The Shadow of Human Relations
By A.D. Freudenheim

8 July 2002

For more than forty years, the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski has written about his travels and experiences living in Africa, and a collection of these stories was published in English last year under the title "The Shadow of the Sun." These readable and engaging essays begin with a trip to Ghana in 1958, and slowly stretch back and forth across the map of Africa, encompassing everything from Tanzania in the southeast to Mali in the northwest, with reports on the people, their countries and clans, and their conflicts.

From the outset, Kapuscinski seeks to establish a certain tone, an understanding with the reader; in a short preface to the book he writes that "Africa" is not real, not a useful term - that "except as a geographical appellation … Africa does not exist."  With this qualification, he wants to reverse the reader's pre-ordained course, to make one aware that the continent of Africa is comprised of such a variety of people that no single definition can effectively describe them all, even as European colonialists have tried to do so for several centuries. As the leaders of the so-called "G8" industrialized countries met in Canada recently to discuss the "problem" of Africa, Kapuscinski's book made for perfect background reading.

There are several aspects to the book that deny the author true follow-through on his attempt at removing the generic term Africa from our usage. A number of small, descriptive elements in Kapuscinski's essays get in the way - such as his portrayal of people's slow and indefinite sense of time; their connections to the land and the ancestors buried there (in the case of those who are settled); the habits and tactics of living off many lands (for those who are nomadic and migratory); and the consistent conditions of breath-taking heat and drought with which all must learn to live. The reader cannot help but recall that Kapuscinski's descriptions of the poor in Uganda have much in common with his descriptions of the poor in Cameroon or Ethiopia. In each case, he portrays dramatically different peoples and cultures facing similar hardships and challenges.

The commonalities in these descriptions of African lives - along with historical details about wars of independence, the many complicated and multi-faceted civil wars, and the tremendous loss of life that has resulted from all of it - are ultimately Kapuscinski's point. It comes through loud-and-clear: the people of Africa face only a "local" variation on the standard human condition, confronting trials posed by rough terrain as much as the challenges presented by machete-wielding guerillas. Families and tribes fight with each other much as nations do, and the imaginable brutality of these conflicts in Africa has increased just as has the capability for devastation among the more "civilized" nations. In their own way, these people strive to survive, to better their lives, and to aid and protect their children; they want to be happy, comfortable, satisfied. The definitions for each feeling may vary, as they do for humans everywhere, but the ultimate goals are much the same. Kapuscinski's focus on the "average" African - and on these feelings - is what makes the book so moving, funny, and sad.

The G8 meeting on Africa is over, its substance overshadowed by other problems in the world deemed more pressing than the large-scale poverty, damning epidemics, and regional conflicts faced by most Africans. (Not that these world leaders could have solved all of these problems.) Nothing much has changed in Africa, aside from the small measure of pride some Malians may take in organizing the "poor man's G8" and attempting to discuss their own problems and solutions for themselves. Yet it is precisely for this reason that Kapuscinski's book is worth reading: to gain a better understanding of the importance of such small steps for so many human lives.

"The Shadow of the Sun," by Ryszard
Kapuscinski, translated by Klara Glowczewska,
published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2001.
Copyright 2002, by A.D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! Contact A. D. Freudenheim for further information.
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