White Man Can't Win
A Tour of Africa's "Fever
The U.S. is now negotiating for a
massive program of aid for all Africa.
First talks have
been held at United Nations with African officials.
What will it take to lift the new nations of black
Africa into something resembling modern civilizations?
Albert J. Meyers of
the staff of "U.S. News & World Report"
has just toured the lands along the old "fever
coast" of West Africa.
This dispatch takes
you into jungle areas of tribal rites, superstitions and
where the politics and culture of the
white man are up against baffling odds.
Here on the Guinea coast of West Africa, you
get a feeling that the white man will never really be able to
understand this part of the world.
This impression grows as the traveler moves
through Cameroon, Nigeria, Dahomey, Togo, Ghana, the Ivory
Coast, Liberia, Guinea, and on up into Senegal on the African
All of these now are free, independent,
self-governing black countries, each with a vote in the United
Nations. They are countries whose politicians fanning the winds
of change that keep blowing up crisis after crisis in Africa.
They seem as different from the white man's world as night from
In the first place, West Africa is one of the
most primitive areas in the world. There are no neat and
gleaming cities here, such as Nairobi, in Kenya, Johannesburg
and Cape town, in South Africa, or even Leopoldville, in the
Congo. West African cities don't gleam. They sprawl steamily
amid a crowding, shoving mass of black community.
Linked to past. Sometimes, the stench
in Africa is overpowering. Open drains crisscross the cities --
uncovered to the flies and other insects. This is often called
the "fever coast" or the "white man's
graveyard." It isn't difficult to understand why.
Many of the Africans here are descendants of
those who were sold into slavery and taken to America -- or of
those who worked for the slave traders, rounding up captives
from tribes other than their own.
The tribal system persists. Language barriers
give an idea of its complexity. There probably are 400 different
tribal languages or dialects. That is only one roadblock to
unity. Tribal hostility is another. The tribes within one nation
often are deadly enemies, yet owe common allegiance to a central
government in Lagos, Accra, or Abidjan -- whatever the capital
of the country happens to be.
Everywhere, you sense the strange, secretive
nature of the people. For instance, with these Africans,
religion takes weird forms. Witchcraft and black magic are
widespread. Ritual murders still are practiced. Humans are
sacrificed to jungle gods. Children are kidnaped and sold to
tribes that then slaughter them in sacrificial rites.
In West African cities, native families --
husband, wife with the inevitable baby strapped on her back,
other children and innumerable relatives -- live in reeking,
tin-roofed huts. In the bush, where most of tropical Africa's
people live, home is a mud hut with some kind of thatched roof.
The "mammy traders." All
over West Africa there are "mammy traders" -- women
sitting by the side of the road selling anything from tooth
paste to juju charms. Jujus are supposed to do anything from
improving fertility to making the wearer invisible.
An example of how Africans think jujus work:
Recently, a Communist-indoctrinated terrorist in Cameroon killed
a Frenchman out in the bush and was stripping the victim's body
when police arrived. The killer calmly went on with his work
because he was wearing a "magic" juju ring sold to him
by a witch doctor. He thought the ring made him invisible.
Slogans and lethargy. A "mammy
economy" seems to prevail in much of West Africa. In Accra
and other cities, for instance, the Africans travel by
"mammy wagon." These rickety buses are so designated
because the businesses are run by women. The "mammy
wagons," always overflowing with passengers, carry slogans
on their sides, such as "Jesus Is Mine," "Nothing
Bad," "Slow but Sure."
An American, talking to West Africans,
discovers in them a sort of lethargic surliness. Perhaps that
can be blamed on the climate. It is a climate in which
disease--hookworm, tapeworm, malaria, yellow fever, leprosy--is
likely to strike at any time.
The visitor learns this quickly. Near the
dirt-strip airport at Yaoundé there is a beautiful lake. Its
blue waters look cool and inviting. But swimming in the lake is
forbidden, because any swimmer would be sure to get hookworm.
At the hotel here, the guest fights off
centipedes, sleeps under mosquito netting, wakes up in the
morning with mosquito bites anyway. He takes his malaria pills
and hopes they'll do the job.
English with static. A white man has
language trouble almost everywhere. Even in Ghana, where English
is the official language, communicating is hard. The average
West African, if he speaks English at all, does it with an
accent that makes it seem as though he had studied it by radio,
taking all his lessons at a time when the static was very bad.
To an American, listening to a Ghanaian speak English is rather
like listening to a phonograph being played at three or four
times its normal speed.
English, of course, is not the Ghanaian's
mother tongue. There are more than 50 tribal languages in Ghana,
and the child naturally learns his tribal tongue first. Hence
his tribal accent when he is compelled to speak English.
Most West Africans--whether in the cities or
in jungle villages where barebreasted women and naked children
stare impassively as a car goes by--know very little about the
outside world. City swelling West Africans have formed their
image of America largely from the movies they have seen. In
Abidjan, Ivory Coast, a cab driver asked me to send him "a
belt like the shooting cowboy wear."
