Saturday, February 25, 2006

On Ryszard Kapuscinski, The Shadow of the Sun

On Teju Cole’s recommendation, I am currently reading Kapuscinski’s The Shadow of the Sun – stories from his 40 years of journalism on Africa. The book begins with tales from the late 1950’s in Ghana on the cusp of Independence, then follows independence movements in Tanganyika, Zanzibar, Nigeria and elsewhere. The latter parts of the book delve into the Rwandan genocide, and troubles in Ethiopia and Eritrea. It’s interesting to note his analysis of what went wrong during Independence in various African countries: there was no deep structural or legal reform. A new African elite merely took over the mantle of power, occupied the former Government Residential Areas, carried on the plunder. This led in the mid to late 1960’s to simmering resentment against the new oppressors, coup after coup and finally long term military dictatorship as in the case of Nigeria.

Apart from his live-in-mid-scene reminiscences, what is remarkable about the book are his fresh and vivid descriptions of African daily life. My favourite is this portrayal of the African greeting ritual:

“The course and temperature of the first greeting are of utmost significance to the ultimate fate of a relationship, which is why people here set much store by the way they salute each other. It is essential to exhibit from the very beginning, from the very first second, enormous, primal joy and geniality. So, for starters, one extends one’s hand. But not in a formal manner, reticently, limply: just the opposite – a large, vigorous gesture, as if one’s intention were not so much to offer one’s hand as to tear the other’s off. If, however, the other manages to keep his hand, whole and in its proper place, it is because, understanding the ritual rules of the greeting, he has likewise executed the same broad, forceful gesture. Both of these extremities, bursting with tremendous energy, now meet halfway and, with a terrifying impact of collision, cancel out the two opposing forces. Simultaneously, as the hands are rushing toward each other, the two individuals share a prolonged cascade of loud laughter. It is meant to signify that each is happy to be meeting and warmly disposed to the other.

There ensues a long list of questions and answers, such as “How are you? Are you feeling well? How is your family? Are they all healthy? And your grandfather? And your grandmother? And your aunt? And your uncle? – and so forth and so on, for families here are large and with many branches. Custom dictates that each positive answer be offered with yet another torrent of loud and vigilant laughter, which in turn should elicit a similar or perhaps an even more Homeric cascade from the one posing the questions.

You often see two (or more) people standing in the street and dissolving with laughter. It does not mean that they are telling each other jokes. They are simply saying hello. And if the laughter dies down, then either the act of greeting has come to an end and they will now move on to the substance of the conversation, or, simply, the newly met have fallen silent to allow their tired vocal cords a moment’s respite.”


mw 10:30 pm  

Hi Jeremy,

I should probably inject into this the fact that Ryszard Kapuscinski is viewed with derision by many African writers of this generation. He has established a huge reputation as an African 'expert' whose voice holds much sway. Increasingly however, some writers, most notably 2002 Caine Prize winner Binyarvanga Wanaina, detest generalisations peddled by the likes of Kapuscinski. For instance, the greeting 'custom' from his book in this post, what is that if not a generalisation? Africa has 54 countries; the greeting among the Igbo is different from the Yoruba--and even among the Yoruba there are variations to be found. So when Kapuscinski writes about 'African Greeting' ritual/convention, whatever, not only should we ask: is this supposed to represent the Whole of Africa? Well, that's how those in Europe will read it. To press the point, he has written of this act of 2 people exchanging pleasantries with all the vigour of David Attenborough observing a simian mating ritual. These are not things that would jump out at one at first reading, of course not. But when one thinks about it, Wainaina does have a point.

There was an email petition by Wainaina doing the rounds many months ago, which eventually found its way to a PEN congress in New York where Kapuscinski was due to participate. I've deleted my copy of the email now, but this link gives you an idea:

In fact, I'd be prepared to wager, that when Wainaina wrote his much talked about satirical piece: 'How To Write About Africa (, his primary - though not the only - target, was Ryszard Kapuscinski.


Jeremy 11:21 pm  

I agree that some of the stuff in The Shadow of the Sun is problematically generic. I read the piece on Rwanda today however and found it very informative and specific (I had little idea of the past century of events in Rwanda).

