At play in the bush of ghosts
Times Literary Supplement
27 July 2001
Extended with post publication note, 2001 and 2007
by JOHN RYLE
IN A CAREER extending over four decades, Ryszard Kapuściński has published book-length accounts of his homeland, Poland, of travels in Iran and the former Soviet Union, and a collection of reportage from third-world countries including Honduras, El Salvador, Chile and Bolivia. His principal subject, however, from early in his working life, has been Africa. Africa is where, in the late 1950s, in his mid-twenties, after a brief spell in India and Pakistan, he began his career as a foreign correspondent, working for the official Polish state news agency. In the 1960s, he covered the early years of independence and the first of the post-colonial civil wars that have ravaged the continent ever since. In the 1970s he revisited these conflicts in a sequence of works of reflective reportage, works in which he transformed himself from a journalist into an author of international repute.
In The Emperor: the downfall of an autocrat, his account of the final years of the reign of Haile Selassie I, which appeared in Polish in 1978, Kapuściński invented a new subgenre of political reportage. In a series of linked, interpolated testimonies from former Ethiopian court officials he created an arresting picture of the accelerating collapse of an authoritarian regime. This was a story that had special resonance for his audience in Poland, where dissent against communist autocracy was growing. The Emperor was also the book that established Kapuściński’s reputation in the West. When it appeared in English translation in 1983 it was an immediate critical success.
Next, in 1987, in Another Day of Life (first published in Polish in 1976), he chronicled the beginning of the civil war in Angola and the disintegration of civil institutions in the capital, Luanda. In The Soccer War (1990) he collected vignettes of insurrection and revolution in Ghana and the Congo, in Ethiopia and Somalia, juxtaposing them with accounts of conflicts in South America. Each of these books added to Kapuściński’s reputation, leading more than one critic to compare his work to that earlier chronicler of the tropics and human beings in extreme situations — his compatriot, Józef Korzeniowski, a.k.a. Joseph Conrad.
The Shadow of the Sun (the original Polish title translates as Ebony) is a more substantial collection of episodes from Kapuściński’s sojourns in Africa, starting in Ghana in the 1950s and ending in Tanzania in the recent past. Moving back and forth in time, and sometimes right out of time, it is a loose record of a life spent intermittently in countries south of the Sahara. There are accounts here of the revolution in Zanzibar, the 1966 military coup in Nigeria, the early days of civil war in Liberia and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda; there are reflections from unnamed places in the desert and from lodgings in the backstreets of Lagos. There are classics of the Kapuściński style: on the one hand, the tableau vivant, where almost nothing happens (the intricate design of the interior of a bush taxi, the beneficial effect of plastic jerrycans on the lives of women in rural areas); and on the other, the hair-raising adventure, where he characteristically risks death by thirst or tropical disease (or snakebite or act of war), combining reflections on the world outside Europe with unabashed authorial derring-do.
It is in the latter passages that doubts about the precision of Kapuścińki’s reportage begin to occur. The force of his writing depends to a considerable extent on an air of certainty, on the voice of experience, the authority of someone who, we are told in Shah of Shahs, has survived twenty-seven coups and revolutions, who has driven through burning road-blocks and stayed behind in besieged cities, the only foreign correspondent who remained when the rest of the press-pack left. There are generally no other outside witnesses to the events that Kapuściński records. As he put it, somewhat immodestly, in The Soccer War, “I was driving along a road from where they say no white man can come back alive.” For such reasons his writing tends to be admired by those for whom Africa is a distant prospect: he makes the remote areas of the continent simultaneously more thrilling and more accessible to the western imagination. But Kapuścińki is regarded less favourably, by readers in Africa itself, and by Africanist scholars and reporters who have come to doubt his adherence to fact.
