Guest Post from Flora: A Pole in Africa

Writing from the relative warmth of Boston (I’m in the Twin Cities, land of snow-crete), Flora returns with a blog post about Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński.  I have allowed her to keep her weirdo British spelling, even though she is technically American. Stay warm, blog friends!

So many dichotomies in the world. Type A’s and Type B’s.  Optimists and pessimists. Doers and dreamers. Those who fly into war zones, arc over burning roadblocks, slip through the jungle towards Stanleyville post-independence pre-Mobutu, stare into gun barrels; those whose days are spent in the swirl of “people, hotel, key, room, stuffiness, thirst, otherness, foreignness, loneliness, waiting, fatigue, life.” And those whose days simply- aren’t.  Or such is the ineluctable conclusion drawn after reading three of Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński‘s books.

Just under a year ago I read the posthumously published Travels with Herodotus. I was new to Kapuściński‘s work, and his measured grace struck me. In truth, his world is not one that encourages dichotomies but instead subverts them, one in which a roaming journalist from a beleaguered nation-state, spectre of German and Soviet subjugation at his back, tries to wend his way through the polarizations – black and white, democracy and totalitarianism – that threaten to coopt day to day life. If only more people alighted on a Calcutta train station platform or waited days for transport in a Sudanese waypost, cross-fertilizing revelation if not understanding; then, he seems to promise, the madnesses of the world might settle into sense if not resolution. I used a passage from Travels for a volunteer orientation session on culture shock for (shameless promo) WorldTeach. I then rather foolishly traded my copy of Travels with Herodotus for an Indian buffet lunch. End Act One of my encounters with Kapuściński.

Acts Two and Three came in short succession. I recently encountered a fellow traveler reading A Shadow of the Sun (2001), which seemed a slightly more legitimate thing to tote around Rwanda than George R.R. Martin’s A Clash of Kings; duly chastened, I picked up a Penguin reprint of it upon returning to the States.  Whereas Travels with Herodutus encompasses the world and is to a certain extent a retrospective of Kapuściński‘s life, A Shadow of the Sun hones in on Africa, the stifling heat and liberated frenzy of the continent as the colonial powers retreated. The book is an eyewitness account of the monumental and the quotidian. In one essay Kapuściński bargains his way into a barricaded Zanzibar in the days immediately following the 1964 Zanzibar Revolution; in another, he is waiting, simply waiting, in Khartoum, nearly crushed under the relentless heat which recurs so often in his stories that one believes it, and not the mercenary border patrols or quick triggered opposition forces or a turbulent gale that nearly capsizes the tiny boat on which he tries to escape Zanzibar, to be what most threatens his life.

The Soccer War (1978), which I then picked up by happenstance, also concentrates on Kapuściński‘s work in Africa although it migrates through Central America and Cyprus as well. The first published of the three books mentioned here, its fragmentary narratives contains the thematic kernels explored in the other two books: human dignity and tenacity, the follies of power and strength within fear.  It is written without the distance of time or space, however, and it dissolves into a fever dream with the nauseating “wet cotton air” of the tropics mixing with the furnace heat of the Sahara and the blood of Salvadorean soldiers and the sorrow of Cypriot refugees. Stylistically and factually it is a document of its decade, and perhaps a work best read with more context: either of the historical events contained therein or for the later blooming of Kapuscinski’s observations into a cohesive humanistic panorama. Sometimes the generalizations rankle, and his bravery (or is it bravado?) undermines journalistic exegesis. How objective can one be when the gendarmes rough you up, when you are doused with benzene and nearly burned alive?

Kapuściński seems to acknowledge what a strange little non-volume this is: “I have not written a dictionary or a book because whenever I start…a red light starts blinking on the map…this relentless current, this stream of events – it is so difficult to step out of it on to a calm shore – keeps rushing and hurtling by, pulling me under.” And although his Polishness at times serves as a press pass in of itself (he may be white, but he is not a colonialist; he is a journalist but one whose wealth lies in friends and friendliness, not in the cash of a major media company; I may not be you, but I am not them), he does acknowledge in passing the limitations anyone may have in exploring the cultures of others. After trying to describe Poland to a group of Ghanaian village elders: “I felt shame, a sense of having missed the mark. It was not my country I had described. Snow and the lack of colonies – that’s accurate enough, but it isn’t what we know or what we carry around within ourselves: nothing of our pride, of our life, nothing of what we breathe.” The same could be said for the ability of his contacts and companions to convey their lives to Kapuściński, and I want to trust he realizes that.

Only when writing this did I see Tom Bissell’s New York Times review of Travels with Herodotus, which mentions that Kapuscinski garnered enmity for his characterizations of African political and social life, especially after his death. That Kapuściński harboured a fierce attraction to the continent and wanted to understand it, spent a lifetime trying, is evident, however, and Bissell forgives him on those grounds. Given Bissell’s excoriation of Robert D. Kaplan for the latter’s writing on the Balkans and Central Asia, this forgiveness carries a slight tinge of magnanimity mixed with its earnest deference. While it is a dangerous slope to wholeheartedly agree with Bissell that “great nonfiction writing does not necessarily require any accuracy greater than that of an honest, vividly rendered confusion”, undoubtedly “the limits of human perception cruelly bind us all”.  Having myself spent a few awkward pre-dawn hours with two Afrikaaner disaster management consultants in the Nairobi airport (“there is a black Africa and a white Africa you see….” and the former drive like madmen, we were so nervous on those roads, we try to convene meetings for days, how can any work get done?), I appreciate that one could do worse with an translator and correspondent for Africa than Kapuściński. After all, compared to Kapuściński‘s type of A, almost everyone else is some type of B: whether Boston-based non-profiteer or Somali nomad, focused first on maintaining order in the life handed to us instead of parsing the disorder that seems to hum around elsewhere in those foreign lands.

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