Halfway through this hugely readable volume of reportage and analysis, Richard Dowden tells us about the Senegalese Mourides. This small Muslim sect of maybe three million people is quite atypical of the continent, yet provides a unifying illustration of Dowden's main themes: African inventiveness, its ready embracing of new technologies and its infinite variety.
The Mourides are the face and sound of Africa that Europeans who have never visited that continent might meet in the high streets of their cities or hear in their bars and clubs. Almost all the African market traders selling jewellery, belts and leather bags are Mourides, as are the Senegalese musicians beloved by the west, such as the world-famous Youssou N'Dour. We may mistake them for economic migrants making a tough street living. In fact, they are at the heart of a successful subculture based on trust, hard work and modern telecommunications, particularly the mobile phone, with which they trade and remit money home from around the globe. Without them, the Senegalese economy would probably collapse.
Dowden has learned this at first hand from the people of Touba, a city 100 miles west of Dakar. So, when he visits a street market in Venice, he naturally approaches two Mouride traders, shares an exchange in their language and shakes hands in the Mouride way. The traders are astonished.
A newspaper correspondent around the continent over many years, now director of the Royal African Society, Dowden writes with the rigour of an academic but the immediacy and personal observation of a first-class reporter unravelling the paradoxes of Africa's recent history. How can a continent whose contribution to mankind has been its humanity - "the prize it offers the rest of the world" - be a place, too, of the brutality we saw in the mid-Nineties? Why did the first generation of leaders after independence, so many of them patriots and idealists, fail their people so miserably? These and other paradoxes, of beauty and evil, courage and corruption, the scramble for a western lifestyle and the stubborn Africanness of how daily life is actually lived, weave through Dowden's narrative.
And he can tell a story. His account of almost becoming the first victim of the US navy in vasion of Mogadishu in 1992 (a thousand Somalis were killed later that night) combines comic detail ("our pick-up has flashing Christmas lights around the windscreen and plays Brahms's lullaby when it reverses") with sharp analysis. But the real victims of the US Somali disaster were the Rwandan Tutsis, he writes. "After Somalia, Americans gave up on the UN. They punished Somalis for their own debacle." When in 1994 the genocide started in Rwanda, the US turned its back.
As a postscript to this report, Dowden records his return to Mogadishu in 1999. The US had abandoned Somalia, but though a civil war still rumbled, the country was managing rather well "without a single cent from the World Bank or the IMF". An advanced telephone network had been established, with remittances from foreign workers pouring in. "Abdi in Vancouver can hand the phone company $103 and $100 will be given to his aunt Mariam in Galkayo the same day . . . Nothing is written down, everything is on trust. Cheat and you die. It works well."
In 1976, Dowden went to Notting Hill to interview Robert Mugabe, newly released from a high-security prison, four years before the first post-Rhodesia election. He already nursed a hatred and distrust of the British. But Dowden's account of the liberation struggle dispels many current prejudices of the man now forced to accommodate a power-sharing arrangement with his arch-enemy, the opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. Dowden reminds us that Mugabe and Margaret Thatcher shared a few hours sipping whisky together over the two years when Mugabe's wife was being treated at a British hospital and that Ian Smith remained unmolested in an ungated and unlocked house in Harare until as late as 2001, the year in which Tony Blair publicly criticised Mugabe, a spectacular mistake, according to Dowden.
But few of us would have done better, he says - because few of us can understand how the hero of Zimbabweans' liberation from Rhodesia's white supremacists became the monster who would rather see his people starve than relinquish power. The key is the unshiftable respect throughout the continent for the father, the big man, the elder, the one with the power.
Dowden learned this early in his love affair with Africa, in Uganda, where he went as a young teacher determined, as so many Europeans have been, to help, to live among Africa's poor and to do good works. He recalls a young pupil, the brightest and best of his peer group, a keen, honest boy with a stellar future. But one day Willie Kiyanga stole £10 from the staffroom. He bought ostentatiously garish clothes and drinks for all until his money ran out. "I hated him for it . . . because he seemed to reinforce those smug shite cynics who said Africans never think ahead," writes Dowden.
For Willie, it was worth it. For a while he was the Big Man dispensing patronage, the paradigm that runs through stories of the continent: adored as Nelson Mandela, revered as Mwalimu (teacher) Nyerere, feared as Idi Amin, or envied as "the cock that covers all the chickens", like Mobutu Sese Seko. Yet Dowden passionately believes in the power of the continent to reinvent itself. It is not aid or politics that will transform the fortunes of the continent's myriad cultures. For Dowden, there are three transformative agents: its natural resources, its inventiveness - and the mobile phone.