of the Sun
My African Life
Translated from the Polish by
THE PENGUIN PRESS
THE PENGUIN PRESS
Published by the Penguin Group
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Penguin Books Ltd. Registered Offices Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England
First published in Poland under the title Heban by Czvtelnik. Warsaw 1998
First published in the USA by Alfred A Knopf 2001
First published by Great Britain by Allen Lane The Penguin Press 2001
Original Text Copyright, (c) Ryszard Kapuciski 1998
Translation copyright (c) Klara Glowczewska. 2001
The moral right of the author and of the translator has been asserted
I lived in Africa for several years. I first went there in 1957. Then, over the next forty years, I returned
whenever the opportunity arose. I traveled extensively, avoiding official routes, palaces, important
personages, and high-level politics. Instead, I opted to hitch rides on passing trucks, wander with nomads
through the desert, be the guest of peasants of the tropical savannah. Their life is endless toil, a torment they
endure with astonishing patience and good humor.
This is therefore not a book about Africa, but rather about some people from there--about encounters with
them, and time spent together. The continent is too large to describe. It is a veritable ocean, a separate planet,
a varied, immensely rich cosmos. Only with the greatest simplification, for the sake of convenience, can we
say Africa." In reality, except as a geographical appellation, Africa does not exist.
Collision, Ghana, 1958
More than anything, one is struck by the light. Light everywhere. Brightness everywhere. Everywhere, the
sun. Just yesterday, an autumnal London was drenched in rain. The airplane drenched in rain. A cold wind,
darkness. But here, from the morning's earliest moments, the airport is ablaze with sunlight, all of us in
In times past, when people wandered the world on foot, rode on horseback, or sailed in ships, the journey
itself accustomed them to the change. Images of the earth passed ever so slowly before their eyes, the stage
revolved in a barely perceptible way. The voyage lasted weeks, months. The traveler had time to grow used
to another environment, a different landscape. The climate, too, changed gradually. Before the traveler
arrived from a cool Europe to the burning Equator, he already had left behind the pleasant warmth of Las
Palmas, the heat of Al-Mahara, and the hell of the Cape Verde Islands.
Today, nothing remains of these gradations. Air travel tears us violently out of snow and cold and hurls us
that very same day into the blaze of the tropics. Suddenly, still rubbing our eyes, we find ourselves in a
humid inferno. We immediately start to sweat. If we've come from Europe in the wintertime, we discard
overcoats, peel off sweaters. It's the first gesture of initiation we, the people of the North, perform upon
arrival in Africa.
People of the North. Have we sufficiently considered the fact that northerners constitute a distinct minority
on our planet? Canadians and Poles, Lithuanians and Scandinavians, some Americans and Germans,
Russians and Scots, Laplanders and Eskimos, Evenkis and Yakuts--the list is not very long. It may amount
to no more than 500 million people: less than 10 percent of the earth's population. The overwhelming
majority live in hot climates, their days spent in the warmth of the sun. Mankind first came into being in the
sun; the oldest traces of his existence have been found in warm climes. What was the weather like in the
biblical paradise? It was eternally warm, hot even, so that Adam and Eve could go about naked and not feel
chilled even in the shade of a tree.
Something else strikes the new arrival even as he descends the steps of the airplane: the smell of the tropics.
Perhaps he's had intimations of it. It is the scent that permeated Mr. Kanzman's little shop, Colonial and
Other Goods, on Perec Street in my hometown of Pisk. Almonds, cloves, dates, and cocoa. Vanilla and
laurel leaves, oranges and bananas, cardamom and saffron. And Drohobych. The interiors of Bruno Schulz's
cinnamon shops? Didn't their dimly lit, dark, and solemn interiors" smell intensely of paints, lacquer,
incense, the aroma of faraway countries and rare substances? Yet the actual smell of the tropics is somewhat
different. We instantly recognize its weight, its sticky materiality. The smell makes us at once aware that we
are at that point on earth where an exuberant and indefatigable nature labors, incessantly reproducing itself,
spreading and blooming, even as it sickens, disintegrates, festers, and decays.
It is the smell of a sweating body and drying fish, of spoiling meat and roasting cassava, of fresh flowers and
putrid algae--in short, of everything that is at once pleasant and irritating, that attracts and repels, seduces
and disgusts. This odor will reach us from nearby palm groves, will escape from the hot soil, will waft above
stagnant city sewers. It will not leave us; it is integral to the tropics.
