Ryszard Kapuscinski and Eternally Abiding Africa

Yesterday I read the amazing The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski, about the forty years he spent in Africa as a Polish journalist.  He was in Africa from the late 1950s through the late 1990s.  Kapuscinski makes clear in his forward that there are a thousand Africas, and that there can never be one story or one explanation to cover such a huge and varied continent.  He traveled through or lived in Tanganyika, Tanzania, Ghana, Mauritania, Niger, Somalia, Monrovia, Rwanda, Senegal, Zanzibar, Uganda, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Nigeria, Mali, and Cameroon.  His stories are rich with details of the physical landscape, vivid with his portrayals of the people he met, and disarmingly personal in his affection and empathy for the many Africas he gets to know.

Kapuscinski loved his travels, enduring fear and deprivation for the joys of experience and knowledge, and that love is contagious through his book.  It is a real pleasure to read this book, and it offers a thorough, and thoroughly enjoyable, steeping into the cultures, climates, and histories of the many places he writes about. There are very disturbing and grim depictions of horrors and miseries: these, of course, are not enjoyable to read but they are real and moving, and necessary to understand Africa, and Kapuscinski’s enduring optimism and hope for Africa does not let the reader mire down in depression.  For him Africa is enduring and abiding and eternal, and full of so much that he has found to love and to admire.

In all the disparate places he either lived or visited, Kapuscinski found common themes of spirituality (a universal belief in a supreme being, One God, and the enduring influence, both practical and physical, of ancestors, and of spirits both good and evil) endurance (“their life is endless toil, a torment they endure with astonishing patience and good humor”), timelessness (in Africa, “time appears as a result of our actions, and vanishes when we neglect or ignore it…It is a subservient, passive essence, and most importantly one dependent on man.”), community (the individual cannot survive alone in Africa), war (thousands of little wars and too many genocides), and almost constant hunger.

The diet of the Africans that Kapuscinski met, no matter where he went, is never adequate, certainly in terms of western customs, but not for them either.  No food is wasted and every crumb is consumed at the one meal a day most of the poor Africans have to live on. Water is treasured as sustaining and too often, rare.   For some Africans, a bottle of water is their only sustenance for a day, for others it is a cup of mint teat, thickly brewed, or homemade beer with such a pasty residue at the bottom that it serves as a kind of nourishment.  Or the meal for the whole day might be rice with a spicy sauce, a stale biscuit or a banana.

Describing a meal in Lagos, Kapuscinski writes, “Every bit of food disappears immediately and without a trace.  Everything is eaten, down to the last crumb.  No one has any supplies, for even if someone did have extra food, he wouldn’t have anywhere to keep it, no place to shut it.”  Reading the many, many descriptions of meager meals shared, I could only feel disgust at how so many westerners have devolved into treating food as the enemy, with our diets and our proscriptions against eating that or this or that other thing.  “Respect the food you have”, I felt like admonishing my children last night: we truly do not know how lucky we are to have the basic means of survival: food, water, shelter, and a stable government.

Kapuscinski offers a deeply humanistic portrait of the many Africans and Africas he got to know during the time he spent there.  He is neither a sensationalist nor a reporter of the facts alone.  He shares with the reader his personal interactions, his own ruses for survival (including a horrifying bout with malaria), and his sympathy for the people he meets.  Kapuscinski witnessed torture during the years of WWII in Poland and he suffered from hunger, deprivation, and fear during those war years. Perhaps that made him more open and available to the Africans he met, and more understanding of the daily struggles they endure.

He ends the book with a story of an elephant invading a Christmas feast in  Tanzania.  One of the guest explains to Kapuscinski that the elephant embodies the spirit of Africa. “Because no other animal can vanquish an elephant.  Not a lion, not a buffalo, not a snake.”  Kapuscinski leaves us with this hope, a hope supported by the marvelous histories he has given us in The Shadow of the Sun. I recommend that everyone should read this great book.