QUESTIONS ABOUT THE reliability of Kapuściński’s reportage begin with The Emperor. His informants here are mainly former Ethiopian court servants labouring under anonymising initials, making them sound curiously like characters in an eighteenth-century English novel. Only one of those who assisted him is given a full name (that, we are told, is because he is safely dead), yet the power of the book derives to a large extent from the fact that the story is told almost entirely through the transcribed speech of these unnamed witnesses. Their antiquated cadences have a mesmeric quality. With courtly unctuousness they speak of “His Venerable Majesty”, “His Most Virtuous Highness”, “His Benevolent Majesty, “His Sublime Majesty”, “His Charitable Majesty”, “His Exalted Majesty”, “His Indefatigable Majesty”, “His Masterful Highness”, “Our Omnipotent Ruler”. These expressions of fealty acquire an air of increasing irony as the excesses of the imperial court are borne in on the reader.
It is a subtle piece of reportorial rhetoric, yet native speakers of Amharic say that these honorifics correspond to no known expressions in their language. In particular, they say, they could not occur in the formal registers of speech that were employed at the court, where there were only one or two acceptable forms of address for the Emperor. So it seems these resonant phrases cannot have been spoken as transcribed. Some of the ceremonial titles that Kapuściński gives his sources are invented too. In the absence of proper names these inventions may be held to cast further doubt on the actual existence of these informants. What Kapuściński and his unnamed translators created in The Emperor was a brilliant device, Chinese whispers rather than transcription, an imaginary archaic language, with touches of comic opera, one that bespeaks homage while conveying subversion. It falls short, though, of both scholarly and journalistic standards of verity, even of verisimilitude.
There are other implausibilities in The Emperor. We are told that Haile Selassie did not read books: “His Venerable Majesty was no reader. For him, neither the written nor the printed word existed; everything had to be relayed by word of mouth.” In reality, though, Haile Selassie was well-read, both in Amharic and in French. He possessed a large library where he spent long periods of time, and provided copious written comments on manuscripts submitted to him. It seems unlikely that his own palace servants could have been unaware of this. (Haile Selassie’s reading habits are documented in The Mission, a memoir by Hans Lockot, the head of research at the National Library of Ethiopia during the Emperor’s reign.) Kapuściński even describes one of his informants bringing him the first volume of Haile Selassie’s autobiography, the English translation by the Ethiopianist scholar Edward Ullendorff. But the event is taking place in 1974, and Ullendorff’s translation did not appear until two years later, in 1976. So this cannot have happened in the way described either.
In answer to such criticisms it has been argued that The Emperor is not meant to be about Ethiopia at all, that it is an allegory of Communist power in Poland, or of autocratic regimes in general. Certainly, the book is informed and deepened by such parallels; and its reception among literati in the West was conditioned by an awareness of its doubly exotic origin — a book about a far-off country by an author who was himself rara avis, a master of the new journalism sprung miraculously from within the Soviet bloc. Some apologists for The Emperor have located it, specifically, in a Polish literary genre where dissent masquerades as descriptive prose; and Kapuściński has subsequently endorsed this interpretation.
Yet there is no indication in the book itself that it is meant to be read as an allegory — or as a traveller’s tale or parable (one in the same genre, say, as Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas or the mediaeval European stories of Prester John, the legendary Abyssinian king). Like Kapuściński’s other books, The Emperor is presented unambiguously as factual reportage and it asserts its claim on the reader’s attention as such. The dearth of other sources on the subject — no member of the Imperial court of Ethiopia survived to write a memoir of Haile Selassie — means that the book would have considerable documentary importance if the information in it could be relied on.
At the time of first publication there was, of course, every reason for Kapuściński to maintain the confidentiality of any living sources he might have. Two regimes later, though, there seems no reason for their anonymity to be preserved, particularly since a number of court servants (none of whose names correspond to the initials of the sources in The Emperor) have been giving legal testimony in Addis Ababa as witnesses in the trial of the Derg, the regime, headed by Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam, that deposed and killed the Emperor in 1975.
