Author Michela Wrong on Eritrea's Lessons for Africa
Michela Wrong's new book is I Didn't Do It For You: How the World Betrayed a Small African Nation. She presents a case study of the nation of Eritrea, but the problems she writes about, including colonialism and border wars, are prevalent on the entire continent. Wrong is also the author of the PEN award-winning book, In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz: Living on the Brink of Disaster in Mobutu's Congo. She has been a correspondent for Reuters news agency, the BBC and the Financial Times of London.
Other segments from the episode on July 5, 2005
DATE July 5, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Martin Meredith discusses Africa's history and his
book, "The Fate of Africa"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The Live 8 concerts were conceived to raise awareness about Africa's economic
and health problems. The G8 Summit starts tomorrow. To understand Africa's
problems, it's helpful to understand Africa's history. In a few minutes,
we're going to look at one small country, Eritrea, and see how the impact of
Colonialism, the Cold War and border wars make this country a case study in
what's gone wrong in Africa.
First, we're going to hear from journalist Martin Meredith, who has covered
Africa and written several books about it. His new book, "The Fate of
Africa," is about post-Colonial Africa, but the introduction explains how
Europe staked claim to virtually the entire continent at the end of the 19th
Your introduction starts in the 19th century when European powers divided the
continent. Was there actually a process in which the European powers met and
decided on how to divide the continent?
Mr. MARTIN MEREDITH (Journalist): They met over many years, at meetings in
London and Paris and Berlin and other European capitals, not knowing very much
about what was going on on the ground in Africa, knowing little about the
geography, and many of the boundaries that they decided on were entirely
arbitrary. The lines that they drew on maps were very often straight lines or
lines of latitude, lines of longitude, and what that meant was--is that the
colonies that they created were essentially artificial right from the start.
There were in Africa at the time something like 10,000 African polities or
African societies, and these were all amalgamated and carved up and reduced
into essentially 40 European colonies.
GROSS: And so that divided some African cultures and then also put some
African cultures who were in opposition to each other within the same state.
Mr. MEREDITH: Yes. There were some peoples, like the BaKongo of today's
Congo, or indeed the Somali, who were divided up. Well, the Congo was divided
up between the French, the Belgians and the Portuguese, and the Somalis were
divided up between Britain, Italy and France. So that's an example, if you
like, of the way in which some peoples were rent apart by the arbitrary
divisions that Europe imposed. But in most other cases, because there were so
many small African societies, they were all thrown together in a sort of
jumble to create new states.
Many of them had no common language or no common culture. Some of them, in
some cases, were hostile to each other. They were hostile neighbors who
fought wars occasionally. And many of these were actually thrown into an
artificially created state and essentially kind of told to get on with it.
GROSS: What did the Colonial government do to try to make countries out of
these different cultures, who some of whom were feuding with each other?
Mr. MEREDITH: Well, first of all, they started to use, if you like, European
languages, which is one of the unifying factors, so the French obviously
used--France used French and Britain used English. And that's one reason why
today the most common languages that are spoken, apart from Arabic, are
English and French and Portuguese. And that's the reason. Another sort of
unifying factor was the way that European powers began to create modern
economies, so they built roads and railways and ports, which began to provide
a basic infrastructure. But there wasn't actually very much development that
went on of this kind, because European powers believed that they had hundreds
of years in which to work to kind of establish these new states, and they
weren't particularly interested in investing resources there, other than to
kind of keep law and order and maintain kind of public expenditure at a
minimum. So there was pretty little development that actually went on for the
first 20 or 30 years.
GROSS: Leaders from the G8--Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan,
Russia and the US--are about to meet. Africa will be at the top of their
agenda, and among the issues they're going to discuss are aid, debt
cancellation and trade. Let's just break this down a little bit and look at
some of the issues they're going to be covering. What will they be
considering regarding aid to African countries?
Mr. MEREDITH: Well, there's a movement afoot to increase the level of aid to
Africa by the West to overcome its huge difficulties. There is, however, a
serious difference in policy; that is that the Bush administration is in
favor of much more limited aid to Africa, arguing that a great deal of aid
that's been given to Africa in the past has basically been a waste. The
difference of opinion comes between Bush and Tony Blair's administration, in
particular, but other European governments, too, which want a huge increase in
aid, so that--and applying it across the board, not to identify in the way
that Bush wants, particular countries which are willing to abide by good
government. So aid is one of the main issues in contention, and it's one of
the ways in which, if you like, people are looking for progress, but I doubt
that there will be very much.
GROSS: And what about debt cancellation?