And finally, the most important discovery--the people. The locals. How they fit this landscape, this light,
these smells. How they are as one with them. How man and environment are bound in an indissoluble,
complementary, and harmonious whole. I am struck by how firmly each race is grounded in the terrain in
which it lives, in its climate. We shape our landscape, and it, in turn, molds our physiognomy. Among these
palm trees and vines, in this bush and jungle, the white man is a sort of outlandish and unseemly intruder.
Pale, weak, his shirt drenched with sweat, his hair pasted down on his head, he is continually tormented by
thirst, and feels impotent, melancholic. He is ever afraid: of mosquitoes, amoebas, scorpions, snakes--
everything that moves fills him with fear, terror, panic.
With their strength, grace, and endurance, the indigenous move about naturally, freely, at a tempo
determined by climate and tradition, somewhat languid, unhurried, knowing one can never achieve
everything in life anyway, and besides, if one did, what would be left over for others?
I've been here for a week. I am trying to get to know Accra. It is like an overgrown small town that has
reproduced itself many times over, crawled out of the bush, out of the jungle, and come to a halt at the shores
of the Gulf of Guinea. Accra is flat, single-storied, humble, though there are some buildings with two or
more floors. No sophisticated architecture, no excess or pomp. Ordinary plaster, pastel-colored walls--pale
yellow, pale green. The walls have numerous water stains. Fresh ones. After the rainy season, entire
constellations of stains appear, collages, mosaics, fantastical maps, flowery flourishes. The downtown is
densely built up Traffic, crowds, bustle--life takes place out in the street The street is a roadway delineated
on both sides by an open sewer. There are no sidewalks. Cars mingle with the crowds. Everything moves in
concert--pedestrians, automobiles, bicycles, carts, cows, and goats. On the sides, beyond the sewer, along
the entire length of the street, domestic scenes unfold. Women are pounding manioc, baking taro bulbs over
the coals, cooking dishes of one sort or another, hawking chewing gum, crackers, and aspirin, washing and
drying laundry Right out in the open, as if a decree had been issued commanding everyone to leave his
home. at 8 a m and remain in the street. In reality, there is another reason: apartments are small, cramped,
stuffy There is no ventilation, the atmosphere inside is heavy, the smells stale, there is no air to breathe.
Besides, spending the day in the street enables one to participate in social life. The women talk nonstop, yell,
gesticulate, laugh. Standing over a pot or a washbasin, they have an excellent vantage point. They can see
their neighbors, passersby, the entire street, they can listen in on quarrels and gossip, observe accidents. All
day long they are among others, in motion, and in the fresh air.
A red Ford with a speaker mounted on its roof passes through the streets. A hoarse, penetrating voice invites
people to attend a meeting. The main attraction will be Kwame Nkrumah-- Osagyefo, the prime minister,
the leader of Ghana, of Africa, of all downtrodden peoples. There are photographs of Nkrumah
everywhere--in the newspapers (every day), on posters, on flags, on ankle-length percale skirts. The
energetic face of a middle-aged man, either smiling or serious, at an angle meant to suggest that he is
contemplating the future.
Nkrumah is a savior' a young teacher named Joe Yambo tells me with rapture in his voice Have you heard
him speak? He sounds like a prophet!"
Yes, in fact, I had heard him. He arrived at the stadium with an entourage of his ministers--young, animated,
they created the impression of people who were having a good time, who were full of joy. The ceremony
began with priests pouring bottles of gin over the podium--it was an offering to the gods, a way of making
contact with them, a plea for their favor, their goodwill. Among the adults in the audience there were also
children, from infants strapped to their mothers' backs, to babies beginning to crawl, to toddlers and school-
age children. The older ones take care of the younger ones, and those older ones are taken care of by ones
older still. This hierarchy of age is strictly observed, and obedience is absolute. A four-year-old has full
authority over a two-year-old, a six-year-old over a four-year-old. Children take care of children, so that the
adults can devote themselves to their affairs--for instance, to listening carefully to Nkrumah.
Osagyefo spoke briefly. He said that the most important thing was to gain independence--everything else
would follow naturally, all that is good would emerge from the very fact of independence.
A portly fellow, given to decisive gestures, he had shapely, expressive features and large, lively eyes, which
moved over the sea of dark heads with an attention so concentrated as to suggest he wanted to count each and
every one of them.
After the rally, those on the podium mingled with the audience. It was loud, chaotic, and there was no visible
police protection or escort. Joe, who had brought me, elbowed his way toward a young man (whom he
identified as a minister) and asked him if I could come see him tomorrow. The other one, not really able to
hear over the buzz and commotion what the issue was, replied, at least partially to get rid of us, Fine! Fine!"
