Up from Development
Two new books take a fresh look at the African past—and future
IN A VILLAGE in southern Togo in 2001, I met a man who claimed to have attended primary school during the days when the country was a German colony. This was remarkable, considering that Germany’s colonial administration of Togo had ended in 1914. But apparently even that didn’t convey his true age: According to his nephew, who introduced us, he was 116 years old. The nephew, a traditional healer who marketed an herbal remedy for aids, explained that theirs was a long-lived family. His own mother had made it to 101, and indeed had given birth to him at age fifty-eight. Such astounding maternal health was surprisingly widespread in Togo, where the mother of the country’s military dictator at the time, the sixty-five-year-old General Gnassingbé Eyadéma, had recently passed away at the ripe old age of 168, according to official media.
When I was living in Africa, I used to enjoy the sensation of half believing these sorts of stories—but only half. Obviously, several of the numbers were hugely exaggerated. West Africans tend to fudge their ages upward rather than downward because their cultures valorize seniority. And, of course, my interlocutor was a charlatan. In all likelihood, every age he had cited to me was inflated by 50 percent. But the fact that you can never be entirely sure is part of the joy of the thing.
The reader of David Van Reybrouck’s wonderful history Congo is in a similar position. The Belgian archaeologist and cultural historian opens with an account of a 2008 meeting in a Kinshasa slum with a man named Etienne Nkasi, who says he was born in 1882. Over