“The Shadow of the Sun: My African Life” was first published in Poland in 1998 bringing together material written by Ryszard Kapuscinski in his forty years as a journalist in Africa. It was first published in translation into English in 2001.
Africa was a subject to which the Book Group had often returned. We touched on it in “The Undercover Economist”. We wrestled with its complex past in V.S. Naipaul’s “A Bend in the River”. We arrived in Ethiopia in comic mode in “Scoop”, and returned to Ethiopia in serious mode with “Digging for Stone”. And we were immersed in tribal life in Achebe’s masterpiece “Things Fall Apart”. Common themes of our discussion had been the sheer mystery of Africa, the impact of the slave trade and of colonialism, and why Africa had problems achieving economic growth. We had also wondered whether the questions we ask with our Western European mind-set were simply the wrong questions.
The proposer had been recommended “The Shadow of the Sun” to help resolve the mysteries of Africa. And the book had given him a clear and convincing explanation of, for example, the background to the Rwandan genocide, and much more besides. It brought out the geography clearly, and the impact of heat and water shortage on everything that happened.
Kapuscinski had been born in Pinsk, in what was then Poland but now part of Belarus, in 1932. He died in 2007. His early years had been marked by war, poverty, and fear as his family moved about struggling to keep themselves alive in the chaos that followed the Nazi invasion of Poland. Thereafter he had been brought up in a Poland under Communist control. He had been lucky that a controversial article criticizing regime policy had brought him prominence rather than disgrace. In 1957 he first went to Africa, and for much of the next forty years he was criss-crossing Africa as a poorly paid Polish journalist.
This book was ostensibly a collection of press articles that Kapuscinski had written from different African countries over the years. However, he kept two diaries as a journalist: one for the purposes of the reports he filed, and one a more private and literary journal. It was not clear to what degree this book consisted of press reports he had actually filed and to what extent he had reworked material by drawing on his private and more literary journal.
Kapuscinski described his work as “literary reportage”, and had gained international fame as an author. Many thought him the best Polish writer ever. Recently, however, his reputation had become mired in controversy. A fellow journalist, Artur Domoslawski, had written a book which “exposed” the real Kapuscinski. Domoslawski alleged that Kapuscinski had invented much that he had written as fact, embellishing the truth quite inappropriately. This allegation placed Kapuscinski somewhere in between a journalist and a writer of fiction.
He also claimed that Kapuscinski had made more accommodations with the Communist Government of Poland than he admitted later, even acting as a spy. Finally Domoslawski stated that Kapuscinski had been a womaniser on a large scale, regularly betraying his wife who remained in Poland bringing up his family.
The book was nevertheless well received by the group. It was captivating, riveting, fascinating, very enjoyable. It was also educational and insightful:
“More than anything, one is struck by the light. Light everywhere. Brightness everywhere. Everywhere the sun…..Have we sufficiently considered the fact that northerners constitute a distinct minority on our planet?…The overwhelming majority live in hot climates…”
“The problem of Africa is the dissonance between the environment and the human being, between the immensity of African space and the defenceless, barefoot, wretched man who inhabits it…. isolated and scattered over vast, hostile territories, in mortal peril from malaria, drought, heat, hunger….”
“Individualism is highly prized in Europe and.. America; in Africa it is synonymous with being accursed. African tradition is collectivist, for only in a harmonious group could one face the obstacles continually thrown up by nature…”
But how universally valid were such insights? Some felt the book was more a series of impressions, and the writer was inclined to over-generalize from one or two instances. He tended to dwell on the central areas of Africa, on an east-west axis, rather than describing the Maghreb or South Africa.
Others felt Kapuscinski had an exceptional ability to get inside the mind of Africans. His forte was to speak to people and get inside areas of African culture – such as attitudes to witchcraft and religion – that most of us do not grasp. And he himself had warned against the dangers of over-generalisation in his preface: “The continent is too large to describe… In reality, except as a geographical appellation, Africa does not exist…”.
The book’s episodic structure meant it was perhaps better to dip into than read in a long session, but this made it no less enjoyable.