The next day, I found my way to the Ministry of Education and Information, a new building set amid a
growth of royal palms. It was Friday On Saturday, sitting in my small hotel, I wrote a description of the
The way is open: neither policeman, nor secretary, nor doors.
I draw aside a patterned curtain and enter. The minister's office is warm. In semidarkness, he is standing at
his desk organizing his papers: crumpling those he will throw into the wastepaper basket, smoothing out
others to place in his briefcase. A thin, slight figure, in a sports shirt, short trousers, sandals, with a flowery
kente cloth draped over his left shoulder; nervous gestures.
This is Kofi Baako, minister of education and information.
At thirty-two, he is the youngest minister in Ghana, in the entire British Commonwealth, and he has already
had his portfolio for three years now. His office is on the third floor of the ministry building. The hierarchy
of positions is reflected in the ladder of floors. The higher the personage, the higher the floor. Fittingly, since
on top there is a breeze, while toward the bottom the air is heavy as stone, motionless. Petty bureaucrats
suffocate on the ground floor; above them, the departmental directors enjoy a slight draft; and at the very top,
the delicious breeze caresses the ministers.
Anyone who wants to can come and see a minister whenever he wants to. If someone has a problem, he
travels to Accra, finds out where, for instance, the minister of agriculture can be found. He goes to his office,
parts the curtain, sits down, and sets forth in detail what's bothering him. If he doesn't find the official at the
agency, he will find him at home--even better, because there he'll get a meal and something to drink People
felt a remoteness from the white administration But now these are their own people, they don't have to feel
inhibited. It's my government, so it must help me If it's to help me, it has to know the situation. For it to
know, I have to come and explain. It's best that I do this on my own, in person and direct.
There is no end of these supplicants.
Good morning!" said Kofi Baako. And where are you from?"
You know, I almost went there. I was traveling all over Europe: France, Belgium, England, Yugoslavia. I
was in Czechoslovakia, about to go to Poland, when Kwame sent me a telegram calling me back for the party
congress, our ruling Convention People's Party"
We were sitting at a table, in his doorless office. Instead of window panes there were shutters with widely
spaced slats, through which a gentle breeze passed. The small room was piled high with papers, files,
brochures. A large safe stood in a corner, several portraits of Nkrumah hung on the walls, a speaker wired to
a central system stood on a shelf. Tomtoms pounded from it, until finally Baako turned it off.
I wanted him to tell me about himself, about his life. Baako enjoys great prestige among the young. They
like him for being a good athlete. He plays soccer, cricket, and is Ghana's Ping-Pong champion.
Just a minute," he interrupted, I just have to place a call to Kumasi, because I'm going there tomorrow for a
He called the post office for them to connect him. They told him to wait.
I saw two films yesterday," he told me, as he waited, holding the receiver to his ear. I wanted to see what
they're showing. They're playing films schoolchildren shouldn't go to. I must issue a decree that forbids
young people to see such things. And this morning I spent visiting book stalls throughout the city. The gov-
ernment has established low prices for schoolbooks, but the word is that retailers are marking them up I went
to check for myself. Indeed, they are selling them for more than they're supposed to."
He dialed the post office again.
Listen, what are you so busy with over there? How long am I supposed to wait? Do you know who this is?"
A woman's voice answered, No."
And who are you?" Baako asked.
I'm the telephone operator."
And I am the minister of education and information, Kofi Baako."
Good morning, Kofi! I'll connect you right away"
And he was talking to Kumasi.
I looked at his books, stacked on a small cabinet: Hemingway, Lincoln, Koestler, Orwell, The Popular
History of Music, The American Dictionary, as well as various paperbacks and crime novels.
Reading is my passion. In England I bought myself the Encyclopaedia Britannnica, and now I'm reading it
little by little. 1 cannot eat without reading, I have to have a book lying open in front of me."
A moment later:
I've got another, even greater hobby: photography. I take pictures all the time and everywhere. I have more
than ten cameras. When I go to a store and see a new camera, I immediately have to buy it I bought a film
projector for the children, and show them films in the evening."
He has four children, ranging in age from three to nine All of them attend school, even the youngest. It is not
unusual here for a three-year-old to be enrolled in school. The mother will send him off, especially if he's a
handful, just to have some peace.
Kofi Baako himself first went to school at three His father was a teacher and liked being able to keep his eye
on his children. When he finished elementary school, he was sent for high school to Cape Coast He became a
teacher, and then a civil servant. At the end of 1947, Nkrumah had returned to Ghana having finished
university studies in America and England. Baako listened to his speeches, which spoke of independence.
