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Non Fiction

The Shadow of the Sun (My African Life) by Ryszard Kapuściński

I love reading travel books and have often wonder if there is a book that could write about the whole continent. A diverse continent like Africa. I’m glad to say I found one, it’s this book.

Kapuściński has been visiting Africa as a journalist since 1957 right before Africa is swept with a wave of revolution from its colonial masters. Kapuściński has witnessed many wars and conflicts and heralded to be quite an expert on it. This book is a collection of his essays, reportage and history lectures about Africa, mostly central Africa. He has avoided official routes and chosen to travelled off unbeaten tracks coming face to face with roadblock bullies, gunmen, witches, peasants, villains and heroes in Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia.

What amazes me is the ability of Kapuściński to describe the psyche of Africa. A keen eye of humanity observation, Kapuściński provides examples that are so appropriate that allows readers to grasp in its entirety how people live in Africa. Say if you go to a village where a meeting is scheduled to meet but find no one at appointed spot, instead of complaining, Kapuściński reason from the natives’ viewpoint. You see, asking, “When will the meeting take place?” makes no sense. You know the answer: “It will take place when people come.”

But why is that so?

because Africans believe that a mysterious energy circulates through the world, ebbing and flowing, and if it draws near and fills us up, it will give us the strength to set time into motion – something will start to happen. Until this occurs, however, one must wait; any other behaviour is delusional and quixotic. (page 17) Poetic isn’t it? Makes you see unacceptable behaviour with a new pair of eyes. That’s what Kapuściński does on some of the weird things he encountered. Kapuściński never comes across as a man with preconceived notions about a particular people or place. He doesn’t complain, he doesn’t judge, in fact he was willing to suffer so that he could remain in Africa. Kapuściński contracted Malaria. He can’t go to hospital because he hasn’t got the exorbitant fund to pay for medical care in Africa, so he plead for Doyle the Irish doctor for help. “Then you have to go home” Doyle said. Kapuściński said he can’t go home because this stay in Africa was the chance of a lifetime for him. Such appointment was the first of its kind in Poland. Poland has never before had a permanent correspondent in Sub-Saharan Africa. Such is the risk Kapuściński is willing to take to risk his life to remain in Africa. I am at awe of the man.

I read this under the sun holidaying in Morocco and although there are parts which are harrowing, I found the book to be an absorbing read.

Kapuściński threw in danger, humour, history lessons, cultural lessons, personal reflections, poetry, biography of African leaders, war and conflict into cauldron and churn out this…, this magnificent book. I can’t begin to tell you in one word how enlighten I am by this book. I now understand why and how the world headlines on conflicts are all about. I understand the events leading to Rwanda genocide, I know the history of the Sudanese war and the anatomy of Nigeria 1966 Coup D’etat, the influence of Arab government in Zanzibar, I know a bit more about Liberia history and also the way of life of the Tuareg and people of Eritrea. I learned so many things from this book. The political landscape of Africa is always shifting. People are always shifting, migrating from one place to another looking for food, the desert is always shifting, Africa is a place where nothing is wholly defined or confined to one meaning.

My favourite quote:

..for the great famine is was result not of a shortage, but of inhumane relations. – page 133

Get into the soul of this book and get into the soul of Africa. A must-read. Simply brilliant.

Rating: 

Paperback. Publisher: Penguin Books 1998, 2002; Length: 325 pages; Setting: Sub-Saharan Africa. Source: I stumbled upon this copy in the Westminster Library. Finished reading on the 9th September 2012. Beautifully translated from Polish by Klara Glowczewska.

About the writer:

Ryszard Kapuściński was born in Poland in 1932, and studied history and Polish language and literature at the University of Warsaw. As a foreign correspondent for PAPA, the Polish News Agency, until 1981, he was an eyewitness to revolutions and civil wars in Africa, Asia and Latin America, experiences that have made him one of the foremost writers on crises in the modern world.

There are some less flattery reports on Kapuściński. Barely three months after Kapuściński’s death, in its issue of May 20, 2007, the Polish edition of Newsweek magazine revealed that Kapuściński worked for the Communist Polish secret service from 1965 to 1972 or 1977, and that he had reported on several of his colleagues.

In an article in Slate Magazine, writer jack Shafer decried the general belief that Kapuściński was a genius, calling him a fabulist who did not adhere to the basic rules of journalism. As part of his criticism, Shafer cited a compendium of Kapuściński’s misinformation and exaggeration by the anthropology professor John Ryle. His condemnation was rebutted by Meghan O’Rourke in Slate five days later; O’Rourke contended that Kapuściński’s invention of petty details to reveal a larger truth did not make him a bad journalist.

