Roadblocks

Jeremy Harding

  • Fishing in Africa: A Guide to War and Corruption by Andrew Buckoke
    Picador, 227 pp, £17.50, May 1991, ISBN 0 330 31895 0
  • Africa: Dispatches From a Fragile Continent by Blaine Harden
    HarperCollins, 333 pp, £16.99, April 1991, ISBN 0 00 215889 2
  • The Soccer War by Ryszard Kapuściński, translated by William Brand
    Granta, 234 pp, £2.99, November 1990, ISBN 0 14 014209 6

Two of these books are by real journalists – Blaine Harden for the Washington Post, Andrew Buckoke for the Financial Times and others. The third is by a writer, Ryszard Kapuściński, who spent many years masquerading as a correspondent for the Polish news agency, PAP. In covering epic misfortune of the kind one reads about in Africa, all three have learned to talk straight from the shoulder, although Buckoke’s is slightly hunched under the white man’s burden and Kapuściński’s is often set to the wheel of invention, which makes much of his plain speaking deceptive. Only Blaine Harden keeps a respectable posture throughout and can even be quite sanguine in adversity – mostly other people’s.

Between them, Harden and Buckoke cover 13 countries on the continent; Kapuściński fewer, because this collection of work also contains material from Latin America and the Middle East. Buckoke thanks his newspapers for picking up the tab as he travels Africa with a fishing-rod. Harden praises his for letting, him ‘bounce around in trucks with rebels and take the time needed to write well’. (Is it the book or merely this particular judgment that seems a trifle hasty?) Kapuściński sounds a different note about his providers, recalling chiefly how a PAP apparatchik rounded on him for his failure to grasp ‘the Marxist-Leninist processes that are at work in the world’. The difference widens as Buckoke and Harden, on the one hand, and Kapuściński, on the other, take to the road.

As bona fide journalists, Harden and Buckoke are vigorously dismayed by corruption and dictatorship on the continent; both express scepticism about the virtues of Western aid. Buckoke argues that it should be used as a form of leverage to force democracy on recipient states: that thanks to Western guilt even independent aid agencies provide succour to tyrants in Africa and the wars they prosecute. If you are ‘really upset’ about Sudan, say, he suggests the following: ‘Get a job with an aid agency where you can salve your conscience at the same time as having an adventure and earning a lot of money. But beware of the contributions you are making to the war, if you have a real conscience.’

Buckoke deplores modern African leader ship. What he advocates – who doesn’t? – is multi-party democracy; and indeed the strongest popular expression of the last year and a half has been the challenge to entrenched power – most recently, to Moussa Traore in Mali. Harden, who has offended at least one African dictator, is also interested in African democracy. Like Buckoke, he sees constraints everywhere – not least, in the archetypal African head of state:

He insists on being called ‘doctor’ or ‘conqueror’ or ‘teacher’ or ‘the big elephant’ or ‘the number one peasant’ ... He scapegoats minorities to shore up popular support. He bans all political parties except the one he controls. He rigs elections. He emasculates the courts. He cows the press. He stifles academia. He goes to church.

Neither African misrule, nor famine, nor land degradation, nor the spread of HIV, nor any of the miseries touched on by Buckoke and Harden seems to interest Ryszard Kapuściński. Disruption and suffering on an unimaginable scale invite judgment, mostly prescriptive – the very thing that he conceals or defers for the sake of a good story. This is one of the reasons The Soccer War is easy to read. Another, of course, is that Kapuściński’s material is drawn from the past, during a time of upheaval but also of promise. Two decades later, in Harden’s Africa, that promise is discernible, but fainter; at best the future looks ‘confused and terrifying and limitless’. In Kapuściński, the ground is firmer and the scope is narrower. The Soccer War contains no ‘Biblical’ events – a word Buckoke likes, and which now evokes the last major Ethiopian famine, as covered by Michael Buerk, rather than the plagues visited on Egypt in the Book of Exodus.

Harden puts a brave face on things, but the litany of woes dulls the edge of his cheery manner. Candid reporting from Africa is apt to be bleak. Buckoke is a pessimist by instinct, but he cannot tell the truth about himself; ‘Will the whole continent be despoiled by ravening millions and left a desert of misery? I don’t know but I cannot give up hope.’ He has. Meanwhile, his travels through war zones and famine camps lead us deeper into gloom (again a feature of the subject-matter), yet further away from anything resembling compassion. What is the point of rehearsing these horrors if they simply restore us, at the end of each chapter, to the drizzle and prosperity of our own lives, uneasy perhaps, but by and large relieved? I am really not sure. The Soccer War does not make us give thanks for the world we inhabit, awash with our rain and our money. It is more interesting than that.

