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Bernice Martin

Saturday Is for Funerals

Illness, death, and burial in Africa.

In his brilliant little book about global income distribution, The Haves and the Have Nots (2011), the World Bank economist Branko Milanovic claims that sub-Saharan Africa is really the Fourth World. It displays a lethal combination of bottom-of-the-table average income with a degree of income inequality only exceeded in Latin America, and certainly higher than the rump of the white colonial élite could account for. In more than one contemporary African state, poverty and inequality have been intensified by the rapaciousness of post-independence black élites and the failure of the postcolonial project.

All this should worry us, not only because Africa was shaped by Western colonialism but because we are, everyone, our brothers' keeper in this age of economic and geopolitical interdependence. While India and Brazil prosper, sub-Saharan Africa remains stubbornly impoverished half a century after the end of colonial rule, ravaged by recurrent famine, civil wars, "ethnic cleansing," and every variety of civil distress regularly requiring humanitarian assistance from the international community. Yet even describing Africa as a "problem" is like treading on eggshells. Parts of the global South as well as a section of the Western intelligentsia see colonialism and neoliberal capitalism as the cause of all Africa's ills. Drawing attention to African cultural distinctiveness can be misconstrued as racist, and criticism from the West is easily dismissed as a smokescreen for Western guilt.

At the same time, as we have been repeatedly reminded in the last two decades, the center of gravity of Christianity has shifted decisively to the global South even as aggressive forms of Islam have been on the rise. And Africa is also the epicenter of the global AIDS pandemic. The four books under review here consider these overlapping realities from diverse perspectives.

Well-meaning people sometimes assume that if you could just remove grinding ...

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