Though I've only just started reading him, I'd say that there is a marked difference between the early stuff written nearly 50 years ago and the more recent texts. I think the greeting description I quoted was done in the spirit of warmth and humour, not as a way of animalising African experience or behavioural patterns - but I guess in the context of a long history of sub-humanisation a la Conrad, it could come across as somewhat problematic.

mw 12:21 am  

Yes, the Rwandan Genocide indeed had a long fermentation in a century of history. When the Belgians colonised the country - 1916 was the year, I think - they placed the minority Tutsis higher on the evolutionary scale than the majority Hutus. They made Rwandans carry ID cards indicating their ethnicity; the cards became very 'useful' in choosing people for death in 1994, when the Hutu President's plane was shot down returning from Burundi. Burundi & Rwanda of course were once one country with the same language - Kinyarwanda.

I know this and more I guess, because I've written twice about Rwanda before. But yes, the genocide is best understood - if at all it is possible to understand genocide (I'm of the view that it is impossible) - when one takes account of a whole sweep of Rwanda's history.

Devil's Advocate 2:00 am  


I checked the references you gave regarding Wanaina. I loved the 'How to Write About Africa.' Good God the guy is more cynical than me!

When I saw Jeremy's posting about the Monologues I did a bit of research and found many presumably respected feminists were really against that play and the style of its presentation. Yet some people are obviously convinced it is marvelous.

In the case of the Monologues I came out on the side of the critics who gave a negative report.
In the case of Kapuscinski I similarly tend to agree with Wainaina.

What suprises me is not that Kapuscinski has generalised (as genralisation IS valid in the right circumstances) but that given his time spent in Africa he obviously only ever saw two people greet!

mw 12:50 pm  

Generalisation is what makes the Western press announce 'Blair stranded in Africa' when in fact they mean he got stranded Malawi, or Cote D'Ivoire, a West African country. This is the kind of generalisation the media, CNN, the lot - churn out daily; and the type that we have actually grown used to because after all, there are more serious violations. But even this daily reference to some corner of a vast continent as just 'Africa' in the glaring headline is harmful and says a lot about the West's need to paint the idea of a far-off, unfathomable place that you can't even identify one country there in isolation. It's all one imperfect whole. So for me, I would say generalisations in terms of Africa is rarely ever right or acceptable. But it goes on regardless, so we can agree to disagree.

As for Kapuscinsky, he has a sizeable body of work on Africa, and the passage from the post is obviously not all the man ever wrote.

grace,  3:20 pm  

Devil's Advocate, I'm really curious to know who are the feminists you found that are against VM? People do have valid criticisms of them, but I would like to know the names of these feminists you discovered.

Anonymous,  6:09 pm  

DV, I am also curious about the feminists against VM. Please provide names.


Devil's Advocate 11:28 pm  

MW I think to say that generalisations rarely apply to Africa is in itself a generalisation...but let's not got there!

At the time of the invasion of the Falkland Islands I think most British people thought they were part of the Scottish Isles.

I have a video download ( of street interviews of Americans. They are shockingly ignorant of world geography (very funny/sad). If you want it let me know and I will send you a copy.

So as you can (will) see Africa is not the only victim.

The 'press' generalisations may be a response to the geographical ignorance of the audience. If you are interested I will ask a journalist friend to do a similar exercise in Lagos and see what the results are.

Devil's Advocate 11:35 pm  

Grace and AN

I don't have the names now as I deleted the webpage I had saved but I got them from a Google search so have a nose around.

I was quite suprised at the negative reviews because it seemed to be highly regarded in the comments on Jeremy's posting and I expected that to be fairly universal.

Based on the very little I know of it I am not sure it is the best way to get the message across in this 'conservative' society.

mw 12:22 am  

Devil's Advocate,

With regard to the 1st para of your reply to me, I'm not certain that it represents anything exactly like I've stated here thus far.

As for the Americans, they are known to be terribly insular.

I would not agree that the Press generalisations about Africa rest with 'geographical ignorance' of the audience alone (heaven forbid that the press themselves should be geographically ignorant, come to think of it). Read Edward Said (Orientalism) and of course Jeremy mentioned Joseph Conrad earlier on, from whom much of the construct of the 'dark continent' began. Then read Chinua Achebe's great critique of Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness'.

I'm pretty confident that the average person on the streets of Lagos - weaned as he/she is on American movies, sitcoms and news programmes, not to mention MTV - knows a bit more about America, than the average American knows about any part of Africa - beyond famine, wars and AIDS.