Mr. MEREDITH: Debt cancellation is, in some ways, easier to agree on and,
indeed, a great deal has already been agreed. It has been provisionally
agreed and will be confirmed by the G8 meeting on Wednesday to write off an
amount of $40 billion of debt, which is owed to multilateral institutions like
the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. But since this was
long-term debt, which was never expected to be repaid in the first place, the
actual impact of debt cancellation is not going to be very great. The main
impact is really kind of the extent to which debt interest does not have to be
paid, and that amount is an almost trivial amount of $1.5 billion. But debt
is by far, if you like, the easiest route by which the West can address some
of the problems in Africa, and for that reason, there's relatively early
agreement on that issue.
GROSS: And what about trade?
Mr. MEREDITH: Trade is much, much more complicated and there's not really
likely to be much progress on that. It's complicated because there are so
many entrenched interests in the West, protecting their own producers with
huge subsidies. The West, in general, spends roughly $370 billion a year
propping up its own producers, its own farmers, with subsidies to ensure that
they kind of survive. The consequence of this is that both American and
European producers are able to produce everything from cotton to sugar to rice
and a whole range of other agricultural commodities at a fraction of the price
that African producers can produce their own products. And this has a very
adverse effect on the ability of African farmers to grow up crops they like,
because they're facing competition from Italian tomato growers, for example,
or Dutch onion growers who are able to produce products at much reduced
prices. But because there are so many entrenched interests in that--and you
can take US cotton farmers as an example or, indeed, European tobacco
growers--it's very unlikely that there will be any real progress on the trade
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. MEREDITH: It's been a pleasure.
GROSS: Martin Meredith is the author of "The Fate of Africa."
Coming up, how the world betrayed the small African nation of Eritrea and why
that country is a case study of what's gone wrong in Africa.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
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Interview: Michela Wrong discusses the history of Eritrea and
her book, "I Didn't Do It For You"
TERRY GROSS, host:
`It's hard to think of another African country that was interfered with by
foreign powers quite so thoroughly and disastrously as Eritrea,' writes my
guest, Michela Wrong. She's written a history of Eritrea that she describes
as a book about betrayal repeated across the generations and how the
expectation of betrayal can both create an extraordinary inner strength and
distort a national psyche. Her book is called "I Didn't Do It For You: How
the World Betrayed a Small African Nation." Wrong has covered Africa for
Reuters, the BBC and The Financial Times. Her previous book was about
Why is Eritrea such a good case study and what has gone wrong in Africa?
Ms. MICHELA WRONG (Author, "I Didn't Do It For You: How the World Betrayed a
Small African Nation"): I think it's a good case study because it's a perfect
example of how the proxy wars that America and the USSR waged in Africa
wrought such damage. There were many countries like that in Africa, and the
devastation was so much more extreme in Eritrea, so it is a very good example
of that. And I think it also is an example of how societies that have been
devastated by war are going to have a real problem adjusting to the transfer
to civilian life, and effectively, Eritrea has failed to do that and is now
stuck in a kind of permanent military emergency where everybody--every young
person is doing military service, everybody's in camouflage, everybody's
waiting to be invaded. That's not all Eritrea's fault, obviously, but there's
a psychology, sort of a war psychology that really very much was exacerbated
by the Cold War and is still very strong.
GROSS: Can we throw in history of Colonialism in the mix of what makes
Eritrea a case study?
Ms. WRONG: Yeah. Obviously, the Colonial story is the other aspect of this
question. You had a very racist regime that was set up in Eritrea by the
Italians. Mussolini, the great Italian dictator, thought of Eritrea as being
the start of a great second Roman empire he was going to build in Africa and
introduced a lot of extremely racist legislation, very similar to apartheid in
South Africa, and I think that was also very typical of what the Colonial
powers did in Africa and the kind of anger that laid down that sort of slowly
bubbled and fermented and finally blew up. So again, that's very typical.
Every Colonial power left a huge residue of fury behind them.
GROSS: The funny thing is when you went to Eritrea for the first time in
1996, during what turned out to be its short-lived period of independence, you
were really impressed with the society there, and you thought, this is the
exception, this is the country that's the African good news story. What was
so impressive about it in 1996?
Ms. WRONG: I think if you talk to anybody who visited Eritrea shortly after
independence, they have the same feeling. I mean, everyone who went there
just fell in love with the place. Firstly, it's this sort of bleak, dramatic,
extraordinary landscape of mountains, this very high plateau, this--crisp
blue, blue skies, crisp air, bright, bright sun, and then this extraordinary
city, because you're walking through a city that could be an Italian riviera
resort or a Sicilian coastal resort, and there it is plunked at the top of a
And then these extraordinary people that you met, who unlike--in sharp
contrast with so many of the African places I'd visited, they had such a sense
of purpose, they'd just won independence, they were all coming home, they were
building homes for themselves, they had a very clear idea of exactly where
they wanted to go, how they were going to build a new democratic society.
