Robert Guest’s ‘The Shackled Continent’

If you’re looking for inspiring stories, Robert Guest’s The Shackled Continent: Africa’s Past, Present, and Future(Pan Books, 2005) is not the book for you. But if you crave some hard-hitting analysis of what ails the Great Continent, here’s an excellent primer.

Robert Guest is a reporter for the British magazine, The Economist. His work has taken him to multiple African nations, giving him an insider’s perspective. As a Brit, to his credit, he refuses to sweep under the carpet the tragic chapter of colonialism, but he equally refuses to let current African leaders off the hook. Just as supporters of President Obama can only blame former President Bush for so long, in the same way, Guest in various ways asks: What has been going on for the last 50 years since the colonial powers left?

Much of the book addresses why Africa remains so poor. On Robert Guest’s estimate, foreign aid is not inherently ineffective, but has merely been misused. If given to responsible African governments – such as tiny Bostwana, a true success story – it can give the downtrodden not a handout, but a hand up. Unfortunately, according to Guest, too many leaders have diverted aid to their own selfish ends.

The laws of economics are not suspended in Africa. To create wealth through exports, you either must manufacture a product that the rest of the world wants, or else provide a service that they will pay for. In the export category, Robert Guest maintains that Africa – with its huge swaths of arable land – could be the world’s bread basket. However, western governments, including Europe and America, have put high tariffs on African agricultural exports, essentially locking them out. This is to protect their own farmers, but in a perverse twist, it keeps African farmers at a subsistence level.

Near the close of the book (p. 255), Guest includes a paragraph that resonates with me, as one now finishing a decade living in Africa:

 I will always be an outsider in Africa. I have never been poor or oppressed, and I grew up in a country where African-style poverty has been unknown for generations. When I wander around Africa, I do so wrapped in the armour that money provides. Where there is violence, I can afford to stay in a hotel with security guards. Where there is sickness, I can buy medicine. Where there is hunger, I can always find something to eat.

While The Shackled Continent is an accurate portrait of Africa’s ills, it falls short in one major way: It looks only at the material aspects of life, saying nothing about the profound spiritual impulse that is Africa. Where Christian faith impacts life – anywhere in the world – there is always “redemption and lift.” New life in Christ engenders hope, allowing people to overcome daunting challenges. In the same way that the power of the Gospel transformed John Wesley’s 18th century England, the message of holiness, when lived out in all of its ramifications, will ultimately flush out the corruption that- like a tapeworm – gnaws at Africa’s innards. Permanent solutions must take both the economic and spiritual aspects of life into account.

Robert Guest is an excellent writer. His book is a useful introduction for those who want to uncover the complexities of a continent with incredible potential. Africa’s greatest natural resource is not diamonds, copper, or oil, but its gregarious, industrious, and longsuffering people. Let us pray that in years to come that latent potential will be unleashed in new and incredible ways.

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