Good books fall into several categories. There are those that keep you entertained till the end, but you forget about them as soon as you start another. Next, there are those that linger with you and leave you wondering what became of (often fictional) characters for days—even weeks—after you read the last words. And then there are those that change you, that shift your perceptions and allow you to see the world in a different light. These are not just good books, they are exceptional. “The Shadow of the Sun” is such a book.
Written by the Polish writer, Ryszard Kapuściński (1932-2007), it documents his experiences in Africa as a correspondent from 1957 onwards. The book opens up a world that most of us would never have the opportunity, or possibly the courage, to visit. Never content to watch events from a safe distance, Kapuściński experiences them from the viewpoint of an insider: living in a Lagos slum; travelling through the desert with a Bedouin tribe; going inside a refugee camp sheltering Sudanese exiles; sleeping in the remotest of Senegalese villages.
He goes deeper still—right into the mind-set of the people. With great compassion and insight, he opens up a world dominated by ancestors and magic, tribes and clans. He shows how slavery and colonialism have left deep scars and inequities that haunt Africa to this day, and how power-hungry warlords trample on their own countrymen. His chapter on Rwanda is particularly fascinating, granting an informed perspective on the country’s past which lead up to the 1994 genocide.
Far from being a dull study on African politics and society, “The Shadow of the Sun” reads more like a travelogue, filled with fascinating characters. Kapuściński writes with a poetic, aching beauty that allows you to experience Africa through his eyes. Take for instance his description of a day in Somalia:
“The geography of this region is intricate, entangled, and god forbid you go astray: in this desert climate, a mistake means death. Daytime hours during the dry season, especially around noon, are a hell almost impossible to bear. All around, everything is burning. Even the shade is hot, even the wind is ablaze. As if a meteorite were passing in the vicinity, it’s thermal radiation reducing everything to ashes. People, animals, and plants grow still, stiff. Silence descends, a lifeless, overwhelming quiet.”
Don’t you feel that heat pressing down on you as you read those words?
I am not surprised that Kapuściński, besides a string of other awards, was named “Journalist of the 20th Century” in Poland, and I plan to read some of his other writing, covering various parts of the world.
I started off by saying that this is one of the rare books that has shifted my perceptions and changed the way I think. Let me explain that better. I was born at the tip of Africa, and have lived here all my life, yet most of my continent remains a hazy unknown to me. Its cultures and people are strange, even slightly frightening to me. I watch the news of events happening to the north of me with some indifference, or—at most—a hint of despondency.
Yet, “The Shadow of the Sun” has given me a glimpse into a wide variety of African settings and people, and has made me care what happens in those far-flung places. To me, that is a truly great gift.