They weren't going to depend on foreign aid, they didn't feel they needed to
ask anyone outside for help. They had fought for their liberation, won it on
their own. It was an extraordinarily invigorating place.
And, of course, at the same time, you're surrounded by all these signs of
extraordinary suffering. I mean, every family you visited, they had these
martyr certificate on the walls where they had lost members of their family
who had died fighting the liberation struggle against Ethiopia. So, you know,
people you met in the street, they were either sort of missing an eye or they
were amputees or they had sort of--a couple of fingers were missing. I mean,
this was a place that had been through hell and come out of it with a really
strong sense of purpose. So it was a tremendously invigorating place to
GROSS: Of course, it was back to hell two years later in 1998. What was the
cost of that two-year war that started in 1998 with Ethiopia?
Ms. WRONG: The cost was between 80 and a hundred thousand young soldiers lost
on both the Eritrean and the Ethiopian sides, but, of course, the real cost
was much, much more than that, because you had a whole society that had been
getting ready to become a democratic, a civilian society at peace, building
the future. And suddenly, because there was this unresolved issue over the
border with Ethiopia, which was then followed by a sort of storm of
controversy, lots of criticism of the president and then the president cracks
down on the opposition and on the press. You had a society that sort of
suddenly, all the things that people thought they had fought for during the
liberation struggle were compromised. The militaries who dared to criticize
the president were in jail, the journalists were also detained. Suddenly,
people were looking over their shoulders, not daring to speak out, and a
multiparty constitution placed on hold, and there was a sort of terrible sense
of loss and shock and trauma, because these were the things that people felt
they had fought 30 years--you know, they had supported this liberation
struggle for these things, and suddenly, you know, they were all on hold.
GROSS: So how did Eritrea become an Italian colony and how did Italy define
Ms. WRONG: The Italians never wanted Eritrea itself. They were looking to
the south. They were looking towards Abyssinia, today's Ethiopia, where there
were green fertile lands. They wanted a place where they could settle their
farmers, because Italy was extremely poor. It was short of land. It was
seeing all its farmers going off to America and South America and Canada, and
it wanted a colony to settle its poor, and it thought that Africa was the
right place, but it didn't want Eritrea. It wanted Ethiopia. And what
happened was that basically, the Ethiopian empire, the Abyssinian emperor
stopped the Italian advance, and they were left just holding Eritrea, which
was not the bit they wanted.
GROSS: You say that because Italy wanted to colonize Eritrea, in part to get
access to more farmland, that it ended up--Italy ended up stripping Eritreans
of their farmland, and a lot of young men had no option, except to sign up to
fight Italy's Colonial wars. What are some of the ways that Italy's
colonization of Eritrea changed life there?
Ms. WRONG: Firstly, the young men lost their land and became these mercenary
fighters for the Italians. But I think, you know, it was a mixed inheritance,
because on the one hand, the Eritreans felt they had been reduced to
second-class citizens. On the other hand, this exposure to the outside world,
this exposure to European colonization, did change Eritrea forever and meant
that a lot of Eritreans felt that they were superior, they were more
sophisticated, they had more savvy than the Ethiopians to the south. So it
was a double-edged sword. In some ways, European colonization brought them
benefits. It brought them education and skills, know-how. On the other hand,
they were also being treated virtually like slaves by the Italian colonizers.
GROSS: And how did things change when Mussolini came to power in Italy?
Ms. WRONG: It got a lot worse for the Eritreans, because Mussolini adopted
this racist legislation, and he made sure it was brought in in Eritrea, where
it became--there had been a lot of mixing between the Italian colonizing the
settlers and the Eritreans. They had taken local Eritrean women as their
wives, as their mistresses, and they had had mixed race children. And they
were basically turned into bastards overnight. Italians were told that they
couldn't have sexual relations with Eritreans, they couldn't marry them, they
couldn't recognize the children, they couldn't adopt the children, they were
not to fraternize. You were supposed to get--if you were an Eritrean, you
were supposed to get in the back door in the bus. You were supposed to sit
apart in the cinema. Entire areas of town were roped off. You weren't
supposed to go there at all, unless you had a reason, because you were working
there. So it was very similar to apartheid under South Africa, and you were
supposed to sort of step off the pavement and walk in the road if you saw an
Italian coming, because obviously, you were inferior. And this created a
huge, huge sense of anger that rankles to this day, because the older
Eritreans still remember that.
