Wednesday, 25 July 2012

A tangible impression of Africa

I have just finished reading Heban by Ryszard Kapuściński (English title: The Shadow of the Sun). Having previously professed no interest in Africa whatsoever (certainly of ever visiting it), the book offered me an encapsulation of that continent written in a thoroughly compelling manner full of insight. As a foreign correspondent, Kapuściński found himself in Africa when the process of de-colonisation was in full swing. Heban is a collection of reportages; we jump from Zanzibar to Dakar, from Addis Ababa to Rwanda, from the scorched wastes of the Sahara to malaria-infested jungle.

In each chapter, Kapuściński strives to explain what it is that makes Africa Africa - why the continent is handicapped in its efforts to develop.

First and foremost - the climate. The author portrays nature's pace as frenetic - the cycle of reproduction, birth, growth, disease, death and decay as happening much faster than in northern Europe. The human response to this - is to slow down. Waiting, passively waiting for something to happen. Time, which dictates the life of northerners, is an abstract in Africa. The climate is deadly. Malaria strikes, cobras bite, crocodiles lurk in rivers. Get lost in the desert and you die of thirst and heat exhaustion. Exertion and effort are to be avoided, especially around midday. Shade and draught become luxuries; having a home on hill, where a gentle breeze can waft through the rooms bringing blessed relief.

Human existence is primarily about subsistence, surviving from mealtime to mealtime. Misfortunes occur because witches and sorcerers will them upon the misfortunate, accidents, disease, natural calamities - drought or flood - are not the result of human neglect, but are occurrences of supernatural provenance. Subsistence means not having possessions. Owning things makes little sense if you cannot be sure you'll live through to the end of the week. Not having possessions means you are mobile - you can take your cooking pot, your shirt, your spoon, and move on should drought or flood, war or famine befall you.

The only way to survive in such a world is through one's strong bond with one's clan. Your family - immediate and extended - will provide, provided you provide. Your clan will protect you and yours against the evil eye. Night falls instantly in Africa, and as it does, all manner of supernatural forces rise up to stalk the jungles. Religions of all sorts offer succour, sense and order. A cock's feather, a tooth, on a string across the threshold of your hut or across a path in the jungle, is hugely significant and beneficial.

Colonialism was a disaster for Africa. Thousands of tribes, hundreds of thousands of clans, were forced into a mere score of so colonies, arbitrarily drawn onto inadequate maps by European rulers, interested only in gold and slaves. De-colonisation was a disaster for Africa - the white man left without thinking through the fall-out. A first wave of African rulers turned out to be corrupt and incompetent. They were replaced in a succession of bloody military coups (several of which were witnessed by Kapuściński) that were popular at first, and then the leaders (Idi Amin, Samuel Doe, Mengistu Haile Mariam) become bloody despots themselves.

If the natural circumstances of Africa form one pillar of the book, the human ones - their provenance and prognoses - form the other. The tragedies of Liberia and Rwanda are analysed; at the heart of them are botched intervention of White Man, tribalism and unthinkably inhuman barbarism. He charts the rise of warlords, how during the Cold War, they served as proxies for the West or its Soviet adversary, how they live to extract whatever they can from terrorised local communities - and when they can extract no more, they sit around a peace table and are given funds from Western governments. Although he didn't coin the phrase 'lumpenmilitariat', he describes the child-soldiers, fearless, barbaric, easily manipulated - that armed with Soviet-made weaponry, are the warlords' cannon-fodder. Africa's wars, inchoate and undocumented, are an intractable evil.

Is there a way out for Africa? Kapuściński continually alludes to it but never openly says it - what Africa needs is infrastructure; a massive road building programme to open up its interior, criss-crossing it with highways, linking communities with proper roads and proper drains. Eradication of hunger and disease maybe noble goals, but a focus on infrastructure delivery will speed these up.

Kapuściński ends with a description of village life, somewhere along the borderlands between the parched Sahara and the continent's interior. The centre of social activity is the tree - the one remaining tree that's not been cut down for firewood. It offers something of vital importance in Africa - shade. It is here that the children study, it is here that the village gets together to discuss the issues of the day, and to swap the stories that bind the community and form its aural history. Shade - and water - bring life to Africa.

There is growing controversy surrounding the life and works of Kapuściński (as the Wikipedia article linked at the top of this post suggests). The recent translation into English of his biography by Artur Domosławski was reviewed in the Economist, and below you will hear an interview with its Central and Eastern Europe editor Edward Lucas about Kapuściński.

These flaws in Kapuściński's adherence to the strict parameters of truth do have an impact on the way a reader reacts to some of the first-person narrative found in the book. The famous scenes with the cobra, or the broken-down truck in the Sahara - were the situations really as dangerous as the author paints them? Indeed - does it matter? Does a bit of dramatic exaggeration not enhance our read?

In the end, I think had I read the book not doubting a word of its veracity, it may have proved just very slightly more powerful. As it was, here and there I'd leave a bit of a margin, but on the whole, Kapuściński's reportage has provided me with a huge step in my understanding of Africa. I'm grateful to him for having written it the way he wrote it - and I'm very glad to have read it; I am intellectually richer for the experience. Africa is not something I'd thought about before, now I feel I have gulped down a huge chunk of wise insight about a hitherto largely unknown continent.

Above all, the thought that keeps coming back to me after having read Heban concerns civilisation. It is the removal of uncertainty about the future that allows mankind to become ever more civilised.

This time last year:
Jeziorki sunset, late July

This time four years ago:
Jeziorki sunset, after the storm

This time five years ago:
Rural suburbias - the ideal place to live?

1 comment:

Sigismundo said...

Having traversed Africa North to South (and a bit more besides) feel I know a little about the place, though I was barely scraping the surface. It's both worse and better than you've hinted. Perversely, some of the most beautiful parts – in the far west of DR Congo (formerly Zaïre)/Rwanda border/Uganda border – have in recent years been the most violent and unforgiving.

As for building infrastructure – that's been tried afore. I walked along stretches of the "Pan-African Highway" in Congo that were little more than mud track. The money for these projects always seems to end up in the wrong hands and ultimately vanishes into a numbered Swiss bank account. The only people who could police such projects are probably the Chinese. (But guess who's doing all the big investments in Africa these days? Perhaps there's hope yet.) Nevertheless, most projections for the African economy in c.2050 see it roughly where it is today, while the wealth of the more developed continents will have doubled or even trebled.

Must read Kapuściński's book someday. Have you tried P.J. O'Rourke's case study of an African state in "Eat the Rich" (1998)? It's in a chapter called "How to make nothing from everything: Tanzania".