Ach, Africa


Oh, Africa

Bartholomäus Grill:
Ach, Afrika:
Berichte aus dem Innern eines Kontinents
Berlin: Siedler, 2003
384 S.
ISBN 3-88680-754-1
Paperback edition: Goldmann, 2005


Bartholomäus Grill who has been Africa-correspondent of DIE ZEIT for many years sums up his reporting on the continent. He relates episodes and experiences, critically reflects on his role as a European journalist but is not shy to give his views and opinions on the condition of our neighboring continent. Nevertheless he is aware of the limitations of his views. "Whenever I look at [Africa] I say to myself: Try to discard the distorted images and projections. But don't think that you will then find the true, genuine Africa. You can only portray Africa and the Africans from a European perspective. You have no other."

This is one of the most successful books on Africa in recent years which has received many awards, a book on history, travel and politics.

Ingrid Laurien, 2008
Translated by Rolf Annas


    Bartholomäus Grill: Ach, Afrika (Oh, Africa)

    Africa-correspondents of major newspapers often crown their work as reporters from inside our neighboring continent by publishing a "book on Africa". Such a book then not only summarises the best examples of their writing but also presents readers with their specific views on the continent. The journalist travels the continent on behalf of his readers and thereby consciously assumes the role of an informed non-expert. It’s all about impressions, experiences and opinions, not so much about scientific analysis. Because the readers identify with the author, journalistic books on Africa have a very strong influence on the readers' image of Africa.

    It is difficult to write a really good book about Africa. The media who send correspondents for "Africa" onto the continent, burden them with the task to be informed about a conglomerate of 50 very different countries in various regions – a sheer impossible task. On the other hand, an informed view other than that of a sociologist, politician or historian can offer new perspectives on the continent, such as a certain melancholic affinity expressed in the title of the book "Oh, Africa" by the ZEIT-journalist, Bartholomäus Grill.

    With reference to the collection of essays by Enzensberger "Ach Europa" ("Oh, Europe") published in 1987, Grill makes demands on himself and emphasises what his book is all about: "No encyclopedic book, no monograph about Africa", but merely "the reflections of a correspondent who, since 1980, has been trying to understand the continent." Grill is quite aware of the subjectivity and limitations of his perspective: "How should I obtain an overview if I only see a few splinters, speak only with a dozen people and visit two or three places?" However, the structure of the book does not always meet this self-critical claim.

    In contrast to Enzensberger, Grill does not content himself with specific essays on specific situations in individual countries but leaves it up to the reader to make up his own mosaic of the continent. He comments on his experiences, places them together under chapter headings such as "A continent torn between tradition and modernity" or, "Africa's big men and their power". Thereby he again suggests an attempt to use the "splinters" to paint a bigger picture of the continent. Such a view from the distance makes it almost impossible to escape using clichés or making generalisations. Grill describes this problem himself: "Africa is viewed through the wrong end of binoculars. The object moves into the distance, its details are unrecognisable." But exactly that is what he does not always manage to avoid in his book, despite many thought-provoking and clever, even self-critical reflections. Critics have justifiably referred to "settings from the arsenal of the politically correct pseudo-psychology" (Dominic Johnson, taz) or "constructions of the other" (Andreas Eckert, FAZ) in Grills book. The main point of the book is not new, i.e. that the reasons for the misery of the continent are no longer to be found in its colonial past and/or the unfair world economic order, but within Africa itself, especially in the corrupt political elites. To do this in a more differentiated way, there one has to agree with Grill, is just not possible without falling back on old clichés, "the" Africans just "can't" do it. Such generalisations Grill calls by name, racist.

    But prejudices and the generalised "view from the distance" are soon forgotten if one looks at Grill's wonderful travel writing, the depictions of life, specific people, and specific experiences: Be it an initiation in Cameroon, a difficult journey through the Congo Basin or the harsh contrasts in Johannesburg. Then one understands that this is one of the best books on Africa of recent years written by someone who just cannot let the continent go. "You drink another lukewarm beer, go to bed and think of the threshold from day to day: Oh, Africa!"

    Ingrid Laurien, 2008
    Translated by Rolf Annas


    Arte-Tv   deutsch

    Arte-Interview with Bartholomäus Grill (by Katharina Göbel)

    Deutschlandradio   deutsch

    Bartholomäus Grill in conversation with Helmut Heinzlmeier

    Perlentaucher - Culture magazine   deutsch

    Summary of diverse book reviews

    Randomhouse Publishers   deutsch

    Publisher’s web page with comments by Heinz Delvendahl and extracts from the author’s foreword