Post-Colonial Mumbo-Jumbo

David Rieff is a contributing writer to Book Review and the author of several books, including "Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the West."

If there is one thing that should be easy for supposedly enlightened Westerners in these politically correct times, it would be to look back pityingly and with a measure of shame and embarrassment on the accounts of Africa that were produced in such profusion throughout the colonial period and its immediate aftermath by generation after generation of European and American travelers. To our ears, they fairly beg mockery and, in mocking them, we assert how far we have come. Here is the great Victorian scholar-explorer Sir Richard Burton on the psychology of East Africans in "The Lake Regions of Central Africa." To consider them, he wrote, is to undertake "the study of man's rudimental mind, when, subject to the agency of material nature, he neither progresses nor retrogrades. [The East African] seems to belong to one of those childish races which, never rising to man's estate, fall like worn-out links from the great chain of animated nature."

Burton's sometime traveling companion, J.H. Speke, was equally categorical. "Economy, care, or forethought never enters [the African's] head," he wrote. "A wonderful amount of loquacity, great risibility, but no stability--a creature of impulse--a grown child in short"--those were the great explorer's considered conclusions.

For most of the 20th century, things were scarcely better. Neither novelists--moonlighting as travel writers--such as Evelyn Waugh or Graham Greene, for all the differences of politics and temperament that divided them, nor the overwhelming majority of correspondents who covered Africa for the major British and American newspapers up through the period of decolonization and beyond had moved very far from the mind-set that informed Burton or Speke. Waugh's racism--too often passed over by admirers of his novel "Scoop," who are unable or unwilling to see how the cruelty and ignorance of his views were of a piece with the crudity of his understanding of private relations--should be well enough known not to require elaboration. But Greene's "Journey Without Maps," a tale of a trip he took to Liberia during the same period that manages to be elliptical and condescending in equal measure, is almost as bad. In fairness, neither Waugh nor Greene put out such mendacious rubbish about Africa as that feminist "rediscovery" of half a generation ago by the aviator Beryl Markham, whose "insider's" view of Africa included such fetid nonsense as "Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno; it is a photographer's paradise, a hunter's Valhalla, an escapist's Utopia."

And anyone who believes that such belittling generalizations are a thing of the past need only consult "Banana Sunday," an account written in 1993 by journalist Chris Munnion about the adventures of his fellow journalists in post-independence Africa. Evoking the Congo, Munnion wrote that "here in genuine jungles and on the banks of rivers alive with crocodiles were to be found the pygmies, the cannibals, the witchdoctors, the mumbo-jumbo, the tarzans, the apes, the potted missionaries and all manner of wild, lurking, hostile creatures."

By and large, however, books like Munnion's are now considered to be the exception rather than the rule. How surprising, then, to encounter a book written in Europe at the end of the 1990s and published in the United States in 2001 to great acclaim from precisely those well-intended, liberal, politically correct circles that would recoil in horror from a Burton, a Speke or a Munnion, who seems to recapitulate with both great elegance and even greater heedlessness the worst and most debasing cliches about Africa that ever graced the colonial inventory. Here is one example: "Africans apprehend time differently. For them, it is a much looser concept, more open, elastic, subjective. Time appears as a result of our actions, and vanishes when we neglect or ignore it. [It is] the absolute opposite of time as it is understood in the European worldview." And here is the narrator discovering, as he puts it, "how firmly each race is grounded in the terrain in which it lives, in its climate." Africans, he concludes, "move about naturally, freely, at a tempo determined by climate and tradition, somewhat languid, unhurried, knowing one can never achieve everything in life anyway, and besides, if one did, what would be left over for the others?"

Who is the author of these condescending, impertinent (and largely false) propositions, advanced with such self-confidence and yet without any evidence, not even the simplest quotation from an actual African? Someone reading them without knowing the author's identity might be forgiven for imagining that their author was just another in the long line of European observers who, blinded by ethnocentric pride, hobbled by ignorance, had nonetheless become convinced of his own ability to plumb the nature of "Africa" and "the African." In fact, such a reader would be entirely correct. What is remarkable, and, in retrospect at least, astonishing is that the author in question has an almost diametrically opposed reputation. Indeed, Ryszard Kapusciski's work has long been viewed as the antithesis of such colonial travel writing. For many among his wide readership, he is one of the few Western writers to approach Africa on its own terms, humanistically and without undue pessimism. And the rapturous reception given to his new book on Africa, "The Shadow of the Sun," the distillation, presented in episodic, lyrically charged vignettes, of his 40 years of traveling and reporting from the continent, has only solidified his reputation as the one Western writer whose account of Africa is morally trustworthy as well as poetic and discerning.

Over the course of the last two decades, with books like "The Emperor," an account of the fall of the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, and "Shah of Shahs," a similarly impressionistic narration of the fall of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in Iran, Kapusciski has become something of a cult figure among the Western-educated reading public, despite the fact that, for an American reader at least, his books are unfamiliarly philosophical and "European" in the old-fashioned high culture sense. Theater director Jonathan Miller put on a stage version of "The Emperor" in London about 10 years ago. And Kapusciski has been given pride of place in magazines as different as Granta in Britain and New Perspectives Quarterly in the United States. Almost no other writer working today is treated with the same veneration. He is a writer praised by figures as disparate as British politician David Owen and Talk magazine's Tina Brown, but also by any number of radical, pierced young people for whom Brown is anathema and Owen would be, had they the faintest clue who he was.

