his book, stresses the infrastructure; it engages only intermittently with the myths of the global cultures that vie for hegemony in Africa today.

Criticism such as this pales, however, beside Reader’s very considerable achievement. The book is vibrant with affection for its subject, measured in its judgments, and it is hard to imagine a more lucid and balanced synthesis of the many disciplines that have cast light on the obscurities of the African past and the complexities of its present.