I read Ryszard Kapuściński’s “The Shadow of the Sun” for the first time in late 2001. Tomas Krag, who’d been a Geekcorps volunteer in Ghana, sent a copy of the book as a gift to the Geekcorps team back home in North Adams. We devoured it, one after another, handing it off to each other with a look of shellshock and recognition. Kapuściński wrote about Africa from an outsider’s perspective better than anyone else ever has, and perhaps better than anyone ever will. The opening story in that book, “The Beginning: Collision, Ghana 1958”, may be five decades old, but it’s still as true as the moment the brilliant Polish journalist put his words to paper:
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. The airplane drenched in rain. A cold wind, darkness. But here, from the morning’s earliest moments, the airport is ablaze with sunlight, all of us in sunlight.
In times past, when people wandered the world on foot, rode on horseback, or sailed in ships, the journey itself accustomed them to the changes. Images of the earth passed ever so slowly before their eyes, the stage revolved in a barely perceptible way. The voyage lasted weeks, months. The traveller had time to grow used to another environment, a different landscape…
Today, nothing remains of those gradations. Air travel tears us violently out of snow and cold and hurls us that very same day into the blaze of the tropics. Suddenly, still rubbing out eyes, we find ourselves in a humid inferno. We immediately start to sweat. If we’ve come from Europe in the wintertime, we discard overcoats, peel off sweaters. It’s the first gesture of initiation we, the people of the North, perform upon arrival in Africa.
Kapuściński became a foreign correspondent for the Polish Press Agency in 1964 – at that time, he was the PAP’s sole foreign correspondent outside of Europe and was responsible for fifty countries. Rather than following packs of journalists from one national capital to another, he covered stories that most other journalists missed altogether – the front lines of the struggles to create nations in post-colonial Africa and Latin America. He witnessed at 27 coups and revolutions first hand, sometimes at a distance far too close for comfort, like a civil war in Nigeria in 1996, reported in “The Burning Roadblocks” in The Soccer War:
The ones standing in the road wanted cash. They wanted me to join the party, to become a member of the UPGA and to pay for it. I gave them five shillings. That was too little, because someone hit me on the back of the head. I felt pain in my skull. In a moment there was another blow. After the third blow I felt an enormous tiredness. I was fatigued and sleepy; I asked how much they wanted.
They wanted five pounds.
Everything in Africa was getting more expensive. In the Congo soldiers were accepting people into the party for one pack of cigarettes and one blow with a rifle butt. But here I had already got it a couple of times and I was still supposed to pay five pounds…
While Kapuściński had a knack for being in the right place at the right time (which most people would consider the wrong place at the wrong time), it’s his writing about everyday life that I’ve always found most moving. Despite seeing more of the world that most of us can even dream of, Kapuściński balanced cynicism, frustration and hopelessness with wonder, joy and an gift for finding the beautiful and unique in the most difficult of circumstances. He’s the writer I dream of being every time I try to describe what I find fascinating, wonderful, sad and hopeful when travelling in the developing world.
Kapuściński died in Warsaw yesterday after a heart operation. He was 74. He’d been mentioned as a contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature for the last decade – he would have been a very worthy recipient. He’ll be remembered as one of the world’s finest foreign correspondents and as one of the most important storytellers about Africa after colonialism.
Rest in peace, Ryszard, and thank you for everything you gave us.
Cyrus Farivar, travelling and writing in Senegal, has a moving remembrance of Kapuściński.