The Shadow of the Sun
By: Ryszard Kapuscinski
Africa - mysterious, exotic, unique - so far, an unrealized travel dream of mine. Friends who have been there rave mostly about the extraordinary experience of seeing animals, up close, in the wild, where they live. After reading “The Shadow of the Sun,” I see another Africa: the continent - its history and its struggles, and the people who have endured its heat, famine, disease, persecution and disfunction. Ryszard Kapuscinski was a journalist on assignment for Poland’s state newspaper when he began his African travels in 1957. He lived there for several years and returned frequently over the next 40. During that time, he witnessed the beginning of the end of colonial rule and its aftermath. In his words, “I traveled extensively, avoiding official routes, palaces, important personages, and high-level politics. Instead, I opted to hitch rides on passing trucks, wander with nomads through the desert, be the guest of peasants of the tropical savannah. Their life is endless toil, a torment they endure with astonishing patience and good humor. This is not a book about Africa, but rather about some people from there – about encounters with them and time spent together.”
But I think Kapuscinski understates what we readers are treated to in this remarkable book. With each place he visits, each person he meets and spends time with, history comes to life. We learn about Ghana, Rwanda, Sudan, Zanzibar, Nigeria, Mauritania, Ethiopia, Uganda, Somalia, Senegal, Liberia and more. We learn about the various tribes and clans and the effect of slavery on the way people think. We also learn how African culture and customs around hunger, thirst, time and thievery are dictated by its climate, geography, past and present. In one example related to time, Kapuscinski describes getting on a bus in Acra and the revelation that Africans and Europeans have an entirely different perception of time. He explains that for Europeans, “time exists outside man, exists objectively, and has measurable and linear characteristics. The European feels himself to be time’s slave, dependent on it, subject to it. To exist and function, he must observe its ironclad, inviolate laws, its inflexible principles and rules. He must heed deadlines, days, and hours.” For Africans, writes Kapuscinski, time “is a much looser concept, more open, elastic, subjective. It is man who influences time, its shape, course, and rhythm (man acting, of course, with the consent of gods and ancestors). Time is even something that man can create outright, for time is made manifest through events, and whether an event takes place or not depends, after all, on man alone.” Therefore, asking what time the bus will leave makes no sense to the African. The bus will leave when it is full; the meeting will begin when enough people show up; and the battle will begin when two armies start fighting.
The book is filled with insights like this. It is a treasure to share and one that can live on your bookshelf to read and reread. JB
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