Monday, May 14, 2018

Two very different takes on African history

A friend recently loaned me a book by Ryszard Kapuscinski called The Shadow of the Sun, in which he recounts decades spent from the 1950s to the 90s as the only Polish news correspondent in all of Africa.  As such he was present for many of the major moments in the independence and even the post-independence blues (Nigeria's coup d'etat that prefaced the Biafra War, for instance) of most of the countries in Africa.  His accounts are evocative, lyrical, and above all a pretty good primer on the recent history of lots of countries.  For instance, he gives in maybe ten pages a really good overview of German, then Belgian colonization of Rwanda and Burundi, then the numerous pogroms and civil wars that preceded the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

In general the tone and the level of detail are what you would expect of a journalist dropping in at the key moment.  Some very incisive observations and often a surprising understanding of a particular context and historical moment, but at the same time a lot of cliches and lazy or careless generalizations.  To his credit, Kapuscinski is for the most part free of the condescending, dismissive, scornful tone of many "Africa hands" jaded from seeing so much war and poverty and suffering.  He avoids racial essentialism and is in fact a fervent anti-racist, even drawing what I think are eloquent and well-argued parallels between the racism and dehumanization invented to justify the Atlantic slave trade, and its logical endpoint of 20th-century fascism and totalitarian murder (which he knew all too well as a Pole).  And then he intelligently and critically explains many direct consequences of centuries of slavery, racism, and then colonialism, in the form of extractive models of business and politics, and a pervasive sense of inferiority felt by Africans in the postcolonial age.

All that said, Kapuscinski does fall into sweeping generalizations very often.  He prefaces the book with a very wise caveat to the effect that he is not "reporting on Africa" or capturing the essence of an entire continent, but rather describing a very limited number of people and places and times that he has happened to get to know in different places in Africa.  And again, for a European in the 1950s and 60s, I think he maintains this spirit to a great deal.  But by my 21st-century eyes, the author is often guilty of something I've noticed in many journalists and just outsiders in general describing a place that is not their own.

Inevitably when you encounter something new, or even after this thing has become familiar to you but you have not become "of it" or internalized its logic, it is baffling to try to understand things that don't obey your own logic, your own way of doing things or thinking.  If you are humble and intellectually honest, you can sometimes overcome this initial bafflement by asking stupid questions, getting laughed at a fair amount, but eventually by this means getting an explanation from the people themselves of why they do things a certain way.  But this is difficult and embarrassing, and especially for a journalist in Kapuscinski's situation, maybe you just don't have time for these deeper probings.  So lots of things, from driving habits to consumption choices to ways of working or raising kids, either remain a mystery to you, or you just make up your own explanