War over a Handful of Corn

Adam Hochschild

‘For the sake of a single verse,’ the famous passage from Rilke runs,

one must see many cities, men and things . . . One must be able to think back to roads in unknown regions, to unexpected meetings and to partings . . . And still it is not yet enough to have memories . . . Not till they have turned to blood within us, to glance and gesture, nameless and no longer to be distinguished from ourselves – not till then can it happen that in a most rare hour the first word of a verse arises in their midst and goes forth from them.

Although Ryszard Kapuściński has earned his living as a journalist and writes in prose, and although we have to read him in translation, he is, in the soaring, pithy power of his best work, a poet. His finest verses are his four books, all but one of them remarkably short, about late 20th-century empires at the moment of their collapse. Another Day of Life describes Portuguese Angola, The Emperor Haile Selassie, Shah of Shahs Iran and Imperium the Soviet Union. A hundred years from now, people will still turn to The Emperor for a portrait of autocracy in our time, just as today we turn to Saint Simon for the delusions of the era of Louis XIV.

Kapuściński’s new book, The Shadow of the Sun, is not of the same type; it has neither the tight focus nor the phantasmagoric quality of those earlier works. (Nor does it have the same translators as most of his other books, which may account for part of the difference.) It is the poet’s notebook: the record of the cities, men and things, the roads in unknown regions, the unexpected meetings and partings, that lie behind his earlier masterpieces set in Africa. And it contains only a very small portion of the cities, men and things in Kapuściński’s African life, for he has been intermittently living and travelling on the continent from the independence celebrations of the late 1950s to the Aids crisis of today. This notebook gives us not the poems themselves, but some memorable fragments of experience that did not fit into them, and, above all, a sense of the poet’s mind.

Kapuściński is Polish, and spent much of his life as the roving Third World correspondent for PAP, the Polish press agency. He followed a stream of coups, revolutions and disasters, primarily in Africa but also in Latin America and parts of Asia. His subject, as his fellow Polish writer Marek Nowakowski once said, was ‘the boiling of the world’. During the Communist era, of course, Kapuściński’s writing had to pass the censor. But censorship in Poland was always far more elastic than in the Soviet Union: both readers and censors would certainly have known whose imperialism was really on his mind when he wrote books about crumbling empires in Africa and Asia. It is their allegorical nature that gives these works some of their uncanny force. Kapuściński was close to the Solidarity movement, and lost his job with the imposition of martial law in 1981. He continues to live in Warsaw and still travels to Africa.

There are several dozen surveys of post-Independence Africa by American and European correspondents who have worked there. These books tend to follow a certain pattern: brisk tours of the continent, with a chapter for each major country, interviews with heads of state, and a few calculated digressions to let you know how coolly the reporter braved dirt, disease, bandits and bullets to bring you the story. Kapuściński’s Africa is different. It is an Africa not of prime ministers, but of bus drivers, miners and the unemployed; not of countries, but of closely observed forest, savannah and desert, from which people must wrest a living; not of cities, but of villages. ‘A trip around the world,’ he writes, ‘is a journey from backwater to backwater, each of which considers itself, in its isolation, a shining star. For most people, the real world ends on the threshold of their house, at the edge of their village, or, at the very most, on the border of their valley.’ Kapuściński’s is an Africa where, as he puts it, the great technological advance of the 20th century was not the coming of the railway or the telephone, but the plastic bottle: at last people have a lightweight container in which to carry water long distances.

In Africa, Kapuściński lives simply, not out of Lonely Planet bravado, but out of a desire to share the texture of ordinary people’s lives. And, sometimes, out of necessity, since he did not come from a wealthy country himself. Early on, he suffers a memorably described bout of cerebral malaria, followed by TB. He does not dare tell his office in Warsaw, for fear that, with no hard currency to pay for a hospital stay, they will order him home. So he gets his TB treatment at a clinic for Africans, with drugs donated by the Danish Red Cross. ‘My illness, while physically incapacitating, had an unexpected benefit. Rendering me weak and defective, it diminished my prestigious white status . . . A warmth entered my relations with Edu and Abdullahi’ – the clinic workers – and ‘they started to invite me to their homes.’

He hitchhikes across the Sahara. When the truck he is riding in breaks down, he and the driver take refuge beneath it from the sun, until, after a day, help arrives. He travels by mammy wagon in Ghana, by camel caravan in Somalia, by ancient bus on a winding mountain road in Eritrea, where each glance down the mountainside reveals the shattered skeletons of trucks, armoured cars and camels which have plunged over the edge. ‘When we enter a turn, the driver calls out a protracted “Yyyaaahhh!” and at this signal the passengers lean in the opposite direction, giving the bus the counterweight it needs to keep from plunging head-long into the abyss.’