Then Baako wrote an article, My Hatred of Imperialism" He was fired from his job. He was blacklisted, and
no one would employ him. He hung around the city, eventually meeting Nkrumah, who entrusted him with
the position of editor in chief of the Cape Coast Daily Mail. Kofi was twenty years old.
He wrote another article entitled We Call for Freedom," and was jailed. Arrested with him were Nkrumah
and several other activists.They spent thirteen months behind bars, before finally being released. Today, this
group constitutes Ghana's government.
Now Baako speaks about broad issues. Only thirty percent of the people in Ghana can read and write. We
want to abolish illiteracy within fifteen years. There are difficulties: a shortage of teachers, books, schools.
There are two kinds of schools: missionary-run and state-run. But they are all subject to the state and there is
a single educational policy. In addition, five thousand students are being educated abroad What frequendy
happens is that they return and no longer share a common language with the people. Look at the opposition.
Its leaders are Oxford- and Cambridge-educated
What does the opposition want?"
Who knows? We believe that an opposition is necessary. The leader of the opposition in parliament receives
a salary from the government. We allowed all these little opposition parties and groups to unite, so they
would be stronger Our position is that in Ghana, anyone who wants to has the right to form a political
party--on the condition that it not be based on criteria of race, religion, or tribe. Each party here can employ
all constitutional means to gain political power. But, you understand, despite all this, one doesn't know what
the opposition wants They call a meeting and shout: 'We've come through Oxford, and people like Kofi
Baako didn't even finish high school Today Baako is a minister, and I am nothing But when I become
minister, then Baako will be too stupid for me to make him even a messenger' But you know, people don't
listen to this kind of talk, because there are more Kofi Baakos here than all those in the opposition put
I said that I should get going, as it was dinnertime. He asked me what I was doing that evening. I was
supposed to go to Togo
What for?" He waved his hand. Come to a party. The radio station is having one tonight"
I didn't have an invitation He looked around for a piece of paper and wrote Admit Ryszard Kapuscinski, a
journalist from Poland, to your party. Kofi Baako, Minister of Education and Information."
There. I'll be there too, we'll take some photographs."
The guard at the gates of the radio building saluted me smartly and I was promptly seated at a special table.
The party was already in full swing when a gray Peugeot drove up to the dance floor out in the garden, and
Kofi Baako emerged from inside. He was dressed just as he had been in his office, only he held a red sweat
suit under his arm, because he was going to Kumasi tonight and it might get cold. He was well known here.
Baako was the minister of schools, of all the universities, the press, the radio, the publishing houses, the
museums--of everything that constitutes culture, art, and propaganda in this country.
We soon found ourselves in a crowd. He sat down to drink a Coca-Cola, then quickly stood up.
Come, I will show you my cameras."
He pulled a suitcase out of the trunk of his car, set it on the ground, knelt down, and began taking out the
cameras, laying them out on the grass. There were fifteen of them.
Just then two boys walked up to us, slightly drunk.
Kofi," one of them began in a plaintive tone, we bought a ticket and they're not letting us stay here because
we don't have jackets. So what did they sell us a ticket for?"
Listen," he answered, I am too important a man for such matters. There are lots of little guys here, let them
take care of it. I have issues of government on my mind."
The twosome sailed off unsteadily, and we went to take pictures. Baako had only to approach, cameras
hanging around his neck, for people to start calling to him, asking for a photograph.
Kofi, take one of us."
And us too!"
He circulated, picking tables with the prettiest girls, arranging them, and telling them to smile. He knew them
by name: Abena, Ekua, Esi. They greeted him by extending their hands, without getting up, and shrugging
their shoulders, which is an expression of seductive flirtatiousness here. Baako walked on; we took many
photographs. He looked at his watch.
I have to go."
He wanted to get to the game on time.
Come tomorrow, and we'll develop the photographs."
The Peugeot flashed its lights and vanished in the darkness, while the party swayed and surged till dawn.
The Road to Kumasi
What does the bus station in Accra most resemble? The caravan of a huge circus that has come to a brief
stop. It is colorful, and there is music. The buses are more like circus wagons than the luxurious vehicles that
roll along the highways of Europe and North America.
A bus in Accra has a wooden body, its roof resting on four posts. Because there are open walls, a pleasant
breeze cools the ride. In this climate, the value of a breeze is never to be taken for granted.
In the Sahara, the palaces of rulers have the most ingenious constructions--full of chinks, crannies, winding
passageways, and corridors so conceived and constructed as to maximize cross-ventilation. In the afternoon
heat, the ruler reclines on a mat optimally positioned to catch this refreshing current, which he breathes with
delight. A breeze is a financially measurable commodity: the most expensive houses are built where the
breeze is best. Still air has no value; it has only to move, however, and then immediately acquires a price.