GROSS: And then Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935. In 1936, Italy drove out
Ethiopia's emperor, Haile Selassie. Why did Italy invade Ethiopia and how
did that invasion change the region and change Eritrea?
Ms. WRONG: The Italians felt they were avenging the Battle of Adwa, where
they had been totally humiliated by Emperor Menilek's troops, and they wanted
their second, you know, empire, their Roman empire in Africa, and Mussolini
who, you know, had these grandiose ambitions and was sort of now, you know,
heading towards his great alliance with Hitler, this was his--him showing his
own population what a great leader he was, and it changed the region because
huge swaths of the Horn ended up being in Italian hands and, with the outbreak
of the Second World War, basically became very important to the allies to deal
first with the Italians before they could turn their attention to fighting the
Nazi troops up in the western Sahara. So there was a lot of fighting that
went on in the Horn as the British troops tried to expel and get rid of the
Italians in Eritrea, in Ethiopia, in Somalia, because they knew that they had
to neuter that threat for Mussolini before they could deal with Hitler's
troops in the western Sahara.
GROSS: And did Italy's defeat in World War II end Italy's colonies in Africa?
Ms. WRONG: Yes. Effectively, they were stripped of their colonies, and
Britain ended up running Eritrea, amongst other colonies, and there was a
10-year British administration of Eritrea, which was a very grudging
administration. I mean, the Brits were very superior. They introduced
secondary education for the Eritreans, and they introduced the free press and
political parties, but they were very sort of contemptuous towards these
Italian colonies that they felt had been a massive waste of time and a massive
waste of investment. And the Brits sort of were also responsible for rather
discreditable episodes, because essentially, before they left, as they pulled
out of the Horn in both Eritrea and Ethiopia, they set about stripping all the
Italian infrastructure that had been left behind, because the Italians had
really poured money into these two places, and they just dismantled the
factories and the railway equipment and the cable car was eventually
dismantled as well, and all this equipment was dispatched off to British
colonies elsewhere in Africa or in India and Pakistan.
GROSS: Michela Wrong is the author of "I Didn't Do It For You: How the World
Betrayed One Small African Nation." She'll be back in the second half of the
show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, we continue our conversation with Michela Wrong about the
country of Eritrea. We'll also talk about the G8 Summit, and Maureen Corrigan
reviews a new book that takes off on the Dracula myth, "The Historian" by
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Michela Wrong. Her new
book about the history of Eritrea tells a larger story of how Africa was
betrayed by foreign powers. Wrong is a journalist who has covered Africa for
Reuters, the BBC and The Financial Times.
Eritrea had been an Italian colony. British forces defeated the Italians
there in 1941 and took over the administration of Eritrea. In 1949, the UN
established a commission to decide Eritrea's fate. The deal was brokered in
Ms. WRONG: The UN was given the task of deciding who should run Eritrea. And
there were two conflicting views at the time in Eritrea, which was that the
Muslims--because it's a country that's divided between Muslims and Christians,
the Muslims very much wanted independence, and the Christians were saying that
they wanted to unite with Ethiopia, formerly Abyssinia, to the south. And
because the UN simply couldn't decide, you know, which movement and which
group was more powerful and more--should be listened to, they came up with a
compromise solution. So it was federated with Ethiopia, so it was
semi-autonomous but not quite.
GROSS: And what was like for Eritreans like after it was federated with
Ms. WRONG: Well, it should have been a good time, but essentially what was
happening was that the Ethiopians, who didn't accept federation--they
were--Emperor Haile Selassie--he was back in control in Addis Ababa, had
always been obsessed with the idea of having control of a coastline. He
wanted a port. He couldn't stand the idea of having a landlocked country.
And so he essentially set about undermining, whittling away at the freedoms of
Eritrea, sabotaging Eritrea's assembly--it had its own assembly at that
time--and basically sort of buying the members of that assembly--buying them
off, making sure that eventually they all agreed to dissolve themselves,
dissolve the assembly. And Eritrea in 1962 became part of Ethiopia, became
just its northernmost province.
And that was supposed to be the end of the story, effectively, the end of the
story of Eritrean independence, but it really just marked the beginning of
what was going to be a 30-year war of liberation because Eritreans who weren't
happy with being swallowed up by Ethiopia went into the bush and, you know,
joined and set up the rebel movements that were, effectively, to make life
very, very difficult for the Ethiopian army for the next three decades.
