Landlocked countries used to grow a special crop of daydreams. (“Used to,” because the Boeing and the Airbus long ago replaced the steamship; nobody needs a seaport to fulfill escapist fantasies, and “landlocked” scarcely survives as a category.) Nations that lacked a seacoast or a colonial empire, or were locked up by dictators within their own frontiers, had a special hunger for travelers’ tales about dark continents, palm-bordered islands, fierce jungle peoples, and wild animals greedy for human prey.
In response to this hunger, there grew up a special category of globetrotting reporters, producing in the local language a nourishing stream of books and articles about exotic tropical worlds. And this school of writing was not just a variant of the enormous colonial-adventure literature poured out above all by British and French authors voyaging around their own imperial possessions. It had a special edge, for many of these writers came from long-suppressed European nations, which had a recent history of being invaded, conquered, culturally dominated, and often settled by the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, or German empires. These writers knew all too well what it meant to be at the wrong end of colonialism, and in Africa, Asia, or Polynesia they constantly recognized aspects of their own experience. This is not to say that they were free of color prejudice or that they were necessarily committed to the cause of colonial liberation. But Conrad, for example, even though he wrote for an English readership, had a sense of the ironies and absurdities of tropical empire which Rider Haggard and G.A. Henty and even Flaubert lacked.
That is the tradition from which Ryszard Kapuscinski springs. “Peoples’ Poland,” the Communist regime which lasted from 1944 to 1989, perpetuated the nation’s old sense of isolation. This yearning for news from the exotic world outside was served at the popular end by a series of “approved” travel writers, like Arkady Fiedler, and at the intellectual, politically daring end by Kapuscinski. If he has a close cultural ancestor, it might be Egon Erwin Kisch, the rasende Reporter—the hurtling newsman—from Prague, who traveled the globe to stimulate the fantasies and rouse the moral outrage of Czech and Austrian readers during the first part of the twentieth century. But unlike Kisch, some of whose scoops nearly unhinged the Hapsburg dynasty, Kapuscinski seldom reported from his home ground. Born in Pinsk, in the eastern borderlands of Poland that were annexed by the Soviet Union, he has written a memorable book of travel and reflection about the debris of the collapsed USSR.* Otherwise all his translated books are about his wanderings and discoveries in other continents: Asia, Latin America, and above all Africa.
For many years, working mainly in Africa for the Polish Press Agency and the Warsaw weekly Polityka, Kapuscinski was uniquely privileged. The Communist regime was far away and—apart from the power to censor his output—had little control over him. His Western colleagues were delighted to discover that he was not some spy in disguise but a first-class journalist and comrade as committed to “the story” as they were. And yet his preoccupations were deeper and more complex than theirs. He carried the gloomy history of postwar Poland about with him, and noticed discouraging parallels in other continents. His two best-known books, The Emperor (about the fall of Haile Selassie) and Shah of Shahs, demonstrated that the attempt to force a country to “develop” without a corresponding increase in democracy is always doomed; the obvious allusion was to the rule of Edward Gierek in 1970s Poland.
The Shadow of the Sun, Kapuscinski’s new book (vigorously translated by Klara Glowczewska), resembles his famous The Soccer War (1991) in its form as a collection of reportages and sketches from his assignments. (Even by 1980, Kapuscinski had covered twenty-seven revolutions and coups and uncounted wars in the “third world.” Interestingly he was one of the last writers to use that term in its original, upbeat meaning. Almost fifty years ago, he was strongly sympathetic to the “Bandung” conferences of non-aligned nations which began in 1955 and were supposed to give birth to a progressive third-world bloc of post-colonial countries independent of the two cold war “worlds.”) The Soccer War recorded bad, good, and grotesque times throughout the world: the Congo catastrophe of 1960–1961 (in which Kapuscinski escaped a Belgian firing squad by only a few hours), Nigeria and Algeria, and also Central America, Syria, and even the United States. But The Shadow of the Sun is exclusively about Africa. It ranges over the experiences of almost half a century, beginning with his first visit to Kwame Nkrumah’s newly independent Ghana in 1957 and ending in the late 1990s in Eritrea, on the eve of a renewed conflict in Ethiopia and of Africa’s first “continental war” over the succession to Mobutu in the Congo. And it shows how Kapuscinski’s method has changed and deepened, as international success as a writer freed him from the noble drudgery of front-line journalism.
Like many foreign correspondents, he never really enjoyed the duty of courting those who held power, and preferred to talk to people in the streets. This book shows his technique. In Nigeria, Uganda, Somalia, and Senegal, he strikes up chance acquaintances in a market or on a bus and follows his new friends back to their village. No writer has better recorded the slenderness of Africa’s means, not in times of spectacular famine or disaster but in the everyday life of families whose personal possessions can be wrapped in a single cotton cloth.