As for getting a journalist friend to do a field study on the subject, that will not be necessary. Here's where I get off...

Anonymous,  8:29 am  

MW you seem to assume that only Europeans are immune to generalisations. DV is right on this one - that statement is in itself a generalisation. Living here in Nigeria, I often hear Nigerians saying things like Europeans are so dirty, they don't beat their wives, they are not into family the way we are etc. Then I say to them,if they are so dirty, how come so many Nigerian cities, neighbourhood are so filthy (now don't tell me that it is only because Euros have good municipal councils - that is only part of the explanation). I ask them have you been to France or any village in the UK and see how communal people are? how people try and get into each other's biz (a function of any village community anywhere in the world). Have you been with or read all those studies about working class English and their overbearing families and in-laws. how come there are so many shelter for battered women if men don't violate their women? Yet, we AFricans think that we can make generalisations and they can't.

I agree with you MW about some of Kapuscinski's generalisations, but lets face it a good book, it provides another opportunity for reading AFrica. Conrad's book is deeply flawed, yet we can gain some insight about the Euro-mind and their take on Africa.

MW, you are unnecessarily trying to be too picky. His statement about the greetings can be generalisable to many African countries even if their might be subtle differences. How many Euro countries have you visited where people will engage you in a lengthy greetings? But in Africa - from Tunisia to Togo - the greetings are long, engaging and about cultivating intimacy rather than distance. This is a general fact, even if there are variations. THis is what RK was talking about. We can get a bit over-sensitive about these things.

I don't see anything wrong with writing about daily life from the vigour of David Attenborough. Unfortunately that is what is so missing in African scholarly research and journalism. The Beniniose Philosopher Paulin Hountondji has cried over and over again about the absence of a microscopic analysis of daily life and practice in Africa. Thankfully, more and more African scholars are beginning to do so. Our journalists are unfortunately still lagging behind.

check out Hountondji's essay 'Daily Life in Black Africa: Elements for a Critique' in The Surreptitious Speech ed by Mudimbe. I dare say MW , you will say that he too is prone to generalisation, a DAttenborough type birdwatching 'cause he has not focused on a particular African country, yet so many of us find something familar in what he has to say. But then again you might not have a problem with his generalisation 'cause he is an African, generalising about Africa. I think the important question that you/we should ask ourselves, is that does his generalisation resonates for us in our own environment.


G Kendal,  11:16 am  

The only point on which I would disagree with MW is about the 'terrible' insularity of the Americans. I would check that slightly by saying 'large sections' of American society are terribly insular, failing to see any world outside their borders. That's why they could re-elect Bush in the first place. On the remainder of MW's argument, I can see the commentator is speaking from an ideological standpoint. What MW is saying (and what a lot of Third World cultural critics are beginning to see) has nothing to do with whether Kapuscinsky writes good books, That is not the point. The point is that he continues the orientalist's project of helping to construct Africa in the Western Imagination as the exotic, irredeemable 'other'. It is done through irresistible, frankly wonderful narratives among whom Conrad's book is probably the most significant.Those who are arguing against here, sadly, are being too pedestrian about the whole thing, talking about people on the street! Y'all need to read up on some postcolonial theory, then perhaps you will see better.

Jeremy 11:54 am  

It is true that Kapuscinski writes for a western audience. In that respect, 'the African' is irredeemably positioned as other in his text. The most egregious aspect of the book for me is that the praise heaped on the back page and immediately inside the book is all written by westerners writing in western newspapers. This (however unconsciously or inadvertently) propagates the orientalist fantasy that Africans can only be written about by others, as if Africa lies mute in an enormous cage down South somewhere.

But then in order to avoid a problematically eurocentric perspective of looking out on the other, we would need Africans writing critically about their own culture (and other African cultures) from indigenous methodological and metaphysical frameworks.

The journal African Identities is one such project (as is Research in African Literature), however, on the whole, there is an extremely scarce amount of research (ethnographic, cultural theory, sociology, philosophy etc) done on Africa (either by Africans or otherwise). The donors are simply not interested in serious intellectual research beyond analysing various forms of African victimhood; people working in universities here are struggling to survive too much to have the resources at hand to conduct such research. This creates a hole which is filled by popularist writers such as Kapuscinski, as well as more serious ethnographer types (such as the increasingly interesting work of James Lorand Matory on the Yoruba).