GROSS: In 1953, the United States enters the picture, and it sets up a base
there. Why did the US want a base in Eritrea?
Ms. WRONG: Well, this is one of the peculiarities, and I think--I doubt if
many people in America know it. But it's very familiar if you're an Eritrean
because there's a very high plateau--I mean, Asmara is sort of at the top of
an escarpment. And because of its geographical location and its location in
Africa, Asmara was actually the perfect place to listen in on half of the
globe and, most importantly, on the Soviet Union in terms of monitoring and
picking up electronic signals and radio communications and all the sort of
things that are sent out by powers that are trying to keep secret what they're
doing with their missile programs and with their space programs. And Eritrea,
it turned out, was a brilliant place from which to pick this stuff up and
And so it became a very important--this is why Eritrea was such as important
pawn in the Cold War, because the Americans were determined to stay in the
good books of Haile Selassie, because they wanted to make sure that they were
going to be able to use Asmara, to use the base they'd set up there, which was
called Kagnew Station. And they wanted to use that to listen in on the Soviet
Union. And, in return, Haile Selassie demanded weapons, military training,
jets. He wanted his men to go and be sent to military colleges in America.
And so this was the tool that Haile Selassie used to get what he wanted,
building up his army.
GROSS: And what was the Soviet influence like in that part of Africa?
Ms. WRONG: Well, at the time that Haile Selassie was building up his army and
trying to turn it into Africa's biggest and most impressive army, which he
eventually succeeded in doing, Somalia was vying with Ethiopia. So the
Soviets were pouring weapons into Somalia, and the Americans were pouring
weapons into Ethiopia. And a lot of that weaponry was ending up in Eritrea
because Haile Selassie was busy trying to put down these rebel movements that
were giving him a hard time.
GROSS: So the Cold War ends eventually, but the weapons are still there, the
leaders are still there, the rebels are still there. So how did the end of
the Cold War affect the region, like Ethiopia and the Eritreans who were
living under Ethiopian rules?
Ms. WRONG: Well, the end of the Cold War spout was the end for Mengistu
because he kept going to Russia and saying, `I need more weapons, I need more
weapons. I can't get rid of the Eritreans. I can't deal with the Eritrean
rebel movement unless you give me more weaponry.' And at a certain point
things were changing in Moscow, and Gorbachev had come to the fore, and he was
saying, `We can't afford to keep supporting all these disastrous African
dictatorships, which are, you know, brutal beyond belief. And, you know, this
is discrediting the Soviet Union in the eyes of the international community.
We need to sort of stop, toning the whole thing down.' So he basically told
Mengistu that there was no way that Mengistu could keep looking to Moscow for
And essentially this spout the end of that regime because the rebel movements
in both Eritrea and in neighboring Ethiopia were growing more and more
powerful. They started coordinating their attacks. They started planning
things together. And then, in 1991, together they ejected the Ethiopian army
from Eritrea. They rolled all the way down to Addis Ababa, and Mengistu fled
and, you know, escaped, got on a flight to Zimbabwe and never came back.
GROSS: And this kind of brings us to where were at the beginning of the
interview. The Eritreans get independence from Ethiopia in 1991. Things were
looking pretty good. You were there in '96; you were really impressed with
this flourishing, new, more democratic culture, people who were really excited
by their independence and proud of it. And then they go back to war with
Ethiopia in '98. That war lasts two years. And a special commission is
created to help figure out what the boundary was between Ethiopia and Eritrea,
and the two countries were supposed to agree to that. But they're still not
in agreement, in spite of that special commission, over what the border should
be. So there's still tensions between the countries.
Ms. WRONG: Yes, there are. And I think this is the sort of situation that's
widely ignored because--I write a lot about Africa, and I often say to people,
`If there's going to be another war in Africa, it's probably going to be
between Eritrea and Ethiopia.' And we spend a lot of time sort of
saying--talking about conflict prevention and warning systems. And it doesn't
take a genius to sort of say, `This is a warning. You know, this is a
conflict that has to be prevented.' This is a very dangerous situation, and I
think, you know, what's happening in Darfur has shown that you really
shouldn't have a situation where a border is still disputed, you know, three
years after a boundary commission meeting in The Hague delivered its ruling.
OK, Ethiopia didn't like that ruling, didn't think it was fair, but that's
what happens when there's arbitration. And effectively Ethiopia hasn't
observed it, hasn't demarcated the border. So everything remains in limbo. I
think that's a very dangerous situation.
