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'The Shadow of the Sun' by Ryszard Kapuscinski

Polish correspondent elegantly chronicles Africa in its strife and beauty

Friday, May 25, 2001

By John Freeman


The Shadow of the Sun

By Ryszard Kapuscinski


In 1957, the Polish Press Agency appointed 25-year-old Ryszard Kapuscinski its first full-time correspondent in Africa, a continent then on the brink of a massive independence movement.
While Kapuscinski would eventually cover conflicts in Latin America, Asia and the Pacific, he would always return to Africa to “hitch rides on passing trucks, wander with nomads through the desert, be the guest of peasants of the tropical savannah.”
In his sumptuous and meditative new work of nonfiction, he distills his best adventures into a book that is part travelogue and part history, a consummate prose poem to the enduring strangeness and beauty of Africa.
Landscapes require expert storytelling to bring them to life, and time and again, Kapuscinski rises to the challenge. Arriving in Kumasi, Ghana, in the late 1950s, he describes the incandescent quality of African light.
“In reality, the sun comes out as if it were a ball catapulted into the air. We suddenly see a fiery sphere, so near to us that we can’t help experiencing a frisson of fear. ... It’s as if all night long everyone was crouching on his starter’s blocks and now, at that shot of sunlight ... the streets are full of people, the shops are open, the fires and kitchens are smoking.”
Unlike other foreign correspondents, Kapuscinski lived in ghettos with other Africans, exposing himself to theft and intimidation but gleaning revelatory stories of everyday citizens.
In Lagos, Nigeria, where he inhabited an airless two-room flat, he witnessed a brutal beating administered to a young boy caught stealing bananas:
“Policemen here carry large wooden clubs with which they beat offenders, striking them with all their might. The boy is lying in the street now, cringing, curled up, trying to shield himself from the blows. A crowd has gathered.”
By befriending his neighbors, the journalist secured passage into some of the continent’s remote and dangerous regions, from the deserts of Somalia, where he joined a tribe on its pilgrimage to a well, to the northern reaches of Uganda, where bandits ambushed his motorcade. Along the way, Kapuscinski was felled by a case of malaria so powerful, Africans sat on top of him to contain his spasms. Near Kampala, he and another man wrestled a king cobra snake to death.
Kapuscinski demonstrates an almost pathological desire to put himself in harm’s way. When Zanzibar underwent a coup d’etat, he hired a plane to fly into that beleaguered country, despite warnings that any incoming boats and aircraft were open targets. When the teen-age militia refused to let Kapuscinski leave, he chartered a boat and motored right into a monsoon, nearly drowning.
All this risk pays off, however, as Kapuscinski emerges with an evocative and searching portrait of a continent wracked by constant change. As he shows, the independence movements of the early 1960s assumed that throwing off the mantle of colonialism would lead to an era of milk and honey, that corruption would disappear and that barren fields would flourish.
Sadly, a series of civil wars further bankrupted the fledgling nations, plunging their swelling populations into famine. Moreover, the ’80s and early ’90s ushered in the plague of AIDS, ravaging each corner of the already blighted continent.
Kapuscinski weaves elegantly between decades, alternating vignettes about the social etiquette of greetings with longer, impressively compressed histories of ongoing conflicts, from the strife in the Sudan to the feudal war waged between the Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda.
Stranded with a guide in a small village of starving people, Kapuscinski’s companion observed, “Because people from Europe spend their time here only in the cities and drive along the major roads, they cannot even imagine what our Africa looks like.”
Thanks to Kapuscinski’s soulful and trenchant reporting, readers will now have a shadow of an idea.
John Freeman is a free-lance writer based in New York City.
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