Altered States, Ordinary Miracles

Richard Dowden

Published: 15 January 2015
Paperback, B Format
129x198mm, 672 pages
ISBN: 9781846276040


A revised and updated edition of the landmark book about the miraculous continent by the finest living Africa correspondent.

Every time you try to say 'Africa is...' the words crumble and break. From every generalisation you must exclude at least five countries. And just as you think you've nailed down a certainty, you find the opposite is also true. Africa is full of surprises.

For the past three decades, Richard Dowden has travelled this vast and varied continent, listening, learning, and constantly re-evaluating all he thinks he knows. Country by country, he has sought out the local and the personal, the incidents, actions, and characters to tell a story of modern sub-Saharan Africa - an area affected by poverty, disease and war, but also a place of breathtaking beauty, generosity and possibility. The result is a landmark book, compelling, illuminating, and always surprising.

This revised edition has an additional chapter on Ethiopia and has been updated throughout to reflect changes such as the death of Mandela and the attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi. It also includes two new maps and a new final chapter considering the shape of Africa's future.

About the author

Image of Richard Dowden

Richard Dowden is director of the Royal African Society. Dowden spent a decade as Africa Editor of the Independent, and then another decade as Africa Editor of The Economist. Few writing in English now have had more experience of life as it is lived in a wider variety of African communities. He has made three television documentaries on Africa, for the BBC and Channel 4. More about the author


‘[A] compelling new book ... Dowden looks at individual countries in turn, drawing on his own experiences in an engaging narrative ... Africa is a remarkable, ground-breaking achievement, capturing the complex texture of a rapidly changing continent. It is also terribly moving’ Susan Williams



‘[A] fine overview ... The strength of Dowden's book lies in his depiction of small details alongside broad brush strokes ... Dowden's greatest asset is that he knows better than to think he has any final answers’ Matt Warman

‘[A] superb collection of essays ... Dowden's journalism is provocative and refreshing, intelligently picking over the Aids debacle, the inefficacy of UN activities, the catch-22 of relief aid and China's fast-growing influence’ James Urquhart

‘[A] sweeping take on the complexities of this struggling continent’

‘A fresh, revealing and mildly optimistic picture of the sub-Saharan continent ... It is very likely to be the non-fiction book of the year’ John Moore

‘A masterly overview of the world's most troubled continent ... The depth of Dowden's knowledge and connection with his subject is hugely impressive ... On a more personal level this is a story of Dowden's love for the continent ... That love makes this book soar ... This is non-fiction writing at its most authentic’ Tim Butcher

‘A sympathetic and understanding book coming from one of the best-informed and knowledgeable of non-African writers ... Dowden's book is excellent’ Derek Ingram

‘A wise, compassionate and understanding account of Africa, written by a man who has glimpsed deeper truths about the continent; truths that we need to know ... Dowden merits the title of "spokesman" for Africa. This book is an inspiring gift of hope about a continent that never ceases to surprise’ Bishop Trevor Mwamba

‘A wonderfully honest book that makes more sense of the current situation than any other recent account I have read’ Patrick Marnham

‘Acute, urgent and comprehensive, Richard Dowden's Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles is this generation's defining work on the continent’

‘An extraordinary book’ Paperback Preview

‘An extraordinary book of many dimensions. It is full of unconnected stories, eye-witness accounts of Africa's ordinary horrors and miracles. Yet they illustrate a powerful analytical narrative that links them all. And the prose is often poetry ... This is an enthralling journey, with a uniquely knowledgeable commentator who forces his reader to turn every next page’ John Lonsdale

‘At last, an overview of the continent that lives up to its promise ... Part memoir, part history, it offers the vibrancy of first-hand anecdotes and the virtue of in-depth knowledge ... a model of clarity, depth and precision’ Jonathan Lorie

‘Combines the edginess of good reportage with a sympathetic and intelligent analysis of the continent's future. His 30 years of sub-Saharan travel give rise to many crises and challenges, but his persuasive outlook is optimistic’ James Urquhart

‘Dowden delivers an engaging portrait of a continent, while attempting to discover why its development is so slow ... Dowden's is an uplifting tribute to Africa and a forceful plea to Make Patronage History’

‘Dowden weaves his experiences, journeys and reflections into an acutely perceptive, always sympathetic and defiantly hopeful portrait of a continent he loves ... [A] compelling book ... Dowden's great achievement is that he provides an uplifting tribute to Africa without excusing or minimising its catalogue of wars, dictators, famines or disasters’ David Blair

‘Dowden's experiences as a journalist over three decades are blended with summary historical analysis and a sprinkling of more wide-ranging insights ... Although the book is addressed largely to a non-African audience, it will also be read with profit by people who live in the countries that it chronicles’ John Ryle

‘Few journalists have travelled in Africa so widely for so long; few can match his enthusiasm, his indefatigable quest for knowledge and his zeal to impart it’ Michael Holman

‘Gripping ... This is a groundbreaking book about why Africa is the way it is’ Editor's Choice

‘His account of the origins of the Rwandan genocide is the best I have read. His explanation for how oil-rich Angola transformed from Portuguese colony to Cold War proxy and finally into an oil-rich kleptocracy is brilliant. His optimism about Africa - the infectious humour, the natural beauty and the extraordinary resilience of the people - shines through the book in spite of the many horrors he has witnessed’ Richard Beeston

‘Hugely readable ... 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’ Barbara Gunnell

‘If you have only time to read one contemporary book about sub-Saharan Africa, this is the one you should go and buy. Richard Dowden offers us an astonishing breadth and depth to his analysis ... We hear the historic and scholarly accounts of countries before, during and after colonisation, told with sympathy and clarity’ Patricia d’Ardenne

‘It's a great pleasure to read, passionate and exciting at the same time as being accurate and rigorous ... I have read a lot of books about Africa and can confidently say this is well out of the ordinary run’ Giles Foden

‘Mr Dowden maintains the reader's interest by skilfully interweaving his research on the economic effects of Aids and international aid into stories of myriad encounters with Africans rich and poor’

‘Part memoir, part personal portrait, this is also an enthralling attempt to explain an Africa of incredible complexity and contradiction’ Michael Kerrigan

‘Richard Dowden distils a lifetime's travel in, and study of, the world's most surprising continent into this authoritative but readable survey of Africa today ... In this eye-opening book, from Sudan and Somalia to South Africa and Kenya, Africa talks - and Africa trades and buys, ratifying a generally upbeat picture. From Aids and war to kickbacks and poverty, the downside emerges. But in nomad tents and country clubs alike, hope springs back to confirm that "in its own time and in its own way, Africa will find a better future"’ Boyd Tonkin

‘Richard Dowden's compelling book puts together a highly personal account ... of a lifetime's involvement with Africa ... Dowden is a writer of rare quality’

‘Richard Dowden's new and excellent portrait ... is to be greeted with a hearty round of applause’ Trevor Grundy

‘Selfish African elites, ignorant International Monetary Fund and World Bank managers and unfair trade policies that lead to poverty, disease and violence are exposed, while Africa's beauty is lyrically evoked ... Africa is brilliant - the horror and the hope’ Alexander Bisley

‘The trenchant essays in this engrossing, illuminating work pick over the Aids debacle, the fast-growing Chinese influence and the catch-22 ethical dilemma of relief aid (does it alleviate distress or prolong violence?), ending with a surprisingly upbeat conclusion’ James Urquhart

‘This book is the work of an informed outsider at the height of the powers and deserves good exposure. It is a very easy read, at times achieving moments of passion and eloquence’ Kaye Whiteman

‘Vivid, informed and darkly humorous prose’ Gavin Bowd

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