GROSS: My guest is Michela Wrong. Her new book about Eritrea is called "I
Didn't Do It For You." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Michela Wrong, author of the new book "I Didn't Do It For
You." It's about how foreign powers betrayed the small African nation
Excuse me here for reducing Africa to two generalizations here, but there are
a couple of different schools of thought in terms of thinking through why so
many African countries have been ruled by dictators and have been at war for a
decade, either civil wars or wars with other countries. And, you know, again,
I'm just reducing this to generalizations, but one school would say this is a
problem--this problem has been created by corrupt, power-mad individuals who
have ruled African countries and the regimes that they created. And another
school would say this corruption, these dictatorships are the legacy of
colonialism and the Cold War. From your point of view, having covered Africa
for a long time, what are--where within those two generalizations does the
Ms. WRONG: It's a very difficult one. I often think the war between Eritrea
and Ethiopia is sui generis. First, the accusation of corruption doesn't
really apply to either. These are ideologically driven leaderships,
ideologically driven administrations. I think what happened in Eritrea and
Ethiopia--and it's really hard to define exactly how that new war broke out or
why it has proved so intractable. I think there was an element of
face-saving, not being able to be seen to step down. There was an element of
brothers falling out because both leaderships had been very, very close and
both leaders. But the president and the prime minister in Eritrea and
Ethiopia had been very close, and I think brothers can have a huge amount of
resentment towards each other. And there was also--there were economic
So I think the Eritrea-Ethiopia war was actually very different from other
wars in Africa. It was between two national armies. It was fought almost--it
was a sort of trench warfare, which is not something you tend to see in
Africa. And it really broke all the patterns, so I sort of would say it's
just sui generis.
GROSS: But not thinking just of that war but of the whole history of Eritrea,
though I think...
Ms. WRONG: Well...
Ms. WRONG: ...I think Eritrea's history is the perfect example of, you know,
if you take a small country and you flood it with weaponry and then, you know,
you sort of abandon it or are thrown out and then you go to the country next
door and you flood that one with weaponry, you're going to have a pretty
combustible effect. And the death toll and the losses and the destruction
that you leave behind are going to be absolutely enormous. I mean, I think
looking back, you have to wonder why either the Soviet Union or America
thought that it was worth investing so much time, energy, money and weaponry
in the Horn of Africa. You know, was it worth it? Did they get anything out
Kagnew Station was an issue, but that soon became overtaken by--satellite
technology make Kagnew Station irrelevant. These were countries without
obvious assets; there wasn't oil there. They were only vaguely in the
vicinity of important allies, like Israel. I mean, I think this was a sort
of--a perfect example of the Cold War thinking and how it made people go
slightly crazy in those years. And it became important to support African
countries because the other superpower was reporting their arrival across the
way. And the logic of, you know, what--you know, in exchange for this
extraordinary suffering that you're imposing because you're funding armies and
those armies are oppressing local populations in horrific ways, you know, what
do you get in return? Is it worth it?
GROSS: The G8 is about to meet--you know, leaders from eight industrialized
nations, including the United States, England, Russia, France, Japan. Would
you sum up for us what you think the importance of these G8 meetings will be?
Ms. WRONG: I think probably the importance of the G8 meetings--it's probably
emotional as much as anything. I mean, I've spoken to British officials here,
who, as you know, are very closely involved with it, and they're saying that a
lot of the things they were hoping for have already been achieved. They're
getting somewhere on debt relief; there's already been an announcement on
that. Aid--there seems to be a general understanding, at least in Europe,
although I think, you know, in America--there's a feeling the Americans aren't
really on board for this; that European countries, at least, are agreeing that
they have to up their aid budgets to a higher level of GDP.
But the really important thing, the thing that I believe would really make a
big difference in Africa, isn't really the G8's to decide. It comes up before
the World Trade Organization, and it's trade. It's things like European and
American subsidies on our products. These are things that make it so hard for
African countries to export, and it weights everything against an African
recovery. So I think that in the way--the G8 is emotionally important because
it's making everybody in my country, at least, talk about these things. It's
making people think about issues of debt, trade, subsidies, but, you know,
there's a lot more still to be done. And a lot of the stuff that needs to be
done and is most important isn't actually going to be settled at the G8. It
GROSS: Do you think mega concerts like Live 8 and its predecessor, Live Aid,
are useful in calling attention to the issues in Africa? Do you think they're
actually effective at doing that?
