on 4 November 2002
I've visited Africa several times and have read a number of African travel books, but for me this one stands out hand and shoulders above the rest. Based on the author's personal experiences as a journalist spanning the whole continent each chapter presents a fresh insight into African culture,physchology, beleifs and history . Whether it is describing the revolution in Zanzibar (where the author himself was taken hostage), the rise of the 3rd-rate officer Amin to president of Uganda or observations drawn from travelling amongst the ordinary villages and people the author allows neither sentimentalism nor predjudice to cloud a hugely entertaining and informative read.
on 30 June 2004
Ignatieff is right - Kapuscinski does turn reporting into literature. But maybe he oversteps the boundary sometime....I catch myself wondering if things happened quite the way he describes them. His imagination is attracted by the the baroque, the sensational, and the extreme. That said, this was probably the reason he fell in love with Africa in the first place - his need for heightened emotions and extreme situations.
Even so, it's very worth reading this book, not so much for the reportage as for the analysis. His dispatches from civil war zones are amazingly lurid, especially from Liberia. But maybe too lurid to be food for thought beyond 'heart-of-darkness' similes.
What I particularly value in this book is his very lucid and measured analysis of the rise of Amin; of the ubiquity of the warlord and child soldier; of the genocide in Rwanda; of the class structure of independent Africa; of the perils facing even the most patriotic of African leaders (here, Eritrea; in his book The Soccer Wars he makes a similar point about Ben Bella in Algeria). And his vignettes of daily life are also fascinating: the witchcraft he used against burglars in Lagos, the merchant lady in Senegal.
In notice the cover of this book is plastered with glowing reviews - but not one is from from an African source or african writer. What do Africans make of it, I wonder...
on 3 October 2002
I grew up in Africa, a barefooted white boy enjoying the final desperate priviledges of the dying Empire. And as a young man I taught in Nigeria. These are all fading memories now, yet not until now have I read anything which so transports me back to the white heat of the sun, and the marketplaces, and the footpaths, and the vibrancy that is Africa. This is a book that lays bare the real Africa without any burden of ideology or polemic - except for a touching underlying affection for the place. If you ever felt confused about the tribal factions in Rwanda, or the forces that led to the rise of Amin in Uganda, or whatever happened to the freed American slaves in Liberia, or the reasons for the conflict in Eritrea - then this is the book. Exquisite.
on 6 July 2002
A quite wonderful book; humane, insightful, hugely enquiring - how would you categorize A Shadow of the Sun? It's at once a history of the development of the continent, from heady independence days as the book opens, to drought and corruption, and now to struggle and opportunity, a feeling that the worst is past, but improvement so hard to achieve; it's of course a dazzling travelogue, high and low he has been, from suffocating aridity in the desert to malarial downpours in West Africa, from Eritrea to Tanzania to Mali to Nigeria; it's almost a poem at times, to the spirit he so admires in the people he meets, the awe he feels as he sees the relationship between nature which is harsh, life-giving and taking, and the communities that live their lives around nature (how different to Europe!); it's an understated but lancing polemic as he depicts the day-by-day struggle of the urban poor, betrayed by their leaders, trapped in a society where interactions with Europe have yet to fully right themselves from the distortions of the colonial period; but the best thing about the book is that in the many snapshots and scenes he writes about, he is able to capture so well what it feels like to be there, sometimes intimidating, sometimes exhilarating, the space and light, laughter, wonder, infuriating and inspiring.
on 17 August 2001
Africa is a continent of such extraordinary diversity that almost anything you say about it collectively is both true and untrue, depending on where you stand literally and figuratively.
But one thing is common to all of Africa: it is subject to entirely different rules. What is true in Europe is not true in Africa; what is an article of faith in Africa is incomprehensible in Europe.
Ryszard Kapuscinski, a Pole, has been visiting Africa as a journalist since l957. In pursuit, admittedly hopelessly, of a true understanding of Africa, he has avoided 'official routes, important personages and high-level politics'.
He preferred the nomad camp, the Lagos slums, the bombed Eritrean towns. He has tried to understand the spiritual life of Africans, while making it clear that the term 'African', although necessary, is not really helpful.
But it is here, in the margins, that Kapuscinski has achieved something no other commentator I know of has done, compassionate insights which reveal so much.
For example, he explains that for an African, time is not, in the European sense, a master to which the African is enslaved. On the contrary, time only exists when things happen. Thus a bus will leave a terminal when it is full, a ceremony will take place when everybody turns up.
From his very first visit to Ghana until the present day, he has been overwhelmed by the beauty and the squalor of Africa, and puzzled both by its
generosity and its cruelty.
Kapuscinski comes close to saying that Africans are incapable of engendering within themselves the will to transform. We are told African leaders also have a fatal lack of self-critical faculties, which leads to delusion and paranoia, grudges and manias. He might have been writing about Mugabe.