For Kapuscinski, the greatest leap forward that has affected Africans is not some “green revolution” or lordly World Bank gesture of debt relief. It is the coming of the “cheap, light, plastic container.” Once water had to be carried long distances, usually on the heads of women, in heavy clay or stone vessels. Now children can fetch the water. “You see entire flocks of youngsters, playing and teasing one another as they walk to a distant spring. What a relief this is for the exhausted African woman!… How much more time she now has for herself, for her household!” And the plastic container has abolished the need to stand for hours in the line for water, in case the precious clay pot is stolen. “Now…you place your plastic container in the line and then go find yourself some shade, or go to the market, or visit friends.”
For people whose only gain from the industrialized world is a plastic bowl, who dream of owning a pencil so that a child can be educated, life has a haunting lightness. But around every lack and disaster, Africa improvises. At Onitsha in Nigeria, Kapuscinski encountered an enormous hole which had opened in the main street, holding up traffic for miles. But this hole had become an institution. An entire new focus of urban life had blossomed around it; one crowd of boys unloading the next truck in line, another dragging the vehicle down into the flooded, slimy pit and then heaving it out the other side with ropes, planks, chains, and shovels. “Rows of women were positioned around the brim, selling hot food—rice with a spicy sauce, cassava pancakes, baked yams, peanut soup. Others were hawking homemade lemonade, rum, banana beer. Some boys were selling cigarettes and chewing gum.” He saw that the hole, which had evidently been there for a long time, “had become the epicenter of local life…. There arose, suddenly and spontaneously, thanks solely to that unfortunate hole, a dynamic, humming, bustling neighborhood.” The unemployed made money heaving cars through the pit; the traders set up their stalls; fresh-painted “Hotel” signs showed where local shops had been converted into refuges for drivers forced to spend nights waiting for their turn to get through; children found a delightful new playground in the confusion; people with nothing to do stood around the hole and turned it into “a place for meetings, conversation, and discussion.”
The hole in Onitsha can serve as an allegory for the way Ryszard Kapuscinski’s own feelings about Africa have moved: down into disillusion and then, painfully, up again into a new and different appreciation of the inherent courage and ingenuity of African society. He began with big ideals, a fairly typical young Polish leftist of the 1950s who believed—vainly, as it turned out—that the “Polish Road to Socialism” could branch off from the Soviet highway and find its way to something resembling democracy and tolerance. Independence for Africa would surely bring a new birth of liberty, even an African road to socialism. Instead there was the horrific fiasco of the Congo in 1960, followed in too many other new states by the spread of corruption, then the plague of military coups, the generation of nightmare dictators from Amin to Bokassa, the return of famine and wars—civil and international—and finally the apocalypse of Rwanda.
But Kapuscinski was kept too busy to indulge in the despair he felt. The big stories were happening all about him, and he hurled himself into them. One of the best pieces in The Shadow of the Sun—a classic of foreign correspondent’s folklore—is his account of getting to Zanzibar in 1964, when a chaotic anti-Arab revolution seized and then sealed off the island a few days after the Duke of Edinburgh had presided at its independence ceremonies. Somehow he reaches the island in a light aircraft from Dar es Salaam, interviews the somber figure of “Field Marshal” John Okello (a twenty-five-year-old Ugandan semi-literate who believed that God gave Zanzibar to the Africans), and is almost drowned in an attempt to escape back to the mainland by small boat.
The downside of being a Polish newshound is that you have no money. The upside is the extraordinary contacts that suddenly appear when you really need them. It was Henryk from L/ódå«z, running a nightclub in Dar es Salaam, who opened the crucial access to the Zanzibar plotters. It was Helena, from the lost Polish province of Podolia, who greeted Kapuscinski in Zanzibar by reciting a flowery poem by the “Young Poland” lyricist Leopold Staff—before telling him that the leaders of the revolution were all sitting next door in the hotel she owned, drinking beer for free.
But thrilling anecdotes about getting the story are the exception in The Shadow of the Sun. Kapuscinski is one of the great journalists, but—like the late Martha Gellhorn—he is also a literary artist whose sketches are composed with care and skill. “Salim,” a few pages about breaking down in the Sahara with a wordless Mauritanian truck driver who might or might not sacrifice him in order to survive himself, is masterly. So is the longer “Madame Diuf Is Coming Home,” a slow train journey from Dakar up-country to Bamako, in which a market-lady steadily fills the compartment with her wayside purchases and with the energy of her own personality (“her monopolizing and unapologetic omnipotence”) until Kapuscinski is forced out of his seat and almost off the train.
