Coming home from 17 days in East Africa last month, jazzed by how fascinating our visit had been and conscious of how little I know about Africa, I scooped up Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Shadow of the Sun while wandering around the Arusha (Tanzania) Airport. What a stroke of luck!
We went to Africa mostly to see the game preserves, which were everything we hoped for, from the hippo blocking our way to breakfast to the endless zebra and wildebeest to the multiple prides of lions and the solitary leopards, the majestic elephants and the poignantly voiceless giraffes. But I found all elements of East Africa to be fascinating, especially the people and their lives and the surprisingly mild climate (surprising to me, anyway), the great distances and breathtaking vistas.
So I was lucky to stumble upon the Kapuscinski book. He was a Polish journalist who died about ten years ago. His specialty was Third World countries, with a focus on Africa, which he first visited in 1957. Voted “journalist of the century” in Poland (whoever makes that decision), he traveled to fascinating and terrible places on the African continent. I loved reading about them — some sweltering in humidity, some blistering with desert heat, many filled with hungry, desperate people. He captured moments that sum up a place and a society, such as this episode when he took a bus in Ghana.
“We climb into the bus and sit down. At this point there is a risk of culture clash, of collision and conflict. It will undoubtedly occur if the passenger is a foreigner who doesn’t know Africa. Someone like that will start looking around, squirming, inquiring, ‘When will the bus leave?’
“‘What do you mean, when?’ the astonished driver will reply. ‘It will leave when we find enough people to fill it up.'”
It leaves two hours later, full to bursting with passengers.
But Kapucscinski did more than just describe. He reflected on what he saw and tried to understand those things. He speculates that below the Sahara Desert, Africa’s development was hamstrung by the use of a single form of land transportation: the human leg:
For thousands and thousands of years, Africa walked. People here did not have a concept of the wheel, and were unable to adopt it. They walked, they wandered, and whatever had to be transported they carried — on their backs, on their shoulders, and, most often, on their heads.
But why no concept of the wheel? He traces it to something else:
Neither the camel nor the horse was able to adapt to regions south of the Sahara — they perished, decimated by the encephalitis borne by the tsetse fly, as well as by other fatal diseases of the tropics.
So, he wondered also, how did this limitation interact with “the immensity of African space (more than thirty million square kilometers!) and the defenseless, barefoot, wretched man who inhabits it.”
Often one had to walk for hundreds, thousands of miles, to encounter other people. . . For the most part information, knowledge, technological innovation, goods, commodities, and the experiences of others did not penetrate here, could not find a way in.
The African was a man on the move. Even if he led a sedentary life in a village, he was also on the move, for periodically the entire village would set off: either the water had run out, or the soil had ceased to bear crops, or an epidemic had broken out, and off they would go. . .
The striking physical characteristic of [African] civilization is its temporariness, its provisional character. . . A hut put up only yesterday has already vanished. A field still cultivated three months ago is today lying fallow . . .
The continuity that lives and breathes here, and that creates the thread of social fabric, is the continuity of family tradition and ritual. . . . Rather than a material or territorial community, it is a spiritual community that binds the African to those closest to him.
This rings true to me. For example, our Kenyan and Tanzanian guides — people thoroughly entrenched in the technology and information overload of the 21st century — retained powerful ties to their tribes, their clans, their family villages.
Also, Kapuscinski wonders, has this “compulsory mobility” of Africans “resulted in Africa’s interior having no old cities, at least none comparable in age to those that still exist in Europe, the Middle East or Asia”?
Are some or all of Kapuscinski’s extravagant generalizations subject to cavil and qualification by anthropologists and historians? I assume so. But they are thoughtful and provocative, and accord with some of my very shallow impressions of the places we saw.
Kapuscinski was gifted not only at speculating about large forces in the world. He also was a keen observer of the small parts of life. He had particular empathy for Africa’s urban poor, drawn to the cities in the hopes of finding some food, a life even slightly better than the struggle for survival in their drought-ravaged villages. His 1967 description of the destitute in Lagos, Nigeria, stays with me:
My alley, the adjacent streets, and the entire neighborhood are full of idle people. They wake in the morning and search for some water with which to wash their faces. Then, those with a bit of money buy themselves breakfast: a glass of tea and a stale roll. But many people don’t eat anything. Before noon still, the heat is difficult to bear — one must look for a shady spot. The shade moves hourly with the sun, and the man moves with the shade — following the shade, crawling after it to hide in its dark, cool interior, is each day his only real occupation. Hunger. One badly wants to eat, but there is nothing to be had. Making matters worse, the smell of roasting meal wafts from a nearby bar. Why don’t these people storm the bar?
. . .
It is rare for someone to settle for long in my alleyway. The people who pass through are the city’s eternal nomads, wanderers along the chaotic and dusty labyrinth of its streets. They move away quickly and vanish without a trace, because they never really had anything. They go, either tempted by the mirage of employment, or frightened by an epidemic that has suddenly broken out nearby, or evicted by the owners of the clay huts and verandas, whom they were unable to pay for the space they occupied. Everything in their life is temporary, fluid, and frail. It exists and it doesn’t exist. Even if it does exist — then for how long? This eternal uncertainty causes my neighbors to live in a perpetual state of alert, of unabating fear.
Fifty years later — based on the many young and older people we saw idling on streets and in markets at all times of the day, based on the our guides’ report that Kenya has a forty percent unemployment rate — not a great deal has changed.
I’m not sure that Kapuscinski’s work would have resonated so powerfully with me if I had not just been in Africa, but I commend it without reservation. Have you never understood the whole Hutu and Tutsi thing in Rwanda? Kapuscinski can explain that to you. How about the decades-long civil wars on the continent — in Uganda and Ethiopia and Nigeria and Liberia: why do we know so little about them? Kapuscinski has ideas about that, too. It’s a great book.