The Shadow of the Sun contains some two dozen short chapters. Almost all of them are sketches from a particular place and time, but the places are spread across the continent, and the times across four decades. Sometimes Kapuściński tells us what country he is in almost as an after-thought. He is disappointing when he tries to make generalisations about Africa, mainly because they repeat those of others: that Africa’s best intellectuals have fled abroad, that a haughty new political caste has replaced the old white colonisers, and, above all, that Africa is crippled by the intense ethnic and clan loyalties that see government as one more asset to be shared with your own kin. The only unfamiliar diagnosis he offers is that Africa, unlike Europe, has no tradition of self-criticism, and perhaps that is ‘why, in the race of continents, Africa is being left behind’. But this is doubtful: the cultural capacity for self-criticism is a splendid thing, but many parts of the world where it seems in woefully short supply – China and Japan, for example – have fared far better than Africa.

Where Kapuściński excels is in his ability to evoke a range of emotions with an experience, a place, or sometimes just an object, like the burned-out Russian T-72 tank that he comes across in Eritrea, a remnant of the war with Ethiopia. The enormous hulk sits at a busy intersection: ‘they clearly had no means of removing it. There wasn’t a crane in Eritrea capable of lifting it, no platform on which it could be transported, no forge that could melt it down.’

There are other fine set pieces in the book. One is about the street where he lived in Lagos in 1967. ‘I want to live in an African street, in an African building. How else can I get to know this city? This continent?’ He stands in line for water at the pump. The electricity goes out and he learns who has to be bribed to put it back on. He also learns new notions of privacy and community. ‘You want to shut the door to work. Shut the door? This is unthinkable. We all live together in a family, in a group – children, adults, old people; we are never apart, and even after death our spirits remain among the living . . . Shut yourself alone in a room, in such a way that no one can enter? . . . impossible!’ He studies the neighbourhood: the way jobless people on the street move from one shaded spot to another during the day, to remain protected from the harsh sun; the way many of his neighbours own just one possession, which defines them – the man with the pickaxe can get an occasional job as a ditch digger, the man with a shirt can temp as a night watchman (‘no one wants a half-naked guard’).

Each time he returns from a trip, he finds that his ramshackle pair of rooms has been robbed. He understands the part that poverty plays in this, but still finds the thefts exasperating, an invasion of space. Finally someone offers to help, takes him to the market and insists that he buy some white rooster feathers. ‘We returned to the alley. Suleiman arranged the feathers, tied them together with a piece of thread, and hung them from the top of my door frame. From that moment on, nothing ever disappeared from my apartment.’

What strikes the reader again and again is the distinctive tone of voice, which has remained consistent for the last forty years. It is a somewhat different voice from that of Conrad, his fellow Pole, who found a bottomless pit of human darkness in central Africa. Kapuściński knows that oppression, injustice and vanity are born not out of innate evil, but out of suffering. He traces the horror of the Liberian civil war back to the century and a half that 99 per cent of the population endured the rule of the 1 per cent who were descendants of freed American slaves.

From their experience in the American South, the Americo-Liberians knew only one type of relationship: master-slave . . . The newcomers from America, unable to set themselves apart from the locals by skin colour or physical type, try to underline their difference and superiority in some other way . . . Men walk about in morning coats and spencers, sport derbies and white gloves. Ladies . . . do so in stiff crinolines, heavy wigs, and hats decorated with artificial flowers.

He understands that the civil war in the Sudan is driven not by ideology but by hunger: ‘Someone reaching for a weapon, for a machete or a machine gun, is doing so first and foremost in order to grab some food, to get something to eat. It is a war over a handful of corn, a bowl of rice.’ And sometimes the suffering touches both oppressor and victim: he sees a revolutionary prison in Ethiopia packed with functionaries of the previous regime and notices that guards and prisoners are dressed alike, in ragged street clothing – the new government has no money for uniforms for either group.

When he first arrived in Africa at the dawn of independence, Kapuściński writes, he tried in vain to differentiate himself from the other whites that Africans had known. ‘“You were colonised? We, Poles, were also! For 130 years we were the colony of three foreign powers. White ones, too.” They laughed, tapped their foreheads, walked away.’ He is, indeed, unlike most other visitors to that long-suffering continent, but what makes him so special is not his Polishness.