His descriptions of people and situations were, even in translation, believable and profound. Ernest Hemingway, that pervasive influence on twentieth century prose style, and another journalist turned author, had been an important influence of Kapuscinski’s prose style. For most the quality of his writing stood out, although one member found some of the descriptions too over-embroidered, too florid. By contrast another felt that the quality of Kapucinski’s writing was such that he had transcended the journalism genre.
We could see the force of the allegation that Kapuscinski had made things up. Some of the James Bond, or Ernest Hemingway, style adventures seemed highly implausible. There were factual inaccuracies about the history of Ethiopia. An axiom of journalistic style was to assert everything with great confidence, however shaky your knowledge, and Kapuscinski may have been guilty of this.
Kapuscinski might have been stronger on issues about people than on politics, but he was not afraid to tackle political issues head-on:
“The government could, of course, have intervened, or allowed the rest of the world to do so, but for reasons of prestige the government did not want to admit that there was hunger in the land….A million people died in Ethiopia during this time”
“They attack women and children because women and children are the targets of international aid …whoever has weapons has food. Whoever has food, has power. We are not here among people who contemplate…the meaning of life. We are in a world in which man, crawling on the earth, tries to dig a few grains of wheat out of the mud, just to survive another day….”
“Many wars in Africa are waged without witnesses, secretively, in unreachable places, in silence, without the world’s knowledge, or even the slightest attention…”
The book was almost completely silent on the relationship between the sexes and sexual matters, despite their importance for a full understanding of African society and issues such as HIV/AIDS. Against this odd omission, the allegation that Kapusckinski had been a major philanderer had some traction.
However, the various allegations of Domoslawski, who had waited for Kapuscinski’s death before blackening his name, seemed to us fairly unimportant in the context of what we valued about the book.
Perhaps the most striking thing for us was the empathy that Kapuscinski had for ordinary Africans, and his ability to convey how they felt about life and the world:
“the concept of breakfast does not exist here. If a child has something to eat, he eats it….the children share everything; usually the oldest girl in the group makes certain that everyone receives an equal share, even if it is only a crumb. The rest of the day will be a continuous search for food. These children are always hungry. They instantly swallow anything that is given to them, and immediately start looking for the next morsel…”
“Half the people in African towns don’t have defined occupations, permanent jobs. They sell this and that, work as porters, guard something. They’re everywhere, always at one’s disposal, ready to serve, for hire…”
“The European and the African have an entirely different concept of time. In the European worldview, time exists outside man, exists objectively, and has measurable and linear characteristics…[For Africans] it is a much looser concept, more open, elastic, subjective. It is man who influences time… Therefore the African who boards a bus sits down in a vacant seat, and immediately falls into a state in which he spends a great portion of his life: a benumbed waiting…”
The basis for this capacity for empathy with the poor may have been the desperate childhood he had experienced during the Second World War. Indeed one of us had preferred this book to Kapucinski’s better known “The Emperor” (ostensibly about Halie Selassie, but also a disguised attack on the Polish Communist Government) as it displayed more humanity than the latter book.
But not everyone agreed that Kapuscinski had made the case for the African mind-set being fundamentally different to the Western European mind-set. Perhaps if, say, the Polish people were moved into Uganda, and subject to the same climate, they would behave in much the same way as Africans? For example become involved in endless obscure wars?
But against that what was different was the history that European peoples had been through. They too had been involved in endless wars, many now obscure, through the centuries. We hoped, perhaps unrealistically, that they had learnt from that and now were better at avoiding them. For example Europe had been through the phase of religious war for several centuries, and it was disappointing to see religious wars currently breaking out in the Middle East and in Africa. Was religious war a phase that societies could not avoid going through as they evolved?
And so the group wandered on through the great mystery of Africa; sometimes circling back to our starting point lost in the desert; sometimes pausing to stare at a scene of horror, such as child soldiers; sometimes spotting an oasis such as a desalination plant – or was it a mirage?; sometimes being stalked by a big beast such as the survival of the fittest…..
“Enough!” said the guide. “Sum the book up in one word!”
“No – impressionistic – educational would be more reliable!”
“Impressions of people are reliable; only the facts are unreliable!”
“Great strengths are:
- empathy with people
- insights into African culture
- readable. Language is enjoyable and rewarding. Sentences shorter than the eighty line examples in a recent book!” So we come back to the beginning. Who said that the Western European view of time was linear?