Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles, by Richard Dowden:

Hope for a mobile continent
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Africa is on the move. This is the message of Richard Dowden's compelling new book, epitomised by the striking jacket photograph: a nine-year-old boy called Baba in Ghana, looking out with clear eyes and steady confidence. He belongs to a new Africa, on the cusp between its painful history and a hopeful future. Three motors, shows Dowden, are driving this change: Chinese investment, mobile phones and the emergence of a new middle class.

Many in the West will be startled by this picture. Only four years ago, Tony Blair described Africa as a "scar on the conscience of the world" (deeply offending many Africans, according to Dowden). Blair's description is endorsed by the aid agencies' grainy photographs of starving children. It is as though Africa were "one small uniform country", inhabited by victims. But it is vast and diverse, with more than 2000 languages and cultures. In comparison with Africa, "Europe is homogeneous, America monotonous. Who would dare make generalizations about Asia based on Bangladesh? Or about Europe based on Greece?"

Dowden first arrived in Africa in 1971, teaching at a village school in Idi Amin's Uganda. Later he became Africa Editor of The Independent and is now director of the Royal African Society. His work has taken him to nearly every African nation and Chinua Achebe, in the foreword, gives him high praise: that he has committed himself to Africa's advancement.

This book's subject is immense: Africa south of the Sahara. Dowden looks at individual countries in turn, drawing on his own experiences in an engaging narrative.

In Somalia, he witnesses the miracle of modern technology. He watches a herdsman from the mountains driving his livestock towards the port, "with herding-stick in one hand and in the other a mobile phone". It is the perfect technology for the nomad – he knows the best moment to come to market to sell his animals. In the cities, mobiles have enabled Somalis to get their economy going, without help from international agencies. Since 1999, Somalis all over the world have sent remittance money home by phone, rebuilding the nation.

Africa now has its own financial index, tracking the fortunes of its top 50 companies. This is linked to the emergence of a local middle class, pan-African and international. Many African businessmen and women have now returned from the West. One Ghanaian told Dowden that he had left London for Accra because "the quality of life here is much better, especially for my three kids."

Dowden hopes that Africans will recognise their continent in his book. But he is writing chiefly for outsiders. In his view, Westerners could learn much from the humanity of Africans, rooted in traditions of duty and deeply-felt religion. He acknowledges that 31 out of Africa's 53 countries suffered civil disturbance in the 1990s, but points out that many thousands died not from bullets, but hunger and disease. Civil war caused brutalities – but not "on the scale of mass murder inspired by fascism, Communism and nationalism in 20th-century Europe." Most African families "get by, meet their needs, eat well enough, have a radio, save for a TV... Sunshine makes life more open and shared."

But he does not paint an idealised picture. He devotes a chapter to Aids, which is "like a tsunami" and has created more than 13 million orphans, cared for by "heroine" grandmothers. Even Botswana, "the best run" country in Africa, has been devastated by this spiral of death and deprivation. In Sierra Leone, river blindness is increasing: the scramble for diamonds has spread the fly that causes the disease. Dowden's accounts of brutality are unbearable: in the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda, the murderers "had so many to kill, they cut off their feet to stop them running away while they waited their turn to be butchered."

Only Africans, he insists, can develop Africa. Outsiders can help, but they must understand Africa's way of doing things. If not, they may cause harm, as happened in Rwanda. After the mass migration of Hutus into refugee camps in Congo in late 1994, aid agencies rushed there: "They plastered the town with their logos. I had a fantasy of newly arrived refugees like Oxford Street shoppers pondering on whether to go for Care's rehydration mixture or the Red Cross's cholera package." But the logos were for the cameramen. And the people in the camps were not the victims of genocide: they were the perpetrators. The genocidal army sold food to buy weapons. Dowden draws a shocking conclusion: "The aid industry contributed to the continuation of genocide."

The arrival of Europeans undermined African societies: the slave trade in Angola, the rape of Congo, the stealing of Kenya's land, apartheid in South Africa. Now, it is China's turn to arrive. China is buying up huge reserves of oil and raw materials. It is selling cheap goods, from phones to medicine, and building dams and roads. China insists that its relationship is solely business. "Where the West sees Africa as the place to make poverty history," Dowden comments, "the Chinese see it as the place to make money." This time, Africa's leaders must dictate their terms.

Chinese investment has reduced Western influence on Africa. This became clear earlier this year (Dowden's book is wonderfully up-to-date), when Britain, America and France proposed UN sanctions on Zimbabwe, but the Security Council resolution was blocked by Russia and China. Their veto marked the end of exclusive Western influence. This has created a new opportunity for Africans to solve their problems in their way. This week, we have seen an attempt to do this in Zimbabwe: through quiet diplomacy, Thabo Mbeki has brokered a power-sharing agreement between Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai. Africa is a remarkable, ground-breaking achievement, capturing the complex texture of a rapidly changing continent. It is also terribly moving. "The wound that parted Africa from its soul is healing," concludes Dowden. "Africa is finding itself."

Susan Williams's latest book is 'Colour Bar: the triumph of Seretse Khama and his nation' (Penguin)

Africa's roads to freedom

1792: Loyalist ex-slaves join the Freetown colony.

1847: Liberia is founded by and for US ex-slaves.

1951: Libya is Africa's first post-colonial state.

1957: Ghana's freedom as Britain starts to quit.

1960: Independent Senegal, Cameroon and Mali as France's empire ends.

1975: Revolution in Angola and Mozambique as Portugal leaves Africa.

1980: Rebel Southern Rhodesia becomes Mugabe-led Zimbabwe.

1994: South African apartheid ends in poll victory for Mandela's ANC.