For whites, it's "wa-wa." The few
whites who live and work in West Africa have a phrase that
expresses their frustration. It is "wa-wa." It means,
roughly, "West Africa wins again--the white man just can't
A housewife sighs and says "wa-wa"
when she has told her native cook again and again to wash the
salad greens in a disinfectant solution and finds that he has
done so--and then has washed them again at the water tap in the
A businessman says "wa-wa" after he
has waited an hour or more for a West African clerk to cash his
check at a bank.
A traveler says "wa-wa" when he has
been charged anywhere from 28 cents the first time to $2 the
second for the same 10-minute taxi ride.
As an American looks at West Africa, he
cannot fail to be impressed by its economic potential. There are
rubber, gold and diamonds in Ghana, coffee and cocoa in the
Ivory Coast, oil in Nigeria, plus mountains of iron ore.
A mass--in parts. Moving along the Guinea
Coast--that great arc bordering on the Guld of Guinea--a
traveler sees West Africa as a mass of primitive people broken
up arbitraily into small countries, independent and in ferment.
This part of Africa was
"Balkanized" -- cut up into small territories by the
British and French when they ruled the area. Now these
territories are tiny countries, each with its own government, or
about to get its its own, each with its own brand of explosive
A day's drive from Lagos, Nigeria, to Accra,
Ghana, takes a motorist through two other countries, Dahomey and
Togo, on the way. Split up as West Africa is, it is hard to
believe that it can ever amount to much politically.
Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah wants to unify under
one flag the whole area -- all of Africa, for that matter --
with himself as boss. Others, like Felix Houphouet-Boigny,
President of the Ivory Coast, and Prime Minister Sir Abubakar
Tafawa Balewa of Nigeria, want a loose federation with a customs
union and a common market, if anything at all.
"No strings, please." West
Africa's leaders have this in common: All want as much as they
can get from both sides in the "cold war." And they
loudly proclaim that they want "no strings attached,"
that they will be "neutral."
This "neutrality" takes strange
forms. In Ghana--where Russian technicians are suspect--it is a
pro-Soviet sort of neutrality. But in Ivory Coast, President
Houphouet-Boigny says this:
"If we Africans be naive enough to sever
relations with the West, in the end we will be invaded by the
Chinese, and the Russians will impose Communism on our
The overwhelming impression, after a tour of
the new nations of West Africa, is that, if this area is ever to
reach political and economic maturity, it is the white man's
skills that must do the job.
But then, this question arises: How can the
white man ever understand or cope with this Africa of witchcraft
and black magic, of tribal secrets and primitive customs, of mud
huts and "wa-wa"?
Source: U.S. News & World Report (10 April 1961)
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* * *
1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus
By Charles C. Mann
a big fan of Charles Mann’s previous
New Revelations of the Americas Before
Columbus, in which he
provides a sweeping and provocative
examination of North and South America
prior to the arrival of Christopher
Columbus. It’s exhaustively researched
but so wonderfully written that it’s
anything but exhausting to read. With
1493, Mann has taken it to a
new, truly global level. Building on the
groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby
The Columbian Exchange and, I’m
proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer),
Mann has written nothing less than the
story of our world: how a planet of what
were once several autonomous continents
is quickly becoming a single,
Mann not only talked to countless
scientists and researchers; he visited
the places he writes about, and as a
consequence, the book has a marvelously
wide-ranging yet personal feel as we
follow Mann from one far-flung corner of
the world to the next. And always, the
prose is masterful. In telling the
improbable story of how Spanish and
Chinese cultures collided in the
Philippines in the sixteenth century, he
takes us to the island of Mindoro whose
“southern coast consists of a number of
small bays, one next to another like
tooth marks in an apple.” We learn how
the spread of malaria, the potato,
tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar
cane have disrupted and convulsed the
planet and will continue to do so until
we are finally living on one integrated
or at least close-to-integrated Earth.
Whether or not the human instigators of
all this remarkable change will survive
the process they helped to initiate more
than five hundred years ago remains,
Mann suggests in this monumental and
revelatory book, an open question.
* * * * *
Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power
By Zbigniew Brzezinski
By 1991, following the disintegration first of the Soviet bloc and then of the Soviet Union itself, the United States was left standing tall as the only global super-power. Not only the 20th but even the 21st century seemed destined to be the American centuries. But that super-optimism did not last long. During the last decade of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century, the stock market bubble and the costly foreign unilateralism of the younger Bush presidency, as well as the financial catastrophe of 2008 jolted America—and much of the West—into a sudden recognition of its systemic vulnerability to unregulated greed. Moreover, the East was demonstrating a surprising capacity for economic growth and technological innovation. That prompted new anxiety about the future, including even about America’s status as the leading world power. This book is a response to a challenge. It argues that without an America that is economically vital, socially appealing, responsibly powerful, and capable of sustaining an intelligent foreign engagement, the geopolitical prospects for the West could become increasingly grave. The ongoing changes in the distribution of global power and mounting global strife make it all the more essential that America does not retreat into an ignorant garrison-state mentality or wallow in cultural hedonism but rather becomes more strategically deliberate and historically enlightened in its global engagement with the new East.
The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
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Ancient African Nations
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Negro Digest /
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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan
The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
Only a Pawn in Their Game
Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for
George Jackson /
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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg
Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804
January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of
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