The buses are brightly ornamented, colorfully painted. On the cabs and along the sides, crocodiles bare their
sharp teeth, snakes stretch ready to attack, and flocks of peacocks frolic in trees, while antelope race through
the savannah pursued by a lion.
Birds are everywhere, as well as garlands, bouquets of flowers. It's kitsch, but full of imagination and life.
The inscriptions are most important of all. The words, adorned with flowers, are large and legible from afar,
meant to offer important encouragements or warnings. They have to do with God, mankind, guilt, taboos.
The spiritual world of the African" (if one may use the term despite its gross simplification) is rich and
complex, and his inner life is permeated by a profound religiosity. He believes in the coexistence of three
different yet related worlds.
The first is the one that surrounds us, the palpable and visible reality composed of living people, animals, and
plants, as well as inanimate objects: stones, water, air. The second is the world of the ancestors, those who
died before us, but who died, as it were, not completely, not finally, not absolutely. Indeed, in a metaphysical
sense they continue to exist, and are even capable of participating in our life, of influencing it, shaping it.
That is why maintaining good relations with one's ancestors is a precondition of a successful life, and
sometimes even of life itself. The third world is the rich kingdom of the spirits--spirits that exist inde-
pendently, yet at the same time are present in every being, in every object, in everything and everywhere.
At the head of these three worlds stands the Supreme Being, God. Many of the bus inscriptions speak of
omnipresence and his unknown omnipotence: God is everywhere," God knows what he does," God is
mystery." There are also some more down-to-earth, human injunctions: Smile," Tell me that I'm
beautiful," Those who bicker like each other," etc.
We have only to show up in the square, which teems with dozens of buses, before a group of shouting
children surrounds us--where are we going? to Kumasi? to Takoradi? or to Tamale?
Those who are hunting for passengers to Kumasi shake our hands and, bouncing with glee, lead us to the
appropriate bus. They are happy, because, having found him a passenger, the bus driver will reward them
with a banana or an orange.
We climb into the bus and sit down. At this point there is a risk of culture clash, of collision and conflict. It
will undoubtedly occur if the passenger is a foreigner who doesn't know Africa. Someone like that will start
looking around, squirming, inquiring, When will the bus leave?"
What do you mean, when?" the astonished driver will reply. It will leave when we find enough people to
fill it up."
The European and the African have an entirely different concept of time. In the European worldview, time
exists outside man, exists objectively, and has measurable and linear characteristics. According to Newton,
time is absolute: Absolute, true, mathematical time of itself and from its own nature, it flows equably and
without relation to anything external." The European feels himself to be time's slave, dependent on it, subject
to it. To exist and function, he must observe its ironclad, inviolate laws, its inflexible principles and rules. He
must heed deadlines, dates, days, and hours. He moves within the rigors of time and cannot exist outside
them. They impose upon him their requirements and quotas. An unresolvable conflict exists between man
and time, one that always ends with man's defeat--time annihilates him.
Africans apprehend time differently. For them, it is a much looser concept, more open, elastic, subjective. It
is man who influences time, its shape, course, and rhythm (man acting, of course, with the consent of gods
and ancestors). Time is even something that man can create outright, for time is made manifest through
events, and whether an event takes place or not depends, after all, on man alone. If two armies do not engage
in a battle, then that battle will not occur (in other words, time will not have revealed its presence, will not
have come into being).
Time appears as a result of our actions, and vanishes when we neglect or ignore it. It is something that
springs to life under our influence, but falls into a state of hibernation, even nonexistence, if we do not direct
our energy toward it. It is a subservient, passive essence, and, most importantly, one dependent on man.
The absolute opposite of time as it is understood in the European worldview.
In practical terms, this means that if you go to a village where a meeting is scheduled for the afternoon but
find no one at the appointed spot, asking, When will the meeting take place?" makes no sense. You know
the answer: It will take place when people come."
Therefore the African who boards a bus sits down in a vacant seat, and immediately falls into a state in
which he spends a great portion of his life: a benumbed waiting.
These people have a fantastic talent for waiting!" an Englishman who has lived here for years tells me.
Talent, stamina, some peculiar kind of instinct."
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 behavior is delusional and quixotic.
What does this dull waiting consist of? People know what to expect; therefore, they try to settle themselves
in as comfortably as possible, in the best possible place. Sometimes they lie down, sometimes they sit on the
ground, or on a stone, or squat. They stop talking. A waiting group is mute. It emits no sound. The body goes
limp, droops, shrinks. The muscles relax. The neck stiffens, the head ceases to move. The person does not
look around, does not observe anything, is not curious. Sometimes his eyes are closed--but not always.
