Better than almost any European, Ryszard Kapuscinski knew and loved Africa. He knew that Africa was not one place, or one people, as many westerners tend to view it. As he writes in the introduction to Shadow of the Sun:
This is therefore not a book about Africa, but rather about some people from there – about encounters with them, and time spent together. 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.
The Guardian has an excellent article about Kapuscinski’s life and work, that includes this:
In 1957 he went to Africa, and returned there as often as possible over the next 40 years. He covered the whole continent, including 27 revolutions and coups, and was exhilarated by the feeling he was in at history in the making. He and his employers had no money, but he was a deal maker who often had the contacts to help other journalists who did have the money to hire planes, and thus both arrived at the scene of the latest drama. “Africa was my youth,” he said later, describing how much the continent had meant to him.
He was present in Ghana for independence, and the first chapters of Shadow of the Sun are essays he wrote about being in Ghana at that time. Although his eye as a journalist missed nothing, and his descriptions have deadly accuracy, he also had the voice of a poet, and saw people and events in their historical and spiritual context. With his gift for language he was also blessed with one of the worlds most brilliant translators for his works in English, Klara Glowczewska. There are many things I would like to say about Kapuscinski, or quote from his works, but I think I will conclude this post with a very lovely observation of women getting off the bus, from a bus ride he took in 1957 from Accra to Kumasi. Many travellers to Ghana have remarked on the style and grace of Ghanaian women. Kapuscinski captures a bit of the essence from that time.
Every now and then our bus stops along the side of the road. Someone wants to get off. If it’s a young woman with a child or two (a young woman without a child is a rare sight), there unfolds a scene of extraordinary agility and grace. First, the woman will secure the child to her body with a calico scarf (her small charge sleeping the entire time, not reacting). Next, she will squat down and place the bowl from which she is never separated, full of food and goods of all kinds, on her head. Then, straightening up, she will execute that maneuver of a tightrope walker taking his first step above the abyss: carefully, she finds her equilibrium. With her left hand she now clutches a woven sleeping mat, and with her right the hand of a second child. And this way – stepping at once with a very smooth, even gait – they enter a forest path leading to a world I do not know and perhaps will never understand.(Shadow of the Sun, p.22)