What is perplexing is that this successful maintenance of what poet James Fenton used to call "legend management" occurs almost in spite of what is actually in his books. For "The Shadow of the Sun" is, in most important ways, a rather typical example of the travel book written by a literary figure. Such works are almost invariably unified less by subject matter than by the author's sensibility. Kapusciski writes about what catches his fancy, whether it is the Rwandan genocide or his experience of a bout with malaria. Kapusciski has made a perfunctory attempt to unify these themes, but the effort, which is only partly successful, was probably unnecessary in any case. Whatever its faults, both moral and factual, the book is utterly saturated by its authorial voice. This is not to say that Kapusciski does not evoke the people he met along the way; he does. But overwhelmingly, they seem slotted into his narrative to make a point he wants to make in a voice other than his own, or, even more commonly, to illustrate a point he has already been making.

Obviously, this is not the way either Kapusciski or his admirers view his enterprise. To hear his admirers tell it, he is the "poor journalist" par excellence, a sort of Ivan Illich of the foreign correspondents' set. And Kapusciski himself has made much of the fact that during the 30 years in which he was on and off as the Africa correspondent of the Polish press service, he did not have the means enjoyed by his Western counterparts. This, he has said, obliged him to get closer to ordinary people.

"I have the fewest options, because I have no money," he writes, recounting his effort to get to Zanzibar in 1964, when it seemed likely that the Arab elite then ruling the island would be overthrown by rebels representing the black African majority. "In cases of revolutions, coups, wars ... [the] correspondent from AP, AFP, or the BBC charters a plane or a ship, or purchases a car he will need for only several hours--anything to get where the action is. I stood no chance on such a playing field; I could only hope for some opportunity, for a stroke of luck."

All of this sounds persuasive unless one knows something about the way journalists actually behave in the field. In reality, whatever their other faults, few groups of people are as collegial as reporters in conflict zones. Doubtless there are exceptions, but as Munnion's loathsome but fascinating and all-too-convincing memoir of covering Africa during exactly the period Kapusciski was there shows, the rule among the hacks in Africa was to help out their fellow journalists. Kapusciski himself recounts that he finally got to Zanzibar only because the Agence France-Presse bureau chief and an NBC cameraman gave him a ride in the plane they had hired. He recalls that they did so only because he offered to get permission for the plane to land in Zanzibar in return for being given a seat. But in most situations like this, such an offer of a quid pro quo, particularly when one is acquainted with one of the journalists, as Kapusciski was with the AFP reporter, is unnecessary. If there is room, colleagues are usually happy to take one along.

One can only hope that is not a case of the poetic license Kapusciski has at times conceded he has taken in his books. But whether it is or isn't, the more serious problem is Kapuscinski's apparent assumption that his lack of resources gave him more insight into the African situation than his colleagues could ever achieve. "The Shadow of the Sun" is full of disparaging references to whites in Africa unable to cope with the climate, sweating in the heat and finding it difficult to orient themselves either physically or culturally. In the airport, while he is trying to find a way to get to Zanzibar, he notes the reporters who are "sweaty, exhausted by the heat, tropically disheveled." About his own physical condition, he is discreetly silent. And yet there is nothing "white" about being hot or disheveled in a crowded, non-air-conditioned airport after hours of waiting around. Anyone, white, black, brown or yellow, would conform more or less to Kapusciski's description and it is, at best, disingenuous of him to pretend otherwise.

And yet the description is of a piece with other passages in "The Shadow of the Sun." Early in the book, narrating his own arrival in Africa from Europe in the late-1950s, Kapusciski is obsessed by the extent to which whites do not fit in. We are back to his bizarre insistence, as if there were no such thing as successful expatriation to another region of the world, let alone mass migration, whether voluntary or forced by one racial group to areas settled by other racial groups that "each race is grounded in the terrain in which it lives, in its climate." Has he ever contemplated whites in Australia or African Americans in the American Midwest?

But Kapusciski's notions of racial identity are grotesque. As he puts it, "among these [African] palm trees and vines, in this bush and jungle, the white man is a sort of outlandish and unseemly intruder. Pale, weak, his shirt drenched with sweat, his hair pasted down on his head, he is continually tormented by thirst and feels impotent, melancholic."

One scarcely knows where to begin. The level of generality--the white man, the bush, the torment--is such that Kapusciski's assertion not only can't be taken seriously, it can barely be discussed. The obvious questions--which white man, when, where in Africa, melancholic about what, impotent with regard to whom?--only begin to expose the fatuousness of Kapusciski's mentality. It is the kind of thinking, all this talk of the whites, the Africans, that one associates with racist skinheads or the danker corners of the "I've got the melatonin and you don't" school of black nationalism, not with the bien-pensant establishment's favorite journaliste-philosophe . The idea that race might be only one of the identities we have--biologically insignificant, and in many cultural and political contexts, not to speak of many historical epochs, comparatively insignificant--never seems to make the impression on him that it should have. Instead, throughout "The Shadow of the Sun," he indulges himself in assertions that, at their root, are nothing more than subjective impressions or extrapolations from his own experience that may or may not have a broader relevance to his theme.

