Africa Is Not One-Dimensional

In the West, Africa is a series of disaster stories strung together by scraps of misunderstood history. The seemingly endless chain of war, famine, drought, disease and corruption has long since exhausted the imaginations of most people in the developed world. Images of seemingly interminable suffering have reduced the hundreds of millions of people on the world's second largest continent to mere extras in an epic drama of grinding poverty and temporary fixes. These images, one-dimensional and suffocatingly reductive, are usually all we have of sub-Saharan Africa.

In his latest collection of essays, The Shadow of the Sun, Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski tries to capture a faithful image of Africa and Africans. It is a difficult undertaking, even given the freedoms and literary license that his elliptical reportage allows. Kapuscinski, who for decades worked as the Polish Press Agency foreign correspondent in Asia, Africa and Latin America, prefaces his book with a warning that although he lived in African countries for several years and spent much of that time hitching rides on trucks, wandering with nomads and being the guests of peasants, his book is not about Africa but the people he met there. He writes, "The continent is too large to describe. It is a veritable ocean, a separate planet, a varied, immensely rich cosmos. Only with the greatest simplification, for the sake of convenience, can we say 'Africa'. In reality, except as a geographical appellation, Africa does not exist."

Indeed, the book comprises unconnected vignettes of his adventures from the Ghana to Zanzibar. The stories begin with the independence movements of the 1950s and end with the ruined states of the 1990s. As with many of his other books, The Shadow of the Sun is a literary hybrid. It has roots in adventure-travel writing, the foreign correspondent's diary, history for the layman, as well as amateur anthropology. His earlier books conjured up images of Emperor Haile Selassie, the shah of Iran, the Soviet Empire and Africa

Kapuscinski has two kinds of stories that he likes to tell. There are the stories of derring-do that include ambushes, coup d'etats, massacres, murderous rages and the fall of some big man who is almost without exception executed by the new ones on the scene. These tales are laced with the author's own stupefaction at the brutality and ignorance of the main players. From Zanzibar to Liberia, the Sudan, Rwanda and on, he recounts the many heart-stopping situations in which he finds himself as he rushes to the center of whatever political storm is raging.

"In the predawn hours of April 12, 1980, a group of soldiers force their way into the president's villa and hacked [Liberian president] Tolbert to pieces in his bed. They disemboweled him and threw his internal organs out into the courtyard for dogs and vultures to devour. There were seventeen soldiers. Their leader was a twenty-eight-year-old sergeant, Samuel Doe. He was barely literate, from the small tribe of Krahn, which lived deep in the jungle. People just like him, driven from their villages by poverty, had been flowing into Monrovia for years, in search of work and money ... There is not much to say about his administration. He governed for ten years. The country came to a standstill. There was no electricity, the shops were closed, the traffic on Liberia's few roads died out."

Then there are the stories of the difficulties and anguish of daily life for average Africans. He creates gripping impressionistic images of people and places he meets in his travels. These tableaux of crushed hope and despair mixed with the endless push to survive are some of his best writing. But because of an unrelentingly pessimistic view of African lives, Kapuscinski, too, falls into the reductionist trap. Africa, it seems, has driven him to despair and contempt. Rarely does any sense of hope peek out from the black fog in which his subjects have been condemned to live their lives. In some of his stories, Africans seem little more than icons for suffering. In Kapuscinski's Africa, all are helpless, doomed souls drowning in an ocean of ineptitude, cruelty and ignorance.

In one particularly haughty moment he asks, "What should be done with these countless millions? With their unutilized energy? With the hidden powers they surely possess? What is their place in the family of mankind? That of fully vested members? Wronged brothers? Irritating intruders?"

V.S. Naipaul comes to mind when Kapuscinski drones on with such damning pity. Naipaul, as many critics have noted, is far worse on this subject. He does not even bother to paint portraits of many of the people he encounters on his travels, but simply appropriates their words and gestures and then assigns them their place among the ignorant, benighted and barbaric. For all his pessimism, Kapuscinski creates a somewhat more complete image of the people he meets by sympathizing with their bewilderment and the insurmountable difficulties that await them daily.

The Shadow of the Sun is intended as a career-capping statement of Kapuscinski's years as a foreign correspondent in Africa, which might explain why the first 100 pages reads like old notes that he has fleshed out for the occasion. This is one of the big shortcomings of this book; these stories about Ghana, Tanzania, Uganda and Nigeria lack any sense of urgency or freshness. It's as if he can no longer recall those minute details of experience that make his best stories resonate with life.

More troubling, the book is littered with bizarrely broad generalizations about Africans despite his own preface warning that Africa is nothing if not a "varied, immensely rich cosmos." What are we to make of the following?: "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 ... Africans apprehend time differently. For them it is a much looser concept, more open, elastic, subjective. It is man who influences time, its shape, course, and rhythm (man acting, of course, with the consent of gods and ancestors) ... Time appears as a result of our actions, and vanishes when we neglect or ignore it."

Or how about this gem: "...let us remember that fear of revenge is deeply rooted in the African mentality, that the immemorial right of reprisal has always regulated interpersonal, private, and clan relations here." Couldn't that description apply to many of the people in the Balkans, or even to England and France at some points in their histories?

These shortcomings take a great deal away from Kapuscinski's effort. He relies on broad and ridiculous generalizations as lenses through which to view and categorize Africans. He, like many writers before him, seems overwhelmed by the place -- its physical magnificence and its human disasters -- and can only regain his footing by using a broad brush to paint a picture of a place that supposedly doesn't exist.

Richard Hylton is a fromer New York Times reporter.

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