Book Review- Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles by Richard Dowden

After a gap of 6 years and many more journeys looking at Africa through the lens of design ethnography, I sat down to re-read Richard Dowden‘s Africa this past weekend. It moved me to want to write so many times during the read, it’s a wonder I made it through the book before starting this review. It offered me a foundation for understanding context and background, which, perhaps, I wouldn’t have appreciated, back when I first read it more than 5 years ago. I’d only just begun my own explorations of the African consumer market then, seeking to understand the patterns and rhythm of the informal and rural economy. Prepaid Africa was still an exploratory user research project, not the daily deep dive into news and views on the emerging economies of the continent that it is today.

Richard Dowden brings something unique to his writing that I rarely come across in global media, a deep respect for the African continent and its peoples. Many will write with love and affection but there’s a nuanced difference when respect, and a touch of unspoken humility, bring to one’s understanding of the other. There was a moment of shock in the beginning, when Dowden writes of dealing with his recognition of the fact that as a mzungu he was always to remain on the outside looking in, kept apart from the “inner mysteries” of the local networks and hidden relationships by virtue of his visible foreignness. It is not until the epilogue, almost 40 years later, that he feels he might finally have passed through that invisible barrier.

Shock because I realized that some of those things he called mysteries were obvious to me – the relationships, the networks, the give and take of close knit communities and societies – these are a given part of many non “Western” cultures, learnt and understood at a level below conscious understanding. They are also a tangible part of what makes the informal economy tick, the relationships of trusted referrals and social networks that underlie the formal words of transactions, negotiations, commerce and trade. That was when I settled down the read the book, to learn and understand a world which I might never be able to perceive, from my own perspective.

And that is what Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles by Richard Dowden offers you – a clear eyed, lucidly written, easy to grasp understanding of the context for many of the present day issues and challenges we see and hear in the daily news. Governments, geopolitics, socioeconomics, and the Global North’s perspective looking down. He doesn’t hesitate to gently poke at ideology and idealism; everyone’s greed is laid bare, if you can learn to read between the lines.

It introduced me to Africa in a way that I’ll never be able to see, yet made me realize that there’s value in the work that I do. For that, I recommend this book as a must read, especially if you’re an African.

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