The collection begin and ends in Ghana. In between are some extraordinary accounts of troubled Third World nations, including the Congo at the time of Patrice Lumumba’s death, Algeria at the time of the coup against Ben Bella, and Central America at the time of an absurd but costly war between Honduras and El Salvador in 1969 – the so-called Soccer War. Hyperbole is the figure which binds these disparate modes and places, ushering us from bright African landscapes seething with events to subdued studies of the observer himself, a man and his cafard, in gloomy Third World interiors – hotels, commissariats and other lock-ups – the breadth, if not the length, of Africa.

This, in other words, is a book with a hero. It also has a strong fictional quality. Enrolled in the fraternity of ‘simple correspondents, drudges of the pen’, Kapuściński derives his subject-matter from the banal round of tasks, destinations and dangers that any journalist in Africa must deal with. But he can transform all these into something strange and magnificent, seeing in much of Africa what Le Douanier Rousseau must have seen on a stroll round the Jardin des Plantes.

Risk and confrontation are palpable events for Kapuściński, which is why the roadblock plays an important part in his writing. Everything that matters comes into play as soon as the distant clump of khaki uniforms appears beyond the bend in the laterite road: the folly of the journey, the ambiguous appeal of the obstacle, the test of nerve and, crucially, the weight of personal jeopardy, under which all extraneous political considerations subside – only to reveal the most dependable meaning that politics can have for an adventurer, which is simply the hold, there and then, that it has over his fate.

In Nigeria, during 1966, the roadblock turns him into a reluctant mixture of philosopher and stuntman. Or perhaps not so reluctant: ‘I was driving along a road where they say no white man can come back alive. I was driving to see if a white man could, because I had to experience everything for myself.’ The metaphysics of the encounter is all in place, but there is a brutish physical edge as well. At the first roadblock, which consists of burning logs and a bonfire, Kapuściński is hit on the back of the head with a rifle butt. ‘I had to cover all my weaknesses,’ he writes, ‘hide them somewhere very deep within myself. This was Africa, I was in Africa.’

The important idea here is that the sins of colonial forebears may be visited on hapless sons; that the past strips the European bare of any innocence in Africa. But again this politics is coarse – a natural history of empire – and can only crystallise around a sense of danger. ‘They knew that I was white, and the only white they had known was the coloniser, who abased them, and now they wanted to make him pay for it ... I would die to atone for the white planter’s whip.’

At the next smouldering checkpoint, there is more humiliation, a terrifying local leader, ‘eyes shot with blood and madness’ (yet another revelation at the roadblock: Africans assume a monstrous quality which, like everything disclosed in this peculiar moral site, is absolute), and a frenzied crowd chanting slogans. At the third,Kapuściński puts his foot through the floor. ‘The activists were waving their knives for me to stop. I saw that two of them were winding up to throw bottles of gasoline at the car and for a second I thought, so, this is the end.’

One is often nearing the end in Kapuściński’s Africa. Danger gives the diverse countries he writes about a literary homogeneity that in other ways they lack; it follows that we are dealing not so much with Kapuściński in Africa as with Africa in Kapuściński. This literary Africa is a different continent from the one that Buckoke and Harden, and most Africans, experience. It is nonetheless a continent with a history and we need not look far beyond the bravura of Kapuściński’s writing to know that he knows this. The Soccer War is deceptive, for its jumpy eclecticism and its emphasis on derring-do are tempered by a strong sense of the problems facing post-colonial societies in Africa (and poor nations throughout the Third World).

At the front of the book. Kapuściński sets two figureheads of African liberation. Both Kwaine Nkrumah and Patrice Lumumba are invoked in generous terms. Nkrumah ‘talks in the street until late at night and stays in some chance lodging instead of returning home. This way he wins over everyone he meets.’ Lumumba

is an inspired speaker, a genius. He begins with casual conversations in the bar. Nobody knows him here: a strange face ... For the first time the bar pricks up its ears, ruminates, compares view-points.

At a rally in Ghana, Kapuściński watches Nkrumah and his page-turner on the podium:

Adamafio removes the pages that have been read, perusing the ones the Premier is in the middle of delivering. When Nkrumah sees a passage that will merit applause, he raises his hand in a gesture that means: Watch! Here it comes! And as he finishes the last sentence and Adamafio’s hand whips the page away, the crowd goes wild.

For different reasons, both Lumumba and Nkrumah are doomed, but at least they are spared a shameful metamorphosis, wrought by uninterrupted rule, into Harden’s identikit chef d’état.

Lumumba was killed in 1961 with the connivance of the CIA. His murder assured him a place in liberation mythology and Kapuściński understands this perfectly. No sooner has the news filtered through than Lumumba is resurrected in one of his speeches played back on an old tape-recorder. ‘Patrice is in full swing. The windows are open and his words spill out into the street.’ Five years later, Nkrumah fell from a pinnacle of hubris, having tried to meddle with the Ghanaian military. He had also edged towards Moscow. The CIA has always been linked, inconclusively, to the coup which deposed him. Kapuściński tells us none of this, but much of what befell Nkrumah becomes clear in a piece on Algena in which the conditions governing political drama in the Third World are summarised.