Despite the controversy surrounding Kapuściński, he won almost journalist honours and awards around the world in different countries. See wikipedia for the full list.

Kapuściński works available in English:

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About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books. Well, lately I do other stuff.

Discussion

21 thoughts on “The Shadow of the Sun (My African Life) by Ryszard Kapuściński

  1. I’m thrilled to learn about this book! I have been trying to add some African literature to my reading list and seem to have gotten as far as only Nigeria & Kenya. It will be a great adventure to “see” other parts of this vast continent. Thanks so much for bringing this to my attention!

    Posted by DebbieRodgers (@DebbieRodgers) | September 28, 2012, 1:54 pm
    • Debbie,
      I hope you like it! It is really really good. Do try to read it as it covers most of central Africa. Other African lit will be ones written by Chinua Achebe.
      I look forward to hear what you think about this book! Thanks for dropping by my blog. 😀

      Posted by JoV | September 28, 2012, 10:02 pm
  2. Ahh, this looks quite promising and I must add to my list, along with Shah of Shahs, The Emperor and probably The Soccer War. Thanks for reviewing this!

    Posted by maphead | September 29, 2012, 2:17 am
    • Maphead,
      Yes! You must read it. I thought you would like it too. I’m not sure about the others though, I was afraid I could be disappointed after this wonderful book “Shadow of the Sun”. Thanks for dropping by!

      Posted by JoV | September 29, 2012, 5:26 am
  3. This sounds like an incredible book and I love that description of the energy and how its alignment is so important before anything can progress, we have almost lost sight of that instinct in our world of deadlines and demands, but I do believe it explains something when we encounter resistance, although it is difficult to articulate in the reasoned language that is expected of our western culture.

    Thanks for a fabulous review.

    Posted by Claire 'Word by Word' | September 29, 2012, 7:08 am
  4. when I read your 1st paragraph about finding a travel book that covers many countries…I immediately remembered Trinity, an Indonesian backpacker who has traveled to many countries…but as I continue reading, this book you are reviewing is completely different.

    I admire people who are willing to stay in a country with less fasility and comfort that their original country…I admire them because I know I would never be one of them.

    Great review, Jo. I want to read it too.

    Posted by Novroz | September 30, 2012, 7:31 am
    • Novroz,
      I haven’t heard of Trinity but if there is a travel book by him, I would gladly read it. I think I would too, to stay in a country with less facility and comfort. I don’t need a lot to get by in life, what intrigues me is to be able to see new places and get to know the locals. Financially it is an issue now but there will come a time. 😀
      I hope you find a copy of this. I thought it really is the book that helps me understand Africa.

      Posted by JoV | September 30, 2012, 12:17 pm
  5. I own this book, but it was just a random charity shop purchase – I hadn’t heard anything about it before. I’m so pleased to see that you’ve given it 5 stars. I look forward to trying it one day.

    Posted by farmlanebooks | September 30, 2012, 8:42 pm
    • Jackie,
      I learned a lot about Africa from this. since you are in non-fiction mode, this may interest you now! Last month his biography was published.

      I look forward to hear what you think about it one day.

      Posted by JoV | September 30, 2012, 10:02 pm
  6. This sounds interesting…

    …but his life story is also interesting. I’d be thinking twice before reading this book after the information you gave us 😉

    Posted by Tony | October 4, 2012, 10:25 am
  7. This sounds like a really great book! I’ve been reading a few Africa-related books recently and am adding this to my list!

    Posted by olduvai | October 4, 2012, 7:00 pm
    • Olduvai,
      It’s a non-fiction though. Sometimes it can read like a lecture or a newspaper, but I like it. The book imparts knowledge, every sentence every word. Do let me know when you have read it!

      Posted by JoV | October 4, 2012, 7:51 pm
  8. this is a writer high on too read list ,thanks for a wonderful intro to him ,all the best stu

    Posted by winstonsdad | October 16, 2012, 4:42 pm
  9. This book was amazing! He definitely captures the local psyche well.

    Posted by Brianna Piazza | October 30, 2013, 2:25 pm

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  1. Pingback: August – Sept 2012 : Wrap-up « JoV's Book Pyramid - October 12, 2012

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

Books Read

JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Mockingjay
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City


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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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