Ryszard Kapuscinski arrived in Africa for the first time in 1957, as a correspondent for the Polish Press Agency, returning whenever the opportunity arose. The Shadow of the Sun (in a fine translation from the Polish by Klara Glowczewska) is a collection of writing covering some 40 years of Kapuscinski’s African experience, beginning with the end of colonial rule and ending with the recent war between Ethiopia and Eritrea. Kapuscinski reports on the dawn of Ghanaian independence; the unification of Tanganyika and Zanzibar into Tanzania; a 1966 coup d’état in Nigeria; the rise and demise of Idi Amin. At the same time, he makes a point of spending time with “the common African”: He hitches a ride across the Mauritanian Sahara with a truck driver named Salim; he shares a train ride through Senegal with one Madame Diuf; he visits the village of Abdallah Wallo, at the border between Mauritania and Senegal; he spends time observing a hole in the middle of the street at the Onitsha market in eastern Nigeria. These chapters are seldom time-specific, as if suggesting a transcendental, timeless quality of common African life. But besides telling the tales of power struggle and survival, Kapuscinski is bent on explaining the essence of “the African” to a Western reader. His seemingly benign ambition leads straight into the liberal version of neocolonial racialist discourse, suitable for a Euro-American reader routinely respectful of “other cultures.”
Kapuscinski is an adroit storyteller. One can imagine him mesmerizing the tipsy crowd in a smoky bar of a third-world Hilton with his renditions of foreign-correspondent adventures: reaching the island of Zanzibar at the time of the coup, gaining access to the important people in Ghana in 1957, narrowly escaping an encounter with a lethal cobra. He seems to have also mesmerized the editors of Granta, The New Yorker, and The New York Review of Books, which all published lengthy excerpts from his book, oblivious to or uninterested in the underlying proto-racist essentialism that ultimately casts a shadow on The Shadow of the Sun.
Kapuscinski’s stated ambition is not to write “a book about Africa, but rather about some people from there.” He is careful to say that Africa is “too large to describe,” adding, “Only with the greatest simplification . . . can we say ‘Africa.’ In reality, except as a geographical appellation, Africa does not exist.” In an early chapter entitled “The Structure of the Clan,” Kapuscinski acknowledges that “in all of Africa, each larger social group has its own distinct culture,” which is why “anthropologists never speak of ‘African culture’ or ‘African religion,’ knowing that . . . the essence of Africa is its endless variety.”
But Kapuscinski is no anthropologist. In the face of his own feeble disclaimers, he quickly plunges into making generalizations about “the African.” For example, “The European and the African have an entirely different concept of time,” he announces early on. Africa might not be a single conceptual unit, but “the African” somehow is. “Let us remember”—he writes—”that fear of revenge is deeply rooted in the African mentality.” “The African” to Kapuscinski seems transcendental and transhistorical, even when he acknowledges the horrors of the slave trade, which “on the psyche of the African . . . left the deepest and most painfully permanent scar: the inferiority complex.”
“The African mind” is largely defined by its difference from “the European mind,” a difference that has metaphysical consequences: “In Africa, the [Christian] notion of metaphysical, abstract evil—evil in and of itself—does not exist.” The difference is deeply rooted and practically unalterable: Kapuscinski seems to agree with an “elderly Englishman,” a longtime resident of Addis Ababa who believes “the strength of Europe and its culture . . . lies in its bent for criticism. . . . Other cultures do not have this critical spirit. . . . [They are] uncritical in relation to themselves . . . [laying] the blame for all that is evil on others.” “They are,” seethes the elderly Englishmen, “culturally, permanently, structurally incapable of progress, incapable of engendering within themselves the will to transform and evolve.” For Kapuscinski, as for the Englishman, the real difference and disparity between races is in “the mind,” rather than skin color—he fumes against the racism absurdly based on skin color, and would probably be shocked if told that his obsessive listing of essential differences is essentially racist.
In Kapuscinski’s book, the Africans—”they” from the Englishman’s rant—consist of crazed dictators, like Idi Amin and Charles Taylor, and, on the other hand, of simple people, like the truck driver Salim and Madame Diuf, who are patronizingly admired for being ordinary and keeping up their spirits in the hell of Africa. Africa is an utterly hopeless place: Apart from his early encounters with Nkrumah and his idealistic followers—whose ideals are clearly betrayed later on—Kapuscinski, in forty-some years, does not come across one African who has any kind of social project, who has produced anything of civic value: There are no writers, no musicians, no artists, no intellectuals, virtually no one interested in anything other than power or surviving. Africa, Kapuscinski suggests, is still the “open sore of the world,” as it is described on the tomb of David Livingstone, who opened the door for the continent’s colonization.
It is also hard not to recall Joseph Conrad, that other Pole who came back from Africa with reports on “the African mind,” which somehow mirrored the darkness in “the European mind.” For Kapuscinski, as for Conrad, and apparently the editors of Euro-American liberal arts magazines, Africa is a symbolic space filled mainly with projections and fantasies based on an axiomatic assumption—doubtlessly a rewarding one to many Euro-American readers—that “we” are not like “them” and never will be.
Despite its occasionally mesmerizing stories, Kapuscinski’s book is fundamentally flawed with its cultural-difference racism and its speculations about the mind of “the African.” This book is akin to Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts, which dispensed essentialist conjectures about “the Balkan mind” and “ancient hatreds,” and which allegedly made Clinton loath to do anything about Bosnia. One shudders to think what the current president—assuming that he would read a book—might learn from The Shadow of the Sun.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 24, 2001