The Shadow Of The Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski

'Somalian refugee’. I’ve used that phrase so casually, to rail at a daughter who grew skinny despite my ministrations, to mock at wafer-thin models; but when I read Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Shadow Of The Sun, it took on a whole new meaning. The Somalian’s day, I learnt, is a scorching hell. ‘Even the shade is hot, even the wind is ablaze’. In the dry season, they live on two cups of tea. But they march on, every day, trying to find the next well, the next smudge of green. Sometimes, the search is hopeless, their cattle perish, then the children and women. Kapuscinski lived among them. Visiting Africa several times, over 40 years (from late 1950s), his is an account that’s as sensitive as an African writing about Africa. The Shadow Of The Sun, translated from Polish, is a bunch of essays about these visits — to mountainous Rwanda, blighted by genocide; to Sudan, torn by war; to Amin’s Uganda, where the cruel dictator casually murdered hundreds of thousands of his own people. He travels to Africa’s largest market (Onitsha), marvels at the Nile valley cutting into the desert, he’s awestruck at the sight of a pride of lions and elephant cemeteries at the bottom of African lakes. This is not ‘Madagascar 2’ Africa — it does not come with tinted, 3-D glasses, but it’s the real one.

It works because…

The book hooks you from the first line and drags you into the page, to an Africa coming out of colonial rule, expecting its streets to be awash with milk and honey, and in the disappointing years that follow, overthrowing rulers in coup after coup. Talking from the frontlines, negotiating his way into flights and boats despite having very little money, Kapuscinski writes about war, bloodshed and disease. He writes of Africa of the past; when colonial masters camped along the coast, ‘their ports were really only leeches on the body of Africa, points of export for slaves, gold, and ivory’. He writes of hardship matter-of-factly, and yet I sat at the edge of my seat, reading his travails in the desert, where the sun, thirst and an incompetent driver almost took his life; when he speaks of people living in landscapes so wretched, he wonders ‘Who condemned them to such a ghastly, subcelestial exile? Why? For what trespasses?’

This book, then, is about everyday Africans, whose aspirations are limited to finding the next meal, the next pot of water, of grinding poverty, and occasional flashes of pride. Kapuscinski calls Africa ‘a veritable ocean, a separate planet’. And this book is the easiest way to get there.

And this one stays with you…

On walking with a Somalian clan:

‘Everyone tries to hide from the sun. The only way to do it is to get beneath one of the wide, branching acacias that grow here and there, whose shallow, tattered canopies are shaped like umbrellas: there is shade there, a smidgen of hidden coolness. Aside from those trees, it’s just sand and more sand, everywhere….

“Wouldn’t it have been better to stay there, by the well?” I ask Hamed, dead tired. We are barely on the third day of our journey, and already I feel that I cannot go on….

“No,” he replied, “because the Ogaden are approaching from the west, and we do not have the strength to resist them.”


Otterly movingAugust 24, 2012