Kapuscinski



Asmara . . . This is nothing! If only you could see Debre Zeyit.
. . .
(At) Debre Zeyit . . . the soldiers open the gate to a large enclosure at the top of a flat hill. The view from this place is unlike any in the world. Before us, as far as the eye can see, all the way to the distant, misty horizon, lies a flat and treeless plain – and it is completely covered with military equipment. To one side, stretching for kilometers, are fields of artillery pieces of various calibers: unending avenues of medium and large tanks; enclosures stacked with a veritable forest of antiaircraft guns and mortars; hundreds upon hundreds of armored trucks, small tanks, motorized radio stations, amphibious vehicles. And on the other side stand enormous hangars and warehouses, the hangars full of the body parts of still unassembled MIGs, the warehouses brimming with crates of ammunition and mines.

What’s most shocking and astonishing is the monstrous quantity of everything, the improbable accumulation, the piles of hundreds of thousands of machine guns, mountainous-terrain howitzers, military helicopters. All of this wended its way for years by sea from the Soviet Union to Ethiopia, Brezhnev’s gift to Mengistu. Not even a tenth of these armaments could actually be operated by people in Ethiopia. Why, with this many tanks, you could conquer all of Africa, and with fire from all these guns and rocket launchers reduce the continent to ashes! Roaming through the still streets of this city of motionless steel, where dark, rusty barrels stared at me from everywhere and around whose every corner caterpillar tanks bared their massive metal teeth, I thought about the man who, dreaming of conquering Africa, of staging on this continent a showpiece blitzkrieg, constructed this military necropolis. Who could this have been?
(Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski, p.307-308, hardback, ISBN 0676973744)

I don’t know who it was, Brezhnev, or one of his ambassadors, marshals or ministers, but I know who his contemporary counterpart is: Dick Cheney is the current author of the most gargantuan and delusional military fantasy on the planet. Insofar as his hand touches Africom, it will harm Africa, as well as the US.

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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.

Malaria is a huge impediment to productivity and development wherever it strikes. That is one reason it is particularly agreeable to see the recent initiatives to reduce and eradicate malaria, and reason to pray that they be successful, in Ghana, and in all other countries.

The Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski has spent much time in many of the countries of Africa and is very fond of the people and the continent. One of his books, Shadow of the Sun, is a collection of essays about different places, people and events he has visited, met, and witnessed throughout the continent. He has suffered from malaria more than once, and provides one of the most vivid written descriptions of the disease. In a chapter he calls “Inside the Mountain of Ice” he writes about the onset of malaria. For those who have never suffered a malaria attack, this provides insight on why it is so devastating.

The first signal of an imminent malaria attack is a feeling of anxiety, which comes on suddenly and for no clear reason. Something has happened to you, something bad. If you believe in spirits, you know what it is: someone has pronounced a curse, and an evil spirit has entered you, disabling you and rooting you to the ground. Hence the dullness, the weakness, the heaviness that comes over you. Everything is irritating. First and foremost, the light; you hate the light. And others are irritating – their loud voices, their revolting smell, their rough touch.

But you don’t have a lot of time for these repugnances and loathings. For the attack arrives quickly, sometimes quite abruptly, with few preliminaries. It is a sudden, violent onset of cold. A polar, arctic cold. Someone has taken you, naked, toasted in the hellish heat of the Sahel and the Sahara, and thrown you straight into the icy highlands of Greenland or Spitsbergen, amid the snows, winds, and blizzards. What a shock! You feel the cold in a split second, a terrifying, piercing, ghastly cold. You begin to tremble, to quake, to thrash about. You immediately recognize, however, that this is not a trembling you are familiar with from earlier experiences – say, when you caught cold one winter in a frost; these tremors and convulsions tossing you around are of a kind that at any moment now will tear you to shreds. Trying to save yourself, you begin to beg for help.

What can bring relief? The only thing that really helps is if someone covers you. But not simply throws a blanket or quilt over you. This thing you are being covered with must crush you with its weight, squeeze you, flatten you. You dream of being pulverized. You desperately long for a steamroller to pass over you.

I once had a powerful malaria attack in a poor village, where there weren’t any heavy coverings. The villagers placed the lid from some kind of wooden chest on top of me and then patiently sat on it, waiting for the worst tremors to pass. The most wretched are those who have a malaria attack and there is nothing to wrap them in. You can see them by the roadsides, in the bush, or in clay huts, lying semicomatose on the ground, drenched in sweat, confused, their bodies rent by rhythmic waves of malarial convulsions. But even snuggled under a dozen blankets, jackets, and coats, your teeth chatter and you moan with pain, because you sense that this cold does not come from without – it’s forty degrees Celsius out there! – but that it’s within, inside you, that these Greenlands, and Spitsbergens are in you, that all those floes, sheets, and mountains of ice are advancing through your veins, muscles, and bones. Perhaps this thought would fill you with fear – were you able to summon the strength to feel anything at all. But the thought occurs just as the peak of the attack, after several hours, is gradually subsiding, and you start a helpless descent into a state of extreme exhaustion and weakness.

The malaria attack is not merely painful, but like every pain also a mystical experience . . . But this moment of discovery, too, passes, and the spirits desert us, depart, and disappear, and that which remains, under the mountain of the most bizarre coverings, is truly painful.

A man right after a strong attack of malaria is a human rag. He lies in a puddle of sweat, he is still feverish, and he can move neither hand nor foot. Everything hurts; he is dizzy and nauseous. He is exhausted, weak, limp. Carried by someone else he gives the impression of having no bones or muscles. And many days must pass before he can get up on his feet again.

Each year in Africa malaria afflicts tens of millions of people, and in those areas where it is most prevalent – in wet, low-lying, marshy regions – it kills one child out of three.

(Shadow of the Sun p.54-56, ISBN: 0-676-97374-4)