It is long since overdue that this intellectual vaccum was filled. African theorists and intellectuals have an unfulfilled duty in this direction. The path back from liberal arts colleges etc in the States and elsewhere might be painful (financially and otherwise), but its a path that needs to be taken. Now.

g kendal,  12:18 pm  

Thank you Jeremy. With this last comment of yours, I see a comfortable place for my views, somewhere between yours & MW's. To the others, I say this: the most powerful man in the world, George W Bush is on record for describing Africa as "a country".

Now I'm off to check MW's site...

G Kendal
Santa Barbara, CA

Anonymous,  2:53 pm  

G Kendal & MW, of course you are right about the orientalist stuff going on in RK - no one can argue against this. But despite this, his text shows Africa at a certain historical period however problematic we may think his representation may be. Until Africans starts writing and documenting all the intriacies of their own existence (especially daily life), Africans and Europeans alike will have recourse to the RKs of this world.

Devil's Advocate 3:03 pm  

MW I read your first paragraph referring to my own first paragraph. If in your earlier comment you mean 'correct' when you say 'right' it somewhat changes the meaning (at least to me) and maybe that is what you meant. In which case I might agree with you. As it is written with the accompanying 'applicable' I will stand by what I wrote.

As for Nigerians watching American entertainment, yes they do and they have a view of America but a grossly distorted one. Just like you claim the west has a distorted view of Africa.

'Famine, wars and AIDS' are major issues in Africa WHETHER YOU LIKE IT OR NOT. They are newsworthy - and crucially so. Or do we all ingnore that and say 'JJC/2Face/419 Squad I love you' to give a positive image of Africa. (Check my posting on this issue on my blog.)

I am off to do a street interview...

funke olusesi,  3:36 pm  

what is the source of your petulance, Devils Advocate? If someone says the Western media is only interested in stories of war, famine and AIDS, it is not the same as saying these issues are not important. For you to accuse someone of implying that the issues are unimportant is grossly unfair. Your capitals 'screaming' are unnecessary. In debating in this space, it is good to remember not to put words in people's mouths.

My two kobo's worth for you.

Anonymous,  4:56 pm  

On generalisation: Nigerians/Africans find it difficult to imagine that Europe/North America have their fair share of wretchedness and poverty. The New Orleans tragedy brought it home to many (those who with access to DSTV - which means less than a million). They find it difficult to understand that the military industry complex watches people's every movement (yet Nigeria does not have the capability to tap phones or monitor internet exchange etc). They think it is the land of gold and honey. All of these images are fueled by the media - both in Africa and in the West.

Generalisations abound on both sides. Only difference (and I think this is what MW is getting at)is that one generalisation has more far-reaching impact than the other. Many progressives in the West have multiple channels for getting information about Africa that is not simply about famine, wretchedness or Conrad's horror. For progressives in Africa where are our sources of information: certainly not The Guardian or ThisDay, Tell (perhaps City people and The Sun)


G Kendal,  5:50 pm  

Anonymous number 3: You are correct in joining the blogger in arguing that Africans must record/write/document their own existence to rival the RKs out there. I believe that RK and his likes must be read, but they must be read critically, and that's what I think the 1st commentator here has succeeded in drawing our attention to. An uncritical reading of Kapuscinsky is cultural suicide.

Kaya: I agree with you that Europe & America have their share of wretchedness too. To that, I will add that the West does not focus on its wretchedness only and that alone.

The New Orleans devastation came with it's own complex aesthetics/politics, but there again we saw the American media's racism in its portrayal of the dispossessed: lawless 'looter' when the person caught grabbing food from a store is black - or 'person-desperate-to-survive' when the 'looter' is white. The same standard applied always to black people in Africa was brought to bear on black people in the US.

To come back to Africa, the question of who/what decides how a continent is portrayed on a global level, is not in the hands of Africans, and that is why European or American wretchedness is not blown up eternally the way Africa's is. The West is a mighty fortress when it comes to the means of communication. It has succeeded in defining the 'other' for so long, that the 'other' begins to see itself that way, and so many black people share the very values that have been used to hold them down. Therefore, the difference, really, is a question of power

Anonymous,  12:49 pm  

Kapucinski writes with a lot of Irony. But more importantly regardless of disagreements with his style or the tag African expert there are valid points he raises. Do read another bookof his called The emperor

About This Blog

  © Blogger templates Psi by 2008

Back to TOP