Ms. WRONG: I think they're effective at mustering attention and getting
people thinking about things. But what I find very frustrating, as somebody
who's written about Africa now for nearly 20 years, is that the message
becomes so simplified, and it's distorted in the process. So there's a sort
of horrible--I find the whole thing with this G8, the Africa Commission, the
Live 8--there's a sort of patronizing sense that, `We can deliver recovery to
Africa. It's in our hands.' You know, `It's in our control, and we, the
generous, you know, well-meaning West are going to deliver our recovery to
I mean, things are never that simple. You know, there's the whole issue of
governors, there's the whole issue of leadership. There's corruption.
There's the whole issue of countries that want to go to war. I mean, in
Eritrea and Ethiopia, you have two countries, for example, that are still
rearming in preparation for a future war. Now, you know, where does what we
decide in a G8 affect that? You know, this is not all in our remit. And
I--in my own guts, in my heart, I believe that Africa's recovery will come
from Africa, and it's going to come from the young Africans I meet when I go
there, who are educated, they're motivated, who know exactly what they want to
do. They want to run their small businesses. They've all got sort of three
mobile phones each, and they're extremely, you know, clear in their thinking.
They don't want charity, they don't want help. They just want to be allowed
to do business.
I think those people are going to build a future. I don't think it's going to
come from the West. I think there are things we have to do out of sheer human
decency, and the trade issues come in there. But I don't think we can
deliver, you know, salvation. You know, we are not the cavalry.
GROSS: What are the other things that you think we can do under the category
of `human decency'?
Ms. WRONG: I think human decency--well, debt relief comes into that, but I'm
not one of those people who think that you just deliver unconditional debt
relief. There are countries whose dictators--you know, the--Mobutu, who I've
written a lot about--they've just racked up these unspeakable debts. And it
was outrageous that the West ever leant money to people like Mobutu. I mean,
what were we thinking of? You know, this man was so manifestly corrupt, and
everybody knew what he was spending his money on. So there are, you know, the
issue of odious debts.
But I think we should also--you know, we have to be a little realistic and a
little bit critical. I mean, when people--I work for a magazine that was
recently saying--you know, talking about Angola and talking about debt relief
in Angola. And you kind of think, `Well, you know, if you have a manifestly
corrupt government in places like Angola, which is sort of brimming with
diamonds and with oil, you know, is it for us to write off their
debt?'--because this is a government that has repeated shown that it doesn't
give a damn about its own population. And it's quite happy to let sort of
poverty levels, AIDS levels, education, health go through the floor. Is it
really for us to save Angola? I mean, I think it's time to get--to be a
little more realistic and a bit more tough-talking with some of these horrible
regimes that still exist in Africa.
One of my main criticisms of the Africa Commission is that it keeps talking
about this new leadership that's emerging in Africa. And I would like to
know, you know, which leaders they're talking about, which ones in particular,
because I don't see those leaders.
GROSS: You know, I'll be honest with you. Eritrea is not a country whose
history I have followed in the past. I don't always read the articles about
Eritrea in the newspaper. It seems very far away to me. I usually don't
understand what's happening there. One of the things I really like about your
book about Eritrea is that you point out, `Well, America, you were part of
Eritrea's history. You know, during the Cold War...'
Ms. WRONG: Yeah.
GROSS: `...you had a base there. You had a spy station there.'
Ms. WRONG: A--yeah.
GROSS: `And you're a part of the reason why there were all these arms. You
were part of the reason why the Ethiopian government was supported when it
was.' I mean, so, like, all of us Americans have affected the history of
Ms. WRONG: Yes. And I think, you know, that was the message I was trying to
send out to readers, which is that we forget these places, but we sort of
forget them at our peril, you know, just as we all forgot about what America
was up to in Afghanistan. And that--you know, you could say that eventually
that support ended up with the Taliban and then September 11th. We all have a
great tendency to forget our own country's history, especially when they're a
bit discreditable, like what my country, Britain, got up to in Eritrea, which
didn't--they didn't emerge from that experience looking very good. And I
think the aim of the book was to point this out and say it's not to lacerate
ourselves and flagellate ourselves and say, `Oh, weren't we wicked.'
It's more to say, you know, when you then meet countries and you sort of see
them behaving in certain ways, it's really not good enough to sort of shake
your heads and still think, `Gosh, these people are so extreme. Why do they
behave like that?'--because if you scratch a little under the surface and just
do a basic amount of research and homework, you'll discover that there tends
to be very good reasons why they behave as they do and that, you know, it's
often because of things we, as sort of arrogant, clumsy, Western governments,
did. And we've so conveniently forgotten this stuff; a little amnesia has set
in. But the countries that were damaged and scarred by our own interventions
do not forget.
GROSS: Michela Wrong, thank you so much for talking with us.
