How does one approach the task of writing about a continent as diverse as Africa, filled with extremes of poverty and beauty, suffering and hope? In The Shadow of the Sun, Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski draws from 40 years of reporting to piece together a beautiful yet stark picture of life in Africa.
Kapuscinski's vivid descriptions-of his life-or-death battle with an Egyptian cobra, of his encounter with a desperate mass of beggars trapped in the courtyard of an ancient church, of a terrifying video recording the torture and death of Liberia's president, Samuel Doe-make the book difficult to put down, but occasionally his flair for the dramatic leads the author into generalizations that make him sound more like a pedantic tourist than a veteran foreign correspondent. And though Shadow is filled with diverse characters-sadistic dictators, tragic child warriors, carnal ex-colonial administrators, dare-devilish truck drivers-women are consistently marginalized, reflecting the lack of access Kapuscinski, as a man, had to their experience.
Despite these shortcomings, Kapuscinski's lone-wolf style of journalism, risking great hardship and even death, gives him a perspective that few other journalists are able to offer. His reporting about the poor, he said in a recent interview, gives him more in common with missionaries than with journalists who cover Africa from the most expensive hotels in the land.
The first third of the book covers the 1960s, when many African countries achieved independence. The continent was filled with hope, optimism, and expectation. But before one is halfway through the book, Africa has entered a time of famine and the horror of Idi Amin, followed by the plague of warlords and the war in Sudan.
And, of course, before the end we must confront Rwanda, where perhaps one million people were "hacked and bludgeoned to death with the most primitive of weapons-machetes, hammers, spears, and sticks. For the leaders of the regime...it was critical that the nation be united in crime...so that every citizen, having on his conscience another's death, would be haunted from that moment...." Kapuscinski calls such sinister evil "proof enough that the devil is among us, and that in the spring of 1994 he just happened to be in Rwanda."
Kapuscinski's "magic realism" reveals a depth of poverty in Africa so alien it nearly defies our capacity to believe it is real. Kapuscinski describes children who "instantly swallow anything that is given them, and immediately start looking for the next morsel." For most North Americans, this life is almost impossible to comprehend. In the midst of luxury, abundance, and indeed waste, what can be our proper response when confronted with the poverty Kapuscinski describes? Can anything we do help? How can we do nothing?
Near the border of Eritrea and Ethiopia, Kapuscinski came across a man dressed in tattered rags walking south. The wanderer said that he had left home "long ago" to find his brother. Why did he want to find his brother? Kapuscinski asks. The wanderer doesn't understand the question, for "the reason is obvious, self-evident, not requiring an explanation. He shrugs his shoulders. It is possible that he feels pity for the man he has just encountered and who, though well dressed, is poorer than he in some important, priceless way."
Christians will hear The Shadow of the Sun asking the age-old question: Are we keepers of our brothers and sisters? Or have we too lost our way?
Aaron McCarroll Gallegos, a Sojourners contributing writer, lives in Toronto.