Algiers in 1965 is a secretive city. Even the efforts of Ben Bella’s post-colonial regime to keep the country running remain obscure. Kapuściński has a way with this kind of situation and studiously dresses the set on which the three main players will enact the coup: the Vice-Premier, Houari Boumedinne, a military man and unapparent heir to the presidency; Tahar Zbiri, a guerrilla hero from the days of the war; and Ahmed Ben Bella, who has overstepped the limits of power. In the scene of the coup itself – Ben Bella waking in his bed at gunpoint and seeing the ‘massive but graceful silhouette’ of his friend Zbiri – the players are well drawn. Elsewhere Boumedienne is vividly described. But as the play unfolds, the historical and social backdrop becomes the focus of attention and the protagonists, crashing into one obstacle after another, retire to the wings. ‘The essence of the drama,’ Kapuściński maintains,

lies in the terrible material resistance that each [leader] encounters on taking his first, second and third steps to the summit of power ... Everything is in the way: the illiteracy, the religious fanaticism, the tribal blindness, the chronic hunger, the colonial past with its practice of debasing and dulling the conquered ... Progress comes with great difficulty along such a road. The politician begins to push too hard. He looks for a way out through dictatorship. The dictatorship then fathers an opposition. The opposition organises a coup. And the cycle begins anew.

Such simple views, simply stated, often reward us with a sense of the author’s sincerity after we have crossed great tracts which raise our doubts on precisely this score. Kapuściński is neither an intellectual nor an evangelist; politics as such is of no interest to him. Using his press accreditation, he has simply spent years insinuating his way into unlikely situations for his own purposes as a writer. Yet there is a fund of sympathy in this dubious character which always earns him the benefit of the doubt. It is most obvious when he explains, in stubborn little bulletins, how matters have come to such and such a pass, why suffering prevails over here or confusion over there. An excess of literary vanity would have banished such pedestrian thoughts. But even in the rollicking title story they are never quite abandoned.

Africa supplies most, but by no means all, of the wreckage that Kapuściński sifts for his material. We know, for instance, that he ‘befriended’ not only Patrice Lumumba, but Che and Salvador Allende. So, at any rate, says the blurb on the cover, evoking some lugubrious species of femme fatale whose favours have ruined a generation of anti-imperialists. Still, all this travelling around and befriending signals one thing clearly enough – that Kapuściński is very much a Granta property: the Kapuściński of The Emperor, a short masterpiece about the fall of Haile Selassie, was a less peremptory writer. At a basic level, there were in this earlier publication more sentences containing subordinate clauses. Granta views the clause as insubordinate by its very nature – an excisable diversion from the action, which is best conveyed in a boisterous series of grunts. In The Soccer War subordinate clauses are rare enough to shake us from a nearly insensible state (adverbs by the way are also scarce) brought on by the jolting progress from introspection to action and back again. Only the roadblock seems to fuse the two.

The Soccer War may well have been modified by translation, or indeed by the drastic process of Granta editing, unless the cloth has been cut according to the coat. At any rate, The Soccer War is tailor-made for Granta, where talented designers stitch and trim into the small hours, always hoping to circumvent a tardy burst of inspiration from the senior couturier, wielding his scissors and announcing that the evening gown he has commissioned will ‘work better’ as a pair of sweat-stained overalls, or maybe just a g-string. Kapuściński has been a star contributor to Granta for some time, a stern conception of structure ever more visible beneath the thinning fabric of his prose. He enjoys structure (The Emperor develops in a repetitive, overlapping form) and it is also the forte of the Granta collections, which seek to impose it on most of the material they exhibit. Perhaps this is another reason why a ragged assortment of pieces like The Soccer War works so elegantly as a whole, for a lot of thought has gone into the organisation of the book and it has paid off.

Khakis, keffiyehs and emblazoned coffee mugs are no longer fashionable in Britain. In Africa the liberation era is drawing to a close. It was characterised by a faith in monolithic popular struggle, held often by a maquisard élite which went on to instal a one-party state with a shaky centralised economy, drawing down the wrath and weaponry of superpowers (global and regional) as it did so. There are few liberation movements which fit this description any longer. Kapuściński scarcely nails his colours to the mast of liberation but he can be identified with a certain period in Africa. Harden and Buckoke have written for the Nineties, when democratic aspirations have a very different character. The odds against them appear rather long – too long perhaps for the storyteller, who must now make way for the real drudges of the pen, the laptop and the satellite feed.