“After Mengistu’s escape,” he writes, “his army dispersed and only the academics were left. They were seized without great difficulty and imprisoned in this crowded courtyard.” This characterisation of the inmates of the Central Prison is misleading; it contradicts, in fact, an earlier reference by Kapuściński to the “ generals of the army and police” among those captured followers of Mengistu. I visited the prison myself around this time. A few of the prisoners were indeed former professors, but the officials of the former regime who were held there included many prominent military figures (as they still do at the time of writing, though they have been moved from the Central Prison): Fikre-Selassie Weg-Deres, an air force captain who was Mengistu’s Prime Minister; Teka Tulu, an army colonel who was his chief of Internal Security (since deceased); Sergeant Legesse Asfaw, known as the Butcher of Tigray; and the equally notorious Melaku Tefera, the Butcher of Gondar. None of these people were, by any stretch of the imagination, academics. Nor had they been that easy to capture: Melaku Tefera, in particular, was the subject of hot pursuit across the desert to Djibouti, where he was nabbed by an Ethiopian army hit squad.
Kapuściński’s chapter on Ethiopia in The Shadow of the Sun has other odd bits of misinformation. He describes visiting the bookstore in the University of Addis Ababa. It is, he says, the country’s only bookstore — and completely devoid of books. Really? When I last visited there were at least a half-a-dozen bookshops in Addis Ababa, all with books for sale, in many languages, as there have been since the Derg era. (The books do not include The Emperor. Kapuściński’s book has been published in more than a dozen translations, but not in any of the languages of Ethiopia.) Not content with this already quite erroneous assertion, Kapuściński continues “It is this way in most African countries. Once, I remember, there was a good bookshop in Kampala… Now — everywhere, nothing.” Here hyperbole becomes distinctly misleading. There may not be a branch of Borders, or Barnes and Noble, In Kampala, but there are numerous thriving bookshops there, and also in Nairobi, Dar-es-Salaam, Dakar, Abidjan, Durban, Johannesburg, Cape Town and dozens of cities across Africa, small and large.
KAPUSCINSKI HAS HIMSELF been a trenchant critic of inaccuracy in news reporting. “The ignorance of special correspondents… is sometimes astonishing,” he said in a lecture some years ago. “During the August 1981 strikes in Gdansk, where the Solidarity union was born, half the journalists coming to Poland to cover the events could not even have identified Gdansk on the map.”
The lecture continues: “They knew even less about Rwanda at the time of the massacres in 1994. Most of them were setting foot in Africa for the first time…. Almost all of them were ignorant of the causes and reasons behind the conflict.”
His earlier book about Angola, Another Day of Life is, in part, a response to this kind of ignorance, providing an extended commentary on the malaise of the foreign correspondent, one who knows that his or her newspaper dispatches are not scratching the surface, that they misrepresent local reality. (The chapter on Rwanda in The Shadow of the Sun is, it should be noted, one of the better sections of the book, capturing the oppressive, vindictive feeling that prevailed in the country well before the 1994 genocide and accurately summarising the political system of the kingdom of Rwanda and the colonial administration that succeeded it.) Here, as elsewhere, Kapuściński prides himself on his personal contact with ordinary people. “I avoided official routes, palaces, important personages and big politics,” he writes in the early pages of The Shadow of the Sun, “Instead I preferred to hitch rides on passing trucks, wander with nomads through the desert, be the guest of peasants from the tropical savannah.”