More frequently, they are open but appear unseeing, with no spark of life in them. I have observed for hours
on end crowds of people in this state of inanimate waiting, a kind of profound physiological sleep: They do
not eat, they do not drink, they do not urinate; they react neither to the mercilessly scorching sun, nor to the
aggressive, voracious flies that cover their eyelids and lips.
What, in the meantime, is going on inside their heads?
I do not know. Are they thinking? Dreaming? Reminiscing? Making plans? Meditating? Traveling in the
world beyond? It is difficult to say.
Finally, after two hours of waiting, the bus, now packed full, leaves the station. On the rough potholed road,
shaken this way and that, the passengers come to life. Someone reaches for a biscuit, someone else peels a
banana. People look around, wipe sweaty faces, neatly fold wet handkerchiefs. The driver is talking nonstop,
holding the steering wheel with one hand, gesticulating with the other. Everyone keeps bursting out in
laughter, the driver the loudest, the others more softly; perhaps they're just doing it out of politeness, because
they feel they should.
We're on our way. My fellow passengers are only the second, perhaps even the first generation of Africans
fortunate enough to be conveyed to their destinations. For thousands and thousands of years, Africa walked.
People here did not have a concept of the wheel, and were unable to adopt it. They walked, they wandered,
and whatever had to be transported they carried--on their backs, on their shoulders, and, most often, on their
How is it that during the nineteenth century there were ships on lakes deep in the interior of the continent?
They were first disassembled at oceanic ports, then carried piecemeal on people's heads and put back
together again on the shores of the lakes. Cities, factories, mining equipment, electrical plants, hospitals, all
were carried in sections deep into Africa. All the products of nineteenth-century technology were transported
into Africa's interior on the heads of its inhabitants.
The people of northern Africa, even of the Sahara, were more fortunate in this respect: they could use a beast
of burden, the camel. But neither the camel nor the horse was able to adapt to regions south of the Sahara--
they perished, decimated by the encephalitis borne by the tsetse fly, as well as by other fatal diseases of the
The problem of Africa is the dissonance between the environment and the human being, between the
immensity of African space (more than thirty million square kilometers!) and the defenseless, barefoot,
wretched man who inhabits it. Whichever direction he turns, there is distance, emptiness, wilderness,
boundlessness. Often one had to walk for hundreds, thousands of miles to encounter other people (to say
another human being" would be inappropriate, for a lone individual could not survive in these conditions).
For the most part information, knowledge, technological innovation, goods, commodities, and the experi-
ences of others did not penetrate here, could not find a way in. Exchange as a means of participating in world
culture did not exist. If it appeared, it did so only accidentally, as a rare event, an exception. And without
exchange there is no progress.
Most frequently, people lived in small groups, clans, tribes isolated and scattered over vast, hostile territories,
in mortal peril from malaria, drought, heat, hunger.
Living and moving about in small groups allowed them to flee danger more easily and thereby survive.
These peoples applied the same tactic once practiced by light cavalry on the European field of battle: the
keys were mobility, the avoidance of head-on confrontation, the skirting and outsmarting of peril. As a
consequence, the African was a man on the move. Even if he led a sedentary life in a village, he was also on
the move, for periodically the entire village would set off: either the water had run out, or the soil had ceased
to bear crops, or an epidemic had broken out, and off they would go, in search of succor, in the hope of
finding something better. Only city life brought them a measure of stability.
The population of Africa was a gigantic, matted, crisscrossing web, spanning the entire continent and in
constant motion, endlessly undulating, bunching up in one place and spreading out in another, a rich fabric, a
This compulsory mobility of the population resulted in Africa's interior having no old cities, at least none
comparable in age to those that still exist in Europe, the Middle East, or Asia. Similarly--again in contrast to
those other regions--many African societies (some claim all of them) today occupy terrain that they did not
All are arrivals from elsewhere, all are immigrants. Africa is their common world, but within its boundaries
they wandered and shifted about for centuries, a process that continues in certain parts of the continent to this
day. Hence the striking physical characteristic of civilization is its temporariness, its provisional character, its
material discontinuity. A hut put up only yesterday has already vanished. A field still cultivated three months
ago is today lying fallow.
The continuity that lives and breathes here, and that creates the threads of the social fabric, is the continuity
of family tradition and ritual, and the pervasive and far-reaching cult of the ancestor. Rather than a material
or territorial community, it is a spiritual community that binds the African to those closest to him.