How Africa has changed, he reflects with satisfaction. Years before, he had made the same journey and sat alone in the compartment; “no one dared to disturb the peace and encroach upon the comfort of a European.” But so many of the changes, nonetheless, have been for the worse. Recounting his experiences during the 1966 military coup in Nigeria, Kapuscinski reflects on the gloomy descent that so often followed the euphoric years before and after independence. The promised prosperity did not arrive; the population multiplied; the new elites stuffed their pockets:
In a country without a well-developed private sector, where plantations belonged to foreigners and the banks to foreign capital, the political career was the only road to riches. In short—the poverty and disillusion of those on the bottom rungs, coupled with the cupidity and gluttony of those on the top, create a poisoned, unstable atmosphere, which the army senses; presenting itself as the champion of the injured and the humiliated, it emerges from the barracks and reaches for power.
And after the army putsch, there was often worse to come. Fresh power struggles broke out, sometimes within the military regimes, as leaders played off ethnic tensions within the artificial state frontiers left by the colonists. The first generation of senior officers, trained at Sandhurst in England or at French military academies, gave way to megalomaniac sergeant-majors like Amin in Uganda or to the unspeakable Sergeant Samuel Doe of Liberia, finally tortured to death in front of a video camera by Prince Johnson, his own chief of staff. (Kapuscinski has seen this video, still popular as entertainment in Liberia, in which Johnson cuts off Doe’s ears in order to make him reveal the number of his bank account.) At the bottom of this slimy pit of history, Africa suffers from the man-made famines of Ethiopia, Sudan, and Somalia, the planned genocide in Rwanda, and, more recently, the pan-African war in the Congo which (the latest figures suggest) may have cost three million human lives.
In spite of this, and although he has seen the worst that contemporary Africa can do, Kapuscinski absolutely rejects the “basket case” approach to the continent. Even its benevolent version revolts him. “Today as in the past, Africa is regarded as an object, as the reflection of some alien star, as the stomping ground of colonizers, missionaries, ethnographers, large charitable organizations (more than eighty are active in Ethiopia alone).” He adds,
The increasingly important question in the world is not how to feed all the people—there is plenty of food, and preventing hunger is often only a matter of adequate organization and transport—but what to do with them. What should be done with these countless millions? With their unutilized energy? With the hidden powers they surely possess?
In Addis Abeba, he trawls around the lavish offices of Africa Hall, home of the Organization for African Unity (OAU), in search of answers and hopes. He is treated to sophisticated discourses on development or human rights. But the sharpest comment comes from Sadig Rasheed, a Suda-nese economist working for the UN: “I worry about whether African socie-ties will be able to assume a self-critical stance, and much depends on this.”
As a foreign journalist, Kapuscinski sees the force of that. In most of Africa, as in most of the world, outside criticism is rejected as inherently hostile while few indeed are capable of admitting frankly the failures and weaknesses of their own societies. Europe and the West have much to apologize for, but perhaps “the strength of Europe and its culture, in contrast to other cultures, lies in its bent for criticism, above all, for self-criticism….” A continent that is crowded with refugees, whose cities have exploded into uncontrollable slums while half of the population is under fifteen, has problems. But Kapuscinski suggests that another, even graver, problem is the refusal of African intellectuals to stay at home. He flips through a Somali literary quarterly. Of the seventeen writers, scientists, and thinkers who have contributed, fifteen now live abroad. Those who should be the self-critical voices in their own lands have simply defected to New York, Chicago, Paris, London, or Rome. And what happened to the bookstores? For Ethiopia’s fifty million people, there is only one, in the university, and its shelves are now bare. “Once, I remember, there was a good bookshop in Kampala, another (three even) in Dar es Salaam. Now—everywhere, nothing.”
In some ways, Ryszard Kapuscinski has an old-fashioned approach to Africa, and occasionally his arguments and facts are contestable. He writes too often about “the African”—for example, “the African always feels endangered. Nature on this continent strikes such monstrous and aggressive poses….” Generalizations like that don’t work anymore, and in fact they contradict his own observation that Africa is a “shimmering collage” of social differences and varieties. As he says, quoting the historian Roland Oliver, the imperialists did not “partition” this Africa but—precisely the opposite—they violently unified more than ten thousand political units, great and small, into a few colonies. And in doing so, as Roland Oliver described in The African Experience, they also invented the noxious institution of “the tribe.” They welded a multitude of small communities into one, for the convenience of indirect rule; they imposed a hitherto nonexistent “paramount chief” to impersonate “traditional authority”; they even proclaimed a unitary “tribal culture,” sometimes going so far as to synthesize a single “tribal language” with a “correct” spelling and grammar. Classic European nationalism, in short, was transplanted into Africa.
The fact that Africans then internalized first “tribe” as the term for the basic ethnic unit, and then “nation” as the title for the ex-colonial territory, led to most of the horrific outbreaks and breakdowns of the late twentieth century. Kapuscinski, although he has read Oliver and other revisionist historians of Africa, sometimes seems to take the authenticity of “tribalism” on trust. For him, the worst injury that Europeans inflicted on Africa came much earlier. The slave trade permanently damaged “the memory and consciousness of Africans: centuries of disdain, humiliation, and suffering gave them an inferiority complex….” He writes as if Europeans were responsible not only for the slave trade and the Middle Passage but for all the slave-raiding as well: “three hundred years of raids, roundups, pursuits, and ambushes, organized, often with the help of African and Arab partners, by white men.”