Yet he gets elementary facts about the lives of such people wrong. In his chapter on Sudan, for example, we are told that the Dinka and the Nuer — tropical swamp and savannah dwellers who comprise perhaps half the population of Southern Sudan — “subsist almost exclusively on milk”. “Killing cattle,” he continues, “is forbidden, and women cannot touch them.” Each of these assertions is incorrect, as even a casual visitor could note. Girls and women routinely milk cows among the Dinka (or Jaang, or Muonyjieng, as they term themselves) and also among the Nuer (or Naath). Boys milk cows occasionally and men only rarely. None of them lives on milk, except in special circumstances at particular times of year; they live on grain and vegetables and fish, according to the season, and on meat from their cattle and other livestock. The sacrifice and consumption of cattle, far from being forbidden, is a central feature of indigenous Dinka and Nuer religion. Earlier in the book Kapuściński says the same thing about the Tutsi — that their cattle are not killed and women cannot touch them. But it’s not true of the Tutsi either.In Sudan again, he describes Fashoda, on the banks of the Nile (the site of a historic showdown in 1898 between British and French invading forces), as “a fishing village”. But “fishing village” is hardly how Fashoda would be seen by its inhabitants, the Shilluk (or Chollo) people. Fashoda is their largest and oldest settlement, one of the political and ritual centres of the long-established Shilluk kingdom. There is a substantial ethnographic literature on all of the four Sudanese peoples mentioned in Shadow of the Sun — Shilluk/Chollo, Dinka/Jaang, Nuer/Naath and Tutsi — which Kapuściński could have drawn on to put himself right on their culture and belief systems. It is perhaps not surprising, in view of this make-believe ethnography, that he gets the politics wrong as well. “The first Sudanese war lasted ten years,” he says, “until 1972.” The first civil war in Sudan is conventionally said to have lasted seventeen years, from before independence in 1955 until 1972. Sudan, he tells us, was a British colony. It was not; it was an Anglo-Egyptian condominium. There are “gigantic plantations” of rubber on the Nile. There are none. If you want an accurate portrayal of the nature of the current civil war you would do better to read John Le Carré’s recent novelThe Constant Gardener, which is set among aid workers in Southern Sudan. This is a book that doesn’t pretend to be anything other than fiction.
There are a host of other errors in The Shadow of the Sun, small but cumulative in effect. Some of them typographic, but some bespeak a more serious level of neglect. The Bari are not, as Kapuściński states, a Ugandan people, but Sudanese. Bandits in the Somali-Kenya-Ethiopia borderlands are called shifta, not “shifts”. There are no people called the Lugabra; there is nowhere called Haragwe. The Kakwa of Uganda, Idi Amin’s people, do not live in a region “without roads… and cultivable land”. (The last inaccuracy would be less remarkable if Kapuściński did not tell us that he once considered writing a book about Amin and has amassed a small library about him.)
And why should it? There is a double standard at work in such excuses, a clear eurocentric bias. Consider the hypothetical case of an author publishing a book of scandalous revelations about the last years of the Gierek regime in communist Poland, using dubious information obtained in obscure circumstances from anonymous and untraceable members of the Polish Internal Security Police. It would not be considered a reasonable defence of such a book to say that it did not matter whether it was true or not because it was really intended, not as a book about Poland, but as an allegorical account of events in imperial Ethiopia.
The Shadow of the Sun also contains a startling number of implausible generalizations about “ Africa” and “Africans”. Such generalizations are dubious by definition: Africa is just too big and various a continent, with too many cultures and histories and too many contrasting natural environments for any but the vaguest commonplace to apply to all of them. The physical and cultural distance between Chad and Cape Town, or Kinshasa and the Ogaden, is as great as that between Manhattan and the Andes, or Osaka and the Hindu Kush. Initially Kapuściński seems to recognise this: in a prefatory note he announces “in reality, except as a geographical appellation, Africa does not exist”. Yet a few pages later he is coming up with the first of an increasingly unlikely string of assertions about the continent and its inhabitants.
