By Leo Zeilig
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The Ringtone and the Drum

This article is over 9 years, 6 months old
Mark Weston
Issue 377

Africa is maligned in the media, almost exclusively written about using racial clichés is prone to terrible stereotypes about “Africans”. No continent or people are so appallingly categorised into absurdist generalisations. This book is different. The Ringtone and the Drum is part travelogue, part history of West Africa.

Weston is not a political radical – he has worked for most of his adult life as a consultant and writer on international development – but he has been repelled by what he has seen. The Ringtone is a description of the people of West Africa, their daily struggles, hardships and hopes in countries that sit on the outer margins of the global economy.

The book tells the story of the poor in these countries, hawkers, coffee-sellers, market-stall owners trying to survive by working in the largest employment sector in the region, the informal economy.

The lives of the people Weston meets are told with sensitivity and compassion. He shows that the poor of the region are like us, deserving of the same interrogation and expressing the same hopes.

Weston also refuses – most of the time – to accept a shoddy analysis of the continent. In the mid-1990s the American commentator Robert Kaplan saw West Africa’s chaos and civil wars as indicative of the “coming anarchy” across the continent. In some ways Africa, his thesis went, had lapsed back into a pre-colonial “primitivism.” Independence had failed and it was the fault of Africans.

Weston presents us with a corrective to these arguments – the region’s history and crisis is situated in the devastation of slavery and colonial rule. Both experiences ripped the continent from its own path to development. The long view, Weston argues, is indispensible for any real understanding of West Africa.

Yet Weston poses a problem. He tends to oppose “traditional” and “modern” practices. So-called traditional beliefs – in magic, spirits, curses – are seen as obstacles to development, rather than dynamic expressions of the crisis of development and poverty in the region.

The experience of so-called “modernisation” for the continent has been catastrophic – inclusion into a global market that forced self-sustaining and diversified economies, often regionally integrated, into an uneven relationship with powerful states, producing cash crops and plundered of minerals and resources.

Weston writes powerfully about pre-independence resistance movements, but has nothing to say about recent struggles. A source of hope can be found in the recent resistance of the poor in West Africa. Two countries in the region, Nigeria and Burkina Faso, have been shaken by sustained revolts in the last two years that pulled into their orbit the people Weston writes about in The Ringtone.

At the end of his travels Weston suffered a minor breakdown, overcome by the poverty around him and his inability to make a difference. The author’s concern and sensitivity for the region and its people radiates through the book. Despite some misgivings The Ringtone helps us to understand West Africa, with a deeply humane rage against poverty in a region – and world – of abundant wealth.

The Ringtone and the Drum is published by Zero Books, £15.99

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