This is not how most historians would now tell the story. It doesn’t diminish the great crime of the slave trade to recognize that slavery was an immemorially old institution in Africa, as in Asia, and that aggressive war to seize slaves (mainly females and children) was a West African pattern long before the Portuguese arrived on the coast in the fifteenth century. The European slavers, although they forcibly shipped up to twelve million people across the Atlantic, depended on African owners or dealers for their supply, and European expeditions to seize slaves directly were very rare. Kapuscinski felt well-justified guilt as a white man when he first came to Africa. But his lament that “they, the black men, had never conquered anybody, hadn’t occupied, hadn’t enslaved” is poor history and takes self-reproach too far.
Like many good journalists, Ryszard Kapuscinski is reticent about himself. The reader only gets personal details which contribute to the story he is telling. For example, in this book, he is twice nearly killed by illness. Cerebral malaria strikes him down in Uganda; pulmonary tuberculosis is diagnosed in Dar es Salaam and very nearly puts an end not only to his work in Africa but to his life. He writes with horrible vividness about symptoms and fevered delusions, but the point of recording them is to introduce the Africans who nursed him and became his friends. In the same way, “The Lazy River”—a sketch about Polish Catholic missionaries working in the Cameroon forests—reveals that Kapuscinski himself is a believer:
“Croyez-vous en Dieu, monsieur?” I would always wait for this question, because I knew that it would be posed…. And I sensed that the way in which I answered would determine our relationship. And so when I said, “Oui, je suis croyant” (yes, I believe), I would see in his face the relief this brought him, see the tension and fear attending this scene dissipate, see how close it brought us….
Here again, the fact about his faith is only there because he is making a point about enduring popular respect for religious belief of any kind, and in West Africa, at least, about the remarkable tolerance among “the countless Islamic mullahs and marabouts,…ministers of hundreds of Christian sects and splinter groups, not to mention the priests of African gods and cults.”
Ann Jones, author of Looking for Lovedu, is not at all reticent about herself. An American travel journalist, she decided to drive from one end of Africa to another. Having made the decision, she cast about for a good reason to make the journey and settled on a quest for the Lovedu nation. This is a small people now living in the Drakensberg mountains of South Africa who—according to rather elderly accounts dug up by Ann Jones in her research—lived under a Rain Queen in a society which gave highest status to women.
She put together some money from corporate sponsors, and, equipped with laptop and mini-printer, teamed up with a rangy “petrolhead” English photographer who possessed an old Land Rover and a passion for vehicle engines. She was fascinated by Africa; he basically hated it, but enjoyed ramming his way through its obstacles. Most of the book is about the feelings of Ann Jones, as she and her companion bounce, splash, curse, and bribe their way from Morocco through Mauritania, then across West Africa and what was still Zaire, on the way to Kenya. In Nairobi she and the petrolhead split up; with two women companions, an African and an Australian, she headed on south again and eventually reached the Rain Queen.
This was something of a letdown. The Lovedu (or Lobedu, as they now call themselves) have changed a lot under the pressures of apartheid and closer administration. Only the Queen carries on. So does the rain she invokes. Modjadji V has the customary twenty-five wives of her predecessors, but otherwise the Lovedu women have become as subordinate as women anywhere else in Africa. A heavy, middle-aged woman with a grim expression, the Queen had nothing she wished to say to pilgrim Jones, who had fought her way across the entire continent to see her. Begged to offer a lesson that the Western world could usefully learn from Lovedu, the Queen scowled for a bit and eventually said that she could teach her visitors to dance. “The Queen’s remark seemed enigmatic and profound. But what did it mean?”
Perhaps it meant: go away and leave me in peace. But Ann Jones, although chirpy and self-interested, has written a travelogue that is usually fun to read, and witty about the male obstinacy and rages of her first companion. Two sections of her book stick in mind. One is the encounter with the Queen. The other is the account of getting across the Congo along what were once roads, but which are now nightmarish, wallowing trenches of mud, one long Onitsha hole reaching for hundreds of kilometers. The Land Rover had to be wrenched and dragged out of it every few minutes, day after mosquito-tortured day. Under such torment, people confess to passions they normally conceal. Centuries of white rage against Africa’s otherness burst through as the English photographer yelled in despair, “Where the hell are we going to get a steering relay piece in bloody Zaire?… Without it, we’re stuffed. We can’t go anywhere. We’ll spend the rest of our lives in bloody Zaire! We’ll be just like them.”
June 21, 2001