“The European and the African,” he writes, “have an entirely different concept of time”. “Africans believe that a mysterious energy circulates through the world,” an energy that gives them “the strength to set time into motion.” Africans, he continues, “eat only once a day, in the evening”. “Africans are collectivist by nature … all decisions… are made collectively.” “Half the people in African towns don’t have defined occupations.” “In Africa, drivers avoid travelling at night — darkness unnerves them… they may flatly refuse to drive after sunset.” Finally, and perhaps most oddly, “in Africa a cousin on your mother’s side is more important than a husband.” Some of these things may be true of some people in some parts of Africa, sometimes. But none of them is anything like a general truth about Africa — any more than comparable statements about Asia or the Americas would be.
There is a tellingly archaic note in these obiter dicta, scattered like talismans through the text of Shadows of the Sun. In their insistence on a collective otherness they evoke an earlier era of European writing about the continent. It is here that the comparison with Joseph Conrad — Kapuściński’s strong precursor — comes into its own. In this post-Conradian version of Africa Kapuściński is both character and author, a contemporary equivalent of one of Conrad’s voyager-narrators; and he follows a similar trajectory into the interior of the continent, to a place where, to use his earlier phrase, “they say no white man can come back alive”. Thus, in a typical episode of The Shadow of the Sun, he travels to a distant, dangerous location, falls ill and confronts death. And he is witness to dreadful events, from which he emerges with a deeper understanding of the further reaches of human nature.
It is a narrative pattern familiar from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Accordingly, at the centre of Kapuściński’s new book, we find a motif of horror: a long and gory account of a notorious video recording made by his killers of the death by torture of Samuel Doe, the former head of state of Liberia. This is an episode that has more than an echo of the climax of Conrad’s original story, in which Marlow, the narrator, confronts evidence of the ivory-trader Kurtz’s complicity in ritual murder and cannibalism. The row of severed heads Marlow sees outside Kurtz’s compound is mirrored, consciously or unconsciously, in Kapuściński’s lingering description of the video footage of Sergeant Doe’s severed ears.
The baroque note in Kapuściński’s prose confirms the movement away from fact towards the realm of fantasy and symbol. The African universe, for him, is a place of absolutes and extremes, extremes of poverty, of climate, of violence and danger. Its inhabitants are prisoners of their environment. Thus he writes of Somalia, “Daytime hours during the dry season… are a hell almost impossible to bear. Everything is burning. Even the shade is hot, even the wind is ablaze. The human being… does not exist — or he matters only as part of this or that bloodline.” And then of Central Africa, “One cannot compare the tropical forest with any European forest or with any equatorial jungle” (a particularly odd remark, unless it is an error of translation, given that tropical forests and equatorial jungles are the same thing).
In this mode of writing — the tropical baroque style — nothing can be ordinary or familiar. Everything is stretched and exaggerated, the opposite of home. As Kapuściński has himself written elsewhere of the baroque strain in South American literature. “ If there is a jungle it has to be enormous… if there are mountains they have to be gigantic... if there is a plain it has to be endless…. Fact is mixed with fantasy… truth with myth, realism with rhetoric.” The direction of his own blurrings and inventions and exaggerations becomes clearer in the light of this inadvertent self-criticism. Africa is a continent without bookshops, he avers. Its rulers are illiterate. Its inhabitants are prisoners of their environment, or of their bloodline. They are afraid of the dark. They live on nothing but milk. (Who knows? They may well have heads beneath their shoulders too….) Europeans, it is clear, can never really understand such people; they can only marvel, or shudder.
With the last suggestion we are approaching the true nature of Kapuściński’s enterprise. It is an outgrowth of the single historical experience that the inhabitants of this hugely various continent do have in common with each other: the experience of colonization (or military occupation) by European powers — and the simultaneous projection of a European primitivist romance onto African lives. Despite Kapuściński’s vigorously anti-colonialist stance, his writing about Africa is a variety of latter-day literary colonialism, a kind of gonzo orientalism, a highly selective imposition of form, conducted in the name of humane concern, that sacrifices truth and accuracy, and homogenises and misrepresents Africans even as it aspires to speak for them.
“As a result,” he continues, “history, free of the weight of archives, of the constraints of dates and data, achieves here its purest, crystalline form — that of myth.”