The book's opening is a perfect illustration of this. The first lines, which chronicle Kapusciski's arrival in Africa for the first time, read, "More than anything, one is struck by the light. Light everywhere. Brightness everywhere. Everywhere the sun. Just yesterday, an autumnal London was drenched in rain."

Well, doubtless it was. But while these lines may tell us something about Kapusciski's itinerary, they tell us nothing about Africa. Or about Europe for that matter. What if Kapusciski had arrived in Accra, Ghana, in 1958 from Rome or Madrid? What if he had come from Los Angeles or Phoenix? Would he, or his emblematic white man, have felt so out of place? And what if he had been from north China, one of the cold northern regions he manages to omit from his bombastic account of how "northerners constitute a distinct minority on our planet?" For a man whose stock in trade has been the width of his experience, his familiarity with all sorts of people and places from Managua to Tehran, and Johannesburg to Addis Ababa, Kapusciski comes across as a provincial Pole who can never get the mother country out of his head.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez has told the story of going to see John Paul II, early in his pontificate, to plea the case of various Latin American political prisoners. The pope listened sympathetically, but, as Garcia Marquez evoked the detainees' awful situations, occasionally interrupted to say, "Yes, just like in Poland, just like in Poland."

That seems to be Kapusciski's benchmark as well. Writing of his chagrin at the fact that many of the Africans he met viewed his whiteness as "the most important determinant" of his identity, he insists that he felt he did not conform to their stereotype. But in making this argument, he not only misunderstands the nature of the guilt being ascribed to him, which was almost certainly not about his oppressive actions (few Africans can have imagined this Polish journalist had participated in their colonization) but about the privileges that accrued to him, and not only in Africa, because of his race. Perhaps this is why he repeats (as he has repeated in many of the interviews he has given about "The Shadow of the Sun") the embarrassing conceit that Poles were also colonized as Africans had been.

There is something sticky and unseemly about all this. Who cares what Kapusciski's anxieties were when he arrived in Africa? Certainly, the only thing that is instructive about them is their Polishness. For certainly no American, in whose country race has always been the central national fixation, but also no citizen of France, Britain or Holland could have said, even in 1958, as Kapusciski does, that he "never thought about" race. Only someone from a European country with no colonial history and no history of migration from the nonwhite world could make such a claim.

Had Kapusciski confronted that fact, meditated on what it meant to be a European from a country with no colonial past as opposed to coming from one with such a history, his observations might have been interesting. As it stands, what he writes is as fatuous as the account of a travel writer from say, Denmark, going to Poland and saying that he had never thought about the differences between Poles and Jews--differences one can be certain have never escaped Kapusciski's attention or been far from his concern. Worse still, it betokens a failure of imagination on Kapusciski's part that make his tropism toward cultural generalization particularly offensive and bizarre.

At times, Africa seems for him not a continent but a vast Rorschach blot, an uncharted place that he can free-associate about at will. Since he largely traveled alone, no one can contradict him about the facts of what he saw, even though a good deal of what he says strains credulity or seems too assertive and sweeping. However, since even were that possible, since he has consistently claimed a certain poetic license for himself that largely makes questions of accuracy irrelevant, it is not even clear that such reality checks would be of much value. But the more important, and finally crippling, problem with "The Shadow of the Sun" is that although, in his preface, Kapusciski makes a point of insisting that Africa is "too large to describe" and, more radically still, that "in reality, except as a geographical appellation, Africa does not exist," the entire book is written as if there were indeed one African reality and as if Kapusciski had mastered it. The book begins with seemly doubt and ends in unseemly certainty, with the words, "it was still night, but Africa's most dazzling moment was approaching--the break of day."

Doubtless, after describing such horrors as the Derg dictatorship in Ethiopia, the Rwandan genocide and the Liberian civil war--about which, to add insult to injury, he reveals to anyone even moderately well-versed in these grim subjects appalling gaps of knowledge and a resolute tendency toward oversimplification--Kapusciski wanted to end on an upbeat note. But taking refuge in African folk tales about the continent's indomitability--the paragraph before concerns the story of "the spirit of Africa" appearing in the guise of an elephant "because no other animal can vanquish an elephant"--is the sort of self-indulgent fatuousness that gives optimism a bad name. If Kapusciski really believes that Africa does not exist, he cannot possibly believe that this nonexistent entity has a spirit. But since he does believe there is an Africa, he should not try to wriggle away from the consequences of his generalizations by pretending otherwise.

He should have contented himself with describing, taking what poetic license he needed, the incidents he witnessed. That strategy might have posed problems, but it is unlikely it would have led him to write a book that is so disgracefully disingenuous and wrong-headed that it should and almost certainly will make any intelligent reader reconsider his or her opinion of Kapusciski's previous books. His admirers deserved better. And so, of course, does Africa. *

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