Change leads inevitably to banditry, corruption and power struggles. In a particularly horrifying account of a visit to Liberia, he tells of a two-hour
video freely available in Monrovia, which shows the torture of President Samuel Doe at the hands of a rival, Prince - later President - Charles Taylor, who orders his ears cut off in an effort to get his Swiss bank account numbers.
Many hours later Doe dies of blood loss. But there is no prurience or contempt in Kapuscinski's account.
On the contrary, he wonders how it is that a simple tribesman could have come to power, and he explains lucidly the troubled history of Liberia and the extreme irony that its American freed slaves repatriated here instituted a form of apartheid forbidding all contact with the 'savages' of the interior.
Within a broad band stretching across central Africa, Kapuscinski has visited many extraordinary places.
He is fascinated by the states of mind, the essential beliefs, of the myriad people called Africans: some have obsessions with ancestors, others with portents, others with cattle, others with evil spirits.
Amost all have a profound sense of community and kinship. Kapuscinski puts this down in part to the oral tradition of history: history is essentially an affirmation of your place in the family, the tribe, the clan.
WHERE there were more than 10,000 fiefdoms before colonisation, there are now 53 countries.
Far from fragmenting African society, colonialism forced it into countries that do not correspond in any way to its religious, agricultural or cultural practices.
It is this which has led almost inevitably to the horrors of places like Rwanda and Amin's Uganda.
Although his prognosis for Africa is not good, Kapuscinski's humanity, his insights and the sheer brilliance of his writing make this one of the finest books I have ever read about Africa - and I have read many.
on 4 July 2006
Such a big continent matched only by the breadth and expressiveness of Kapuskinski's writing, faithfully and skillfully translated. No wonder Poland counted him as the finest journalist from Poland in the 20th Century. Although I love travel and discerning travel books, I had no interest in Africa. That all changed with this book. It is wonderfully human, detailed and absorbing. For anyone else who is interested I think it is only matched by the writing of Anna Politkovskaya.
on 5 August 2002
There is not a great deal that I can add to this book, given what previous reviewers have written, which perfectly summarises why this is such a valuable book: in short this is an unbiased, open-minded, warn-hearted, honest, lyrical, perceptive and brilliant insight into Africa. Anyone who wants to understand just how different Africa and Africans are from elsewhere should read this book - it shows just how wrongheaded the West is in trying to force Africa into its own way of doing things, and how doomed this appraoch is to failure. It should be read in accompaniment with YURUGU: AN AFRICAN-CENTRED CRITIQUE OF EUROPEAN CULTURAL THOUGHT AND BEHAVIOUR by Marimba Ani, which is perhaps an even greater masterpiece than this, and underlines the cultural faultlines between Europe and Africa, and Europe`s deep guilt for what has happened in Africa over the past 500 years.
on 30 October 2002
Please read this book.
If you have ever been to Africa, the hairs on the back of your neck will stand up. You'll recognise the places, people and situations as Kapuscinski's beautifully crafted accounts of his travels throughout the continent come alive in your memories.
If you've never been, this book will make you want to go. A seasoned African campaigner, Kapuscinski brings home the uniqueness that makes Africa not a place to fear and avoid, but one to explore and - as he is continually helping you to do throughout the book - understand.
Tracing a line from the triumphal emergence of African independence to its most recent and darkest turmoils, Kapuscinski combines a "Western" concept of time, geography and politics with an "African" view rarely conveyed in the news reports. In doing so, he also reminds the reader that "Africa" is too narrow a term to use to describe the myriad cultures, traditions and conditions which exist in this huge continent.
on 22 May 2007
This is just how all travel books should be written!
Superb. He had the guts and insight to travel to a continent which was about to witness the end of European colonianism, and gives an insight into an Africa that many would not recognise today.
The beautiful thing about this book is that he lives amongst the people whom he so vividly describes and thus gives a telling insight about the places and peoples he visits. His attention to the smallest details marks him out as being a very special writer. He makes the reader feel as though he too just travelled with him, which is not always the case. He observes customs and explains why Africans and Europeans often seem to misunderstand one another - he is able to explain local customs only because he stayed in the right places and met the right people, so is in a position to make observations which most visitors or "tourists" would be blisfully unaware of.
Highly recommended reading.
on 9 August 2002
I took this book with me on a recent trip to Africa, and it was the perfect companion. He writes with a gentle style that demonstrates both his love for the continent and its people, as well as his astonishment at humans' resilience to the hardships they encounter. As I got towards the end, I read slower and slower, trying to make it last longer. The ultimate compliment was that instead of ditching the book in Africa, I gave up much-needed space and weight in my rucksack to bring it home so I can read it again in the future. Wonderful.