Literature Review, 2009
4 Pages, Grade: A
On 14th May of 2009 at Europainstitut Basel Patrick Chabal, professor at King's College London, presented his book “Africa: The Politics of Suffering and Smiling”. The former scholar of Harvard and Cambridge has written or was co- writer for such books as Cultures Troubles (2006); Africa Works (1999); Power in Africa (1992 and 1994) and Am í lcar Cabral (1982 and 2003). The question usually asked about Africa: Why people suffer? Suffer from poverty, violence, wars… Patrick Chabal asks more simple questions about these complex matters: How do people define who they are? Where do they belong? What do they believe? How do they struggle to survive and improve their lives? What is the impact of illness and poverty? (EIB: 2009) In doing so Chabal proposes a radically different way of looking at politics of “suffer and smile” in Africa (Zed Books, 2008: 5). To write about Africa in objective way is challenging, but Patrick Chabal tries to deal with this hard task.
However, from the reviewer’s perspective some aspects of the book are debatable. The issues reviewer would like to point out are: first, it is hardly to see evidence that Chabal is giving recommendations in solving problems of Africa, second, Chabal doesn’t create new theory, but uses the old one, third, book gives new insight in interdisciplinary approach, but more empirical examples would have added weight to its well-focused argument, fourth, Chabal tries to objectively analyse the politics of Africa being at once insider and outsider, but actually he is outsider analysing “Africa is his eyes”, and the last issue, one hundred sixty six pages tell reader only about suffering in Africa. No page about smiling…
Overview rather than recommendations
First, Chabal emphasizes that through his books he wants to bring people to politics, but actually it is hardly to see evidence that Chabal is giving recommendations of solving problems of Africa. Already written three books by Chabal about Africa show that it is hard to put Africa in one framework and solve its problems at once. However, as Chabal has concluded, “any attempt to study African political systems confronts three problems. One is the problem of historical scope, the second of comparability and, the third, of generalisation” (Chabal, 2004: 1). Nevertheless, Chabal as the scholar of postmodernist approach (Hyden, 2006: 245) is one of few specialists in comparative political science who deals with questions of Africa and who see the situation in a partially positive way. “If traditions were to be used for constructive purposes and investment, there is little doubt that Africa could find its own ways of developing”, he pointed out in one of interviews (UHK: 2009). Therefore solution must come from inside.
Old theory rather new guidance
Second, Chabal doesn ’ t create new theory, but uses the old one and he is not enreaching comparative political science’s field about political parties and civil society in Africa. “Political science is a social science that makes generalizations Europainstitut Basel and analyses about political systems and political behaviour and uses these results to predict future behaviour” (Political Science: 2009). In his book, Chabal offers well-considered appraisal while describing and analysing current situation (Chabal, Daloz, 1999: 163), but doesn’t try to give any guidance. Moreover, it is not true that “political scientists can answer question which social anthropologists can’t answer” as Chabal has argued. (Chabal: 2009) But, nevertheless, Chabal is right pointing out “there is parallel between anthropology and political science”. (Chabal, Daloz, 1999: 142)
Theoretical rather empirical examples
Third, book gives new insight in interdisciplinary approach, but more empirical examples would have added weight to its well-focused argument. For example, Rwanda as suffering and smiling after genocide fifteen years ago. Rape and other gender-based violations in Rwanda carry a severe social stigma that Chabal has not referred in his book. Among the survivors are women who have given birth to an estimated twenty thousands of children as a result of being raped. Their families have rejected both them and their children because of constant reminder of what happened during the genocide and most of them lack HIV/AIDS treatment. Therefore, women feel loss of identity, loss of hope for the future and social isolation. Moreover, the genocide destroyed support networks because participants lost many members of their community and family (Wiley-Blackwell: 2008). What do they believe? How do they struggle to survive? There are no simple answers to these complex questions…1
Outsider’s rather than insider’s eyes
Fourth, Chabal tries to objectively analyse the politics of Africa being at once insider and outsider, but actually he is outsider
analysing “ Africa is his eyes ” (Chabal: 2009). Chabal also puts forward conclusion that we can speak about Africa as one continent. But it is actually depending “where are you sitting”. If you are in Africa, then Europe is one part. If you are sitting in Europe, then Africa for you is as one part.
Nevertheless, Africa is “cruel” continent because it takes Europeans empathy and “grinds it into powdered stone-and no one minds”, paraphrasing Elspeth Huxley. Europeans are shocked about genocide and war, about violence and poverty, but after this shock they are going back to their everyday life pretending that this never happen - turning backs instead of giving hand to people in need. As Chabal argues, there is both high level of interest in Africa and nonsuccess of being able to understand better what is happening (UHK: 2009).
Suffering rather than smiling
And the last point, one hundred sixty six pages tell reader only about suffering in Africa. No page about smiling … “Just hope that there will be once such”, as Chabal says (Chabal: 2009). Reviewer remembers one twelve years old girl who wanted to donate her pocket money to child born after Rwanda genocide. Will any cent from sold of this book be given to any foundation in Africa is unanswered question for reviewer… Suffering there [Africa], smiling here [Europe]. It is quiet hard to imagine smiling child in Africa and child suffering in European but it is quite easy to imagine the opposite.
Despite these critical remarks, Chabal’s book is a relevant contribution to a discussion about the limits and possibilities of comparative political theory dealing with Africa. It offers a stimulating perspective and invites for rethinking both political scientists and also readers who don’t seek for analysis but want to grumble insight in Africa’s unsolved questions.
1 Here reviewer advises to watch Torgovnik, Jonathan (2009): Intended consequences. http://mediastorm.org/0024.htm, [16.05.2009].
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