§ion=&combo2=&text1=&text2=&SocNetUsername=&SocNetPassword=&authCode=& 7th Decade Thoughts: The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuściński

7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuściński

Kapuściński was a Polish journalist who died in 2007, and who spent time in Africa between the late 1950ies and the 1990ies. Africa was not his only beat, but when he spent time there he spent time with the people and shared their lives when he could. He was the first Polish foreign correspondent to cover Africa and he was always seriously underfunded compared with those representing the big European and American publications and agencies. What he lacked in funds he made up in ingenuity and a willingness to share in the lives of Africans with the result that he got the big stories (a coup in Zanzibar is the subject of one piece) but also the stories about the little people. He went to visit friends in remote villages where there wasn't enough to eat. He traveled in war zones. He met the dictators and sadists who were independent Africa's first rulers. Once traveling with Greek correspondent in the region of Lake Victoria, he took refuge in a hut where he collapsed, exhausted, into a bunk only to discover a huge Egyptian cobra coiled underneath. He and the Greek threw their weight behind a huge metal container (their only weapon) and tried to crush it. The canister did not cut into the snake and they had to wrestle it to death. He got cerebral malaria, nearly died, and lived with the after affects for years.
The pieces in this book are beautifully written, undoubtedly due in part of the translator. Not like journalistic pieces one usually reads, with their pyramid structure and journalistic phrases and short cuts. Kapuściński's scope was broader, from the latest war or coup to serious attempts to characterize African people. He put himself on the line in every piece—it was personal, heartfelt and wise. He engaged seriously with people, didn't just watch from afar or "interview the participants".
One learns a great deal about the history of Africa—and why in a sense there was no history until the Europeans started to divide Africa up into colonies and zones of interest. Why there'd never be a history because there were no documents at all, only the oral stories the people told. The chapter on Rwanda is worth the purchase of the book alone: Kapuściński put the genocide in a context which none of the several books I read on the subject of the Rwandan genocide was able to do. Similarly, another long chapter on a visit to Liberia developed a context for the awful civil wars which began when an army sergeant took charge and carved up the President in his bed—without even a plan for what he'd do when he became leader—and was eventually carved up himself. That essay ends when Kapuściński is allowed to travel up country and meet the tribal people (which the ruling Americo-Liberians called aboriginals when I visited in 1965). They are coming into Monrovia across a bridge and Kapuściński sees a naked man with a Kalashnikov, the others carefully stepping out of his way. "A madman with a Kalashnikov" is how he, quite appropriately, ends the essay.
Kapuściński's focus in this book is mostly East Africa and the Sahara and Sanhel, a few mentions of West Africa, not much of Southern Africa. Not much about the more "civilized" parts of Northern Africa.


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