Ms. WRONG: It's a pleasure.
GROSS: Michela Wrong is the author of "I Didn't Do It For You: How the World
Betrayed a Small African Nation."
Coming up, book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews the new vampire novel "The
Historian." This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Elizabeth Kostova's novel "The Historian"
TERRY GROSS, host:
A novel about vampires prowling around dark forests and damp crypts in Central
Europe may not seem like ideal summer reading fare. But "The Historian," a
debut novel about Dracula by Elizabeth Kostova is shaping up to be one of this
season's big beach books. Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:
No copying. It's the rule of law in grade school and the rule to ignore in
the book business. By now knock-offs of "The Da Vinci Code" surely outnumber
all known scholarly interpretations of the "Mona Lisa's" smile. "Seabiscuit"
sparked a galloping publishing interest in the sport of kings. Into thin air
begot a veritable `perfect storm' of extreme adventure tales on sea and shore.
Literary look-alikes can be the sincerest form of flattery or a cold-blooded
marketing calculation or maybe something else, like, say, an expression of the
Zeitgeist, which brings us to "The Historian," a suitcase-sized debut novel by
Elizabeth Kostova that's shaping up to be this summer's "Sign of Four," which
was last summer's "Da Vinci Code."
"The Historian" begins in the library of a narrow house in Amsterdam in 1972.
Our unnamed narrator, a motherless, 16-year-old, American girl, ventures into
her father's library late one night when he's away on a diplomatic mission.
Out of idle curiosity, she reaches up to the top shelf of one of the bookcases
and pulls down an ancient book, blank except for a central woodcut of a
dragon. She also finds a cache of letters; the topmost one is dated from
Oxford in 1930 and opens with these fateful words: `My dear and unfortunate
successor, it is with regret that I imagine you, whoever you are, reading the
account I must put down here. The regret is partly for myself because I will
surely be at least in trouble, maybe dead or perhaps worse if this is in your
hands. But my regret is also for you, my yet-unknown friend, because only by
someone who needs such vile information will this letter someday be read.' As
you can doubtless tell already, subtlety is not the effect "The Historian" is
What follows for the next 600-plus pages is a series of deliciously mazelike
quest adventures. Confronting her father, our narrator learns that the
letters were written by his mentor at Oxford, a professor named Bartolomew
Rossi, who vanished by pursuing research into the life and afterlife of Vlad
the Impaler. He's the 15th-century Central European ruler, who had a grisly
predilection for skewering his enemy's heads on stakes and who was the
real-life inspiration for Bram Stoker's "Count Dracula."
The main tale in "The Historian" splits into about 20 subnarratives, roaming
from medieval times to the present, in which scholarly vampire hunters, who
are bitten by books rather than fangs, thirst after forbidden knowledge and
thus wander into secret passages, monasteries and, most crucially, libraries
scattered throughout the Carpathians, Turkey, Italy, Bulgaria, Hungary and, of
course, Transylvania. Anyone who's read Stoker's "Dracula" will appreciate
"The Historian's" garlicky riffs on that granddaddy original of 1897, which
also was a book constructed out of quotes from other books as well as letters,
diary entries and even bizarre contemporary inventions, like Dictapohone
Only at the very end does "The Historian" run dry, but then the gothic has
always been a literary form that elevates the quest above the solution. Until
those last 60 pages or so, I relished every blood-curdling moment of "The
Historian." But I do wonder what's up with our current predilection for
paranoid tales that simultaneously assure us that there's an order beneath the
chaos of everyday existence but also warn us that that underlying meaning is
ominous. Better not to read or to see too deeply into the surface of things
is the perverse, anti-intellectual message of erudite light novels, like "The
Da Vinci Code," "The Sign of Four" and "The Historian," where a little
learning always turns out to be a dangerous thing, and a lot of learning or
reading is tantamount to a death sentence. Indeed, the worst punishment
Kostova's Dracula metes out is to damn his most tenacious pursuer to eternity
as a librarian.
Despite the condiments of arcane knowledge tossed throughout these recently
published big books, they serve as secular bibles of know-nothingism. The
encyclopedic touchstones of the 19th-century novel, like "Moby Dick,"
"Middlemarch" and "Anna Karenina," are big books that challenge and disturb
their readers and implicitly push them to seek out other destabilizing texts.
These days we seem to be reading big books that warn us to stay happy and dumb
or else, which, for me, makes "The Historian" a very guilty pleasure, indeed.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University and is
the author of the forthcoming memoir, "Leave Me Alone: I'm Reading!" She
reviewed "The Historian" by Elizabeth Kostova.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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