This characterization of the role of collective memory in African societies is, to say the least, under-informed. On the one hand it is now well-established that oral history can be chronologically accurate and that traditional genealogies can be precise. On the other, Kapuściński’s account ignores more than a century of scholarly research and the existence of hundreds of universities and libraries in African countries, not all of which are empty or malfunctioning, and some of which burgeon with the work of African scholars.
What this account of African history does reveal is a telling indication of Kapuściński’s own narrative aspirations. Here in the domain of myth, in a realm untouched by literacy, where the subject never answers back, a reporter is freed from the constraint of dates and data, the tedium of checking and cross-checking, the tyranny of documents and records. Here facts are no longer sacred; we are at play in the bush of ghosts, free to opine and to generalise about “Africa” and “the African” – and invent - without criticism from scholars, or indigenes, or self-appointed guardians of facticity. For Ryszard Kapuściński, it seems, this is the heart of the continent. Here, in place of fact, there is mutability; in place of reportage, relativism. From this place, deep in an imaginary Africa, the writer may return with any tale he pleases.
John Ryle is Anthropology Editor of the Times Literary Supplement
Postscript 2001 and 2007
Richard Pankhurst, a historian of Ethiopia who was personally acquainted with Haile Selassie I, was the first to note errors in The Emperor, and remains one of the very few Ethiopianist scholars so to have done so in print. In a letter to the Times Literary Supplement of April 17, 1987, responding to a review of the stage version of The Emperor at the Royal Court in London that year, he provided a list of some of the implausibilities in the book. “It is incredible,” he wrote, “that a member of the court could have declared that ‘the Emperor never signed anything in his own hand’… [that] not even those closest to him knew what his signature looked like.
“The present writer,” Professor Pankhurst continued, “though not close to the Palace, has seen numerous examples of this signature.”
His letter continued:
Professor Pankhurst’s letter concluded:
Following the appearance of the present review, the TLS published a letter (August 17, 2001) from Edward Ullendorff, also a historian of Ethiopia and the translator of the first part of Haile Selassie’s autobiography, the volume mentioned by Kapuściński (see review above). It included the following comment:
The publication of The Shadow of the Sun in Europe and the United States (where pre-publication extracts from the book were run in the New York Review of Books and The New Yorker, the latter a magazine with a global reputation for fact-checking), was greeted indulgently by most reviewers. Few of these reviewers were Africanists, or Africans. One or two of them drew attention to deficiencies in Kapuściński’s accounts of other events, notably the revolution in Zanzibar. A review in The Economist criticised his account of the Rwandan genocide and of the coming to power of Idi Amin in Uganda. It also noted the absence of any mention of “the two great powers that now dominate the continent, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.” Kapuściński, the Economist reviewer concluded, “creates an Africa of his own. It is a fascinating place, whether it ever existed as he tells it is another matter altogether.”
There were just two other dissenting voices among reviewers of the book: in the Village Voice (April 19, 2001) Aleksandar Hemon accused Kapuściński of racism; David Rieff extended and subtilized this analysis in the L.A. Times (August xx 2001). Most reviewers appeared unaware of the interpretive oddities and factual inaccuracies in the book, or else they seemed to regard them as beside the point. Some declared that Kapuściński’s stylistic accomplishment meant that they did not matter. In a later review of the paperback edition of The Shadow of the Sun, for example, (, April 22, 2002), Jason Cowley wrote:
Kapuściński himself has defended the vocabulary of the court servants in The Emperor in the following terms:
For the last word on the subject of accuracy, here is Kapuściński in a post-publication interview with Alex Duval Smith in The Independent (June 8, 2001). “We have too many fables,” he was reported as saying, “too much make-believe. Journalists must deepen their anthropological and cultural knowledge and explain the context of events. They must read.”
Ryszard Kapuściński died on 23 January 2007 at the age of 74.