A wrenching, poignant portrait of Africa and Africans by a Polish journalist who first visited the continent in 1957.
Kapuscinski (Imperium, 1994, etc.) displays uncommon courage and compassion in this account of his half-century of experiences in Africa. He begins with this observation: “The continent is too large to describe. It is a veritable ocean, a separate planet, a varied, immensely rich cosmos.” Yet he succeeds. The volume has a loose chronology (starting with Ghana’s independence in the mid-1950s, ending on a dark Christmas Eve in the 1990s when a wild elephant disrupts an outdoor party), but Kapuscinski’s observations are not bound by time: He allows his prose to flow freely through decades and across boundaries of place and culture. Deftly, he employs the keen edge of anecdote to make his incisions in the ignorance and complacency of the rest of the world. He is a superior teacher. We learn about an African conception of time: “Time appears as a result of our actions, and vanishes when we neglect or ignore it.” We learn that wildlife includes not only elephants and lions (it is only the old, slow ones that will deign to eat humans) but also the myriads of plants and insects that have no names. (One night he shares a room with roaches the size of small turtles.) We see the unspeakable poverty (a woman cries in the street: someone has stolen her only possession, a bowl) and experience violence so barbarous as to make one ashamed of humanity. His chapter on Rwanda—clear, unbearable in intensity—is a small masterpiece. Kapuscinski does not neglect the beautiful, the miraculous. He describes a visit to central Ethiopia where 11 medieval churches were built below ground level. He provides lyrical descriptions of mountains and plains—and of heat so intense that it causes minds to retreat into stupor.
A book of many wonders, of unfathomable sadness, of intense quiet and quick violence, of greed and grandeur, of illuminations blindingly bright.