This is a book about Africa, in all its variety and puzzling contradictions. For a European, Ryszard Kapuscinski manages to get into the African mindset very easily, and he writes with great compassion and understanding.
The book is a series of vignettes, stretching over time from the late 1950s, in African countries alive with hope at the beginning of independence, to the 1990s. Kapuscinski first went to Africa in 1957, and was eager to try getting a real sense of what it was to be African, and not merely experience the surface of the continent. He made the point, early on in his career as a journalist, that his country (Poland) was always oppressed, and that Poles knew something of the domination of other countries, but to Africans he was a white man, a symbol of colonialism, something superior. As the book progresses, in roughly chronological order, the sense of the white man as superior is something that gradually became lost (tellingly recounted in the chapter ‘Madame Diuf is Coming Home’).
Along the way are terrifying brushes with coups, disease, thirst and ambush, as well as evocative and beautiful descriptions of places that Kapuscinski clearly came to love. People come to life, also places, in prose wonderfully translated into English by Klara Glowczewska. His travels take place mostly in sub-Saharan Africa pre- and post-independence, and countries such as Ghana, Nigeria, Liberia, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanganyika and Zanzibar. He makes no overt political points, and is always admirably clear-sighted, both about Europeans who colonised and now visit Africa, and about Africans themselves. It’s easy to see, from his writing, that there have been several repeating trends through many African countries, from starry-eyed independence to dictatorship and disillusionment, but he gently points out that this is partly the result of the European powers carving up many different tribes, nations and kingdoms into only a few countries, leading to racial or tribal tensions within a single country, as well as the mindset of Africans themselves.
I doubt whether anyone not an African can really understand what it means to be African, but Kapuscinski takes us very far down that road.