Daily Archives: 22 April 2011

Kapuscinski on breezes and buses in Africa

From The Shadow of the Sun, by Ryszard Kapuscinski, trans. by Klara Glowczewska (Vintage, 2002), Kindle Loc. 200-213, 312-318:

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….

Bus at Boumnyebel

Grace Lines bus at Boumnyebel, Cameroon

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.


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Kapuscinski: “The mzungu will eat you!”

From The Shadow of the Sun, by Ryszard Kapuscinski, trans. by Klara Glowczewska (Vintage, 2002), Kindle Loc. 948-973:

Edu and several cousins from his clan … belong to the [Tanzanian] Sango-speaking people from the interior. They had been farmers, but their land grew barren, so several years ago they came to Dar es Salaam. Their first step: to find other Sango-speaking people. Or people from communities who are affiliated with the Sango through ties of friendship. The African is well versed in this geography of intertribal friendships and hatreds, no less critical than those existing today in the Balkans.

Following a ball of yarn, they will finally arrive at the house of a countryman. The neighborhood is called Kariakoo, and its layout is more or less planned—straight, perpendicularly aligned sandy streets. The construction is monotonous and schematic. The so-called swahili houses predominate, a type of Soviet-style housing—a single one-storied building with eight to twelve rooms, one family in each. The kitchen is communal, as are the toilet and the washing machine. Each dwelling is unbelievably cramped, because families here have many children, each home being in effect a kindergarten. The whole family sleeps together on the clay floor covered with thin raffia matting.

Arriving within earshot of such a house, Edu and his kinsmen stop and call out: “Hodi!” It means, in effect: “May I come in?” In these neighborhoods the doors are always open, if they exist at all, but one cannot just walk in without asking, so this “Hodi!” can be heard from quite a distance. If someone is inside, he answers, “Karibu!” This means: “Please come in. Greetings.” And Edu walks in.

Now begins the interminable litany of greetings. It is simultaneously a period of reconnaissance: both sides are trying to establish their precise degree of kinship. Concentrated and serious, they enter the primevally thick and tangled forest of genealogical trees that is each clan and tribal community. It is impossible for an outsider to make heads or tails of it, but for Edu and his companions, this is a critical moment of the meeting. A close cousin can be a great help, whereas a distant one—significantly less so. But even in this second instance, they will not go away empty-handed. Without a doubt, they will find a corner under the roof here. There will always be a little room for them on the floor—an important consideration, since despite the warm climate it is difficult to sleep outside, in the yard, where one is tormented by mosquitoes, by spiders, earwigs, and various other tropical insects.

The next day will be Edu’s first in the city. And despite the fact that this is a new environment for him, a new world, he doesn’t create a sensation walking down the streets of Kariakoo. It is different with me. If I venture far from downtown, deep into the remote back alleys of this neighborhood, small children run away at the sight of me as fast as their legs can carry them, and hide in the corners. And with reason: whenever they get into some mischief, their mothers tell them: “You had better be good, or else the mzungu will eat you!” (Mzungu is Swahili for the white man, the European.)

Once, I was telling some children in Warsaw about Africa. A small boy stood up and asked, “And did you see many cannibals?” He did not know that when an African returns to Kariakoo from Europe and describes London, Paris, and other cities inhabited by mzungu [the Swahili plural should be wazungu—J.] his African contemporary might also get up and ask: “And did you see many cannibals there?”

Most people who’ve done fieldwork in very different cultures have had the experience of being used by mothers and other caretakers to scare younger children.

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