French, Howard W. 1957-
French, Howard W. 1957-
FRENCH, Howard W. 1957-
PERSONAL: Born October 14, 1957, in Washington, DC; son of David Marshall (a doctor) and Carolyn Alverda (Howard) French; married Agnes Koffi, October 5, 1987; children: William Howard, Henry Nelson. Education: University of Massachusetts, Amherst, B.A., M.A., 1987.
CAREER: Journalist. Self-employed translator, Abidjan, Ivory Coast, 1979-80; University of Ivory Coast, Abidjan, assistant professor of English, 1980-82; Washington Post, Abidjan, West Africa stringer, 1981-86; New York Times, New York, NY, metropolitan reporter, 1986-90, Miami, FL, Caribbean correspondent, 1990, bureau chief, 1990-94, West Africa bureau chief, Abidjan, 1994—.
MEMBER: National Association of Black Journalists, Institute of the Americas, African Studies Association.
AWARDS, HONORS: Overseas Press Club award.
A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope ofAfrica, Alfred A. Knopf (New York, NY), 2004.
SIDELIGHTS: Journalist Howard W. French's love of Africa began when his father, a doctor, moved his family to Ivory Coast when he accepted an assignment to run a regional health program for the World Health Organization. French was educated in the United States, then returned to Africa, first as a translator and freelance journalist. He met and married his wife, returned to the United States to write for the New York Times, and eventually became the newspaper's West Africa bureau chief.
In his memoir, A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa, French writes that he had no intention of satisfying "the world's insatiable market in images of horror." But that is exactly what he was expected to do. "Recounting his travels through Nigeria, Congo, Liberia, and Mali, French weaves the history of Western machinations in Africa into the sordid series of events that befell the region in the mid-1990s to try to make sense of its current sorry state," wrote Daphne Eviatar in the American Prospect. He covered the Ebola fever outbreak in Zaire, and then, within a year, the conflict in that country that resulted in its collapse and the death of millions of people. His stories informed the world of the plight of sufferers of the vast AIDS epidemic. Nation contributor Deborah Scroggins wrote that as French "struggled to make sense of what was happening—and especially the disastrous consequences of the Clinton Administration's decision to hand a wide swath of the continent over to a brand-new set of dictators (often euphemistically described as 'strong men') . . . Africa fell further and further outside the orbit of world attention."
French writes of the exploitation of African reserves by Western companies and how stolen elections were overlooked when the results favored the continued theft of resources, such as oil in Nigeria. He notes that billions of gallons were pulled from reserves in the Niger delta, while the Royal Dutch/Shell Group built a few schools but did little else to invest in the local economy. The ivory, copper, wood, and rubber of Zaire—then Congo and since renamed Democratic Republic of Congo—had been extracted by Belgium for nearly a hundred years. When Patrice Lumumba took charge in 1960, the United States, because of Lumumba's perceived Communist leanings, supported the coup that removed him from power in less than one year. French explains how Lumumba was ultimately replaced with Mobutu Sese Seko, who, in spite of the country's vast natural reserves, including diamonds, and U.S. assistance with power projects, failed as a leader.
In 1996, while French was in Zaire, the ethnic-based volatility between the Hutus and the Rwandan Tutsis, who had lost nearly a million people to genocidal slaughter two years earlier, was flammable. Hutus living in camps run by the United Nations in Zaire were planning to attack Rwanda's new Tutsi government when Rwandan-backed troops in Zaire countered. As Eviatar noted, "The United States, embarrassed by its failure to intervene in the slaughter of the Tutsis in Rwanda, denied what was happening. Western journalists . . . were so ignorant of Africa generally that they didn't even understand who was fighting whom. 'Anywhere else in the world we would have been judged incompetent,' writes French,'. . . but in Africa being able to get somewhere quickly and write colorful stories was qualification enough.'" It was months later, after tens of thousands of Hutus had been slaughtered, that the United States, the United Nations, and the media finally came to terms with the facts. Mobutu, whom French calls "America's longtime favorite dictator," was losing to the questionable, Rwandan-backed Laurent Kabila, and the United States assisted in Kabila's takeover of power, despite the emergence of reformist opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi. Reviewing A Continent for the Taking, New York Times Book Review contributor Jeremy Harding commented that French "is scathing about [then-U.S. secretary of state] Madeleine Albright and her spokesman, James Rubin, on their 1997 visit to the region, and disparages the journalist Philip Gourevitch, who'd covered the 1994 genocide. French argues that Gourevitch helped to boost Kabila and play down 'the importance of the massacre of Hutu.'"
French also writes of his visit to Mali, a country that made a successful transition to democracy, "which, for French, offers a counterweight to the grim downward spiral of war and the failure of politics in central Africa," wrote Akwe Amosu for Africa News Service. "Yet even here French is not about to let anyone bask in self-congratulation. In his view, the United States could have done much more to reward Malians seeking to take their country on a new path. That view is rebuffed by senior U.S. diplomat George Moose, who sourly comments that 'virtue is its own reward,'" a statement that confirms the common observation "that in Africa, it is the squeaky wheel that gets the U.S. grease (for which read cash). African governments that do the right thing have been strangely low on the priority list."
French became ill with malaria in 1997, adding to the years of stress and burnout he had experienced. He writes, "I began to conclude that Africa was starting to kill me. So many loves had kept me going here: the beauty and the unfussy grace of the people, the amazing food—yes, the food—music rich beyond comparison, the sheer immediacy of human contact, the pleasure of living by my wits. But the grim truth was that a single mosquito bite had contained enough deadly force to lay me very low indeed." A Publishers Weekly contributor praised his efforts, noting that finding ways to improve life and give hope to Africans "is not so easy. As his book shows, French might be exactly the kind of seasoned Africa observer who could help point the way."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
French, Howard W., A Continent for the Taking: TheTragedy and Hope of Africa, Alfred A. Knopf (New York, NY), 2004.
Africa News Service, April 23, 2004, Akwe Amosu, review of A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa; July 29, 2004, Susan Stephen, review of A Continent for the Taking.
American Prospect, July, 2004, Daphne Eviatar, review of A Continent for the Taking, p. 38.
Booklist, March 15, 2004, Hazel Rochman, review of A Continent for the Taking, p. 1260.
Nation, June 14, 2004, Deborah Scroggins, review of A Continent for the Taking, p. 28.
New York Times Book Review, April 25, 2004, Jeremy Harding, review of A Continent for the Taking, p. 25.
Publishers Weekly, February 16, 2004, review of AContinent for the Taking, p. 161.*