The bus is going deeper and deeper into the thick, tall, tropical forest. Biology in the temperate zones
exhibits discipline and order: there is a little stand of pines here, some oaks over there, and birch trees
somewhere else. Even in mixed forests a certain clarity and propriety prevail. In the tropics, however, the
flora exists in a state of frenzy, in an ecstasy of the most untrammeled procreation. One is struck immediately
by a cocky, pushy abundance, an endless eruption of an exuberant, panting mass of vegetation, all the
elements of which--tree, bush, liana, vine, growing, pressing, stimulating, inciting one another--have
already become so interlocked, knotted, and clenched that only sharpened steel, wielded with a horrendous
amount of physical force, can cut through it a passage, path, or tunnel.
Because in the past there was no wheeled transport on this enormous continent; there were also no roads.
When the first cars were brought here, early in the twentieth century, they didn't really have anywhere to go.
A paved road is something new in Africa, at most several decades old. And in certain areas it still remains a
rarity. Instead of roads, there were trails, usually shared by people and cattle alike. This age-old system of
paths explains why people here are still in the habit of walking single file, even if they're traveling along one
of today's wide roads. It explains, too, why a walking group is silent--it is difficult to conduct a conversation
One can't afford to be less than a great expert on the geography of these paths. Whoever knows them less
than well will lose his way, and if forced to wander too long without water and food will of course perish.
Various clans, tribes, and villages have their own paths, which cross one another, and someone unfamiliar
with their points of intersection can walk along one assuming it is taking him in the right direction, while in
fact it may be leading him astray, even toward death. The most perplexing and dangerous are jungle paths.
You are constantly caught on thorns and branches, reaching a destination all scratched and swollen. It is a
good idea to carry a stick, for if a snake is lying across the path (as happens often), you must scare it off, and
this is best accomplished with a stick. Talismans present further dilemmas. Inhabitants of the tropical forest,
living in an impenetrable wilderness, are by nature wary and superstitious. To scare off evil spirits, they hang
all kinds of talismans along the pathways. What should you do when you come upon a lizard's skin left
hanging, a bird's head, a bunch of grass, or a crocodile's tooth? Should you risk continuing, or, rather, turn
back, knowing that beyond this warning sign something truly evil might be lurking?
Every now and then our bus stops along the side of the road. Someone wants to get off. If it's a young
woman with a child or two (a young woman without a child is a rare sight), there unfolds a scene of
extraordinary agility and grace. First, the woman will secure the child to her body with a calico scarf (her
small charge sleeping the entire time, not reacting). Next, she will squat down and place the bowl from
which she is never separated, full of food and goods of all kinds, on her head. Then, straightening up, she
will execute that maneuver of a tightrope walker taking his first step above the abyss: carefully, she finds her
equilibrium. With her left hand she now clutches a woven sleeping mat, and with her right the hand of a
second child. And this way--stepping at once with a very smooth, even gait--they enter a forest path leading
to a world I do not know and perhaps will never understand.
My neighbor on the bus. A young man. An accountant from a firm in Kumasi whose name I don't catch.
Ghana is independent!" he says ecstatically. Tomorrow, Africa will be independent!" he assures me. We
And he shakes my hand in a way meant to signify that now a black man can offer a white man his hand
Did you see Nkrumah?" he asks, interested. Yes? Then you are a lucky man! Do you know what we'll do
with the enemies of Africa?"
He laughs, ha-ha, but doesn't say exactly what will be done.
Now the most important thing is education. Education, schooling, the acquiring of knowledge. We are so
backward, so backward! I think that the whole world will come to our aid. We must be the equals of the
developed countries. Not only free-- but also equal. But for now, we are breathing freedom. And this is
paradise. This is wonderful!"
This enthusiasm of his is universal here. Enthusiasm, and pride that Ghana stands at the head of the
independence movement, sets an example, leads all of Africa.
My other neighbor, sitting to my left (the bus has three seats in a row), is different: withdrawn, taciturn,
unengaged. He immediately draws attention to himself, for people here are generally open, eager to
converse, quick to tell stories and deliver various opinions. Thus far he has told me only that he is working
and that he is having some troubles at work. What sorts of troubles, he's not saying.
Finally, however, as the great forest starts to shrink and grow thinner, signaling that we are slowly
approaching Kumasi, he decides to confess something to me. So--he has problems. He is sick. He is not sick
always, not continuously, but intermittently, periodically. He has already been to see various native
specialists, but none of them has been able to help him. The thing is that he has animals in his head, under his
skull. It's not that he sees these animals, that he thinks about them or is afraid of them. No. It's nothing like
that. The animals are literally in his head; they live there, run around, graze, hunt, or just sleep. If they
happen to be gentle animals, like antelopes, zebras, or giraffes, he tolerates them well; it is even quite
pleasant then. But sometimes a hungry lion arrives. He is hungry, he is furious--so he roars. And then this
roar makes his head explode.
The Structure of the Clan
I arrived in Kumasi with no particular goal. Having one is generally deemed a good thing, the benefit of
something to strive toward. This can also blind you, however: you see only your goal, and nothing else,
while this something else--wider, deeper--may be considerably more interesting and important.
Kumasi lies amid greenery and flowers, on gentle hillsides. It is like a giant botanical garden in which people
were allowed to settle. Everything here seems kindly disposed to man--the climate, the vegetation, other
people. The dawns are dazzlingly beautiful, although they last but a few minutes. It is night, and out of this
night the sun suddenly emerges. Emerges? This verb suggests a certain slowness, a leisurely process. In
reality, the sun comes out as if it were a ball catapulted into the air. We suddenly see a fiery sphere, so near
to us that we can't help experiencing a frisson of fear. Moreover, this sphere is gliding toward us, closer and
The sight of the sun acts like a starter's pistol: the town instantly springs into motion. It's as if all night long
everyone was crouching on his starter blocks and now, at the signal, at that shot of sunlight, they all take off
full speed ahead. No intermediate stages, no preparations. All at once, the streets are full of people, the shops
are open, the fires and kitchens are smoking.
Yet the bustle of Kumasi differs from Accra's. It is local, regional, as if self-enclosed. The town is the capital
of the kingdom of Ashanti (which is part of Ghana), and it vigilantly guards its otherness, its colorful and
robust traditions. Here you can see tribal chiefs strolling along the streets, or the performance of a rite that
dates back to ancient times. And in this culture, the world of magic, of spells and enchantments, thrives and
The road from Accra to Kumasi is not just the five hundred kilometers from the Atlantic coast to the interior;
it is also a voyage into those areas of the African continent where there are fewer vestiges of colonialism
than along the coastlines. For Africa's immensity, its dearth of navigable rivers and its lack of roads, as well
as its difficult, murderous climate, while presenting an impediment to its development, also furnished a
natural defense against invasion: colonialists were unable to penetrate very deeply. They kept to the shores,
to their ships and fortifications, their supplies of food and quinine. In the nineteenth century, if someone--
like Stanley--dared to traverse the continent from east to west, the feat was widely celebrated for years to
come. And it was largely due to these obstacles to communication that many African cultures and traditions
have been able to survive intact to this day.
Officially, but only officially, colonialism reigned in Africa from the time of the Berlin West Africa
Conference (1884--85), during which several European states (mainly England and France, but also
Belgium, Germany, and Portugal) divided the whole continent among themselves, a status that persisted until
Africa won independence in the second half of the twentieth century. In reality, however, colonial
penetration began much earlier, as long ago as the fifteenth century, and nourished over the next five
hundred years. The most shameful and brutal phase of this conquest was the trade in African slaves, which
went on for more than three hundred years. Three hundred years of raids, roundups, pursuits, and ambushes,
organized, often with the help of African and Arab partners, by white men. Millions of young Africans were
deported across the Atlantic in horrific conditions, stuffed down the hatches of ships; those lucky to emerge
alive would with their sweat build the riches and might of the New World.
Africa--persecuted and defenseless--was depopulated, destroyed, and ruined. Whole stretches of the
continent were deserted; barren bush supplanted what had been sunny flowering lands. But the most painful
and lasting imprints of this epoch were left upon the memory and consciousness of the Africans: centuries of
disdain, humiliation, and suffering gave them an inferiority complex, and a conviction, deep in their hearts,
of having been wronged.
When World War II erupted, colonialism was at its apogee. The course of the war, however, its symbolic
undertones, would sow the seeds of the system's defeat and demise.
How and why did this happen? First, a short detour into the foul realm of racial thinking. The central subject,
the essence, the core of relations between Europeans and Africans during the colonial era, was the difference
of race, of skin color. Everything--each exchange, connection, conflict--was translated into the language of
black and white. And, of course, white was better, higher, more powerful than black. Whites were sir,
master, sahib, bwana kubwa, unchallenged lords and rulers, sent by God to hold sway over the blacks. Into
the African was inculcated the notion that the white man was untouchable, unconquerable, that whites
constituted a homogeneous, cohesive force. Such was the ideology that ably supported the system of colonial
domination, by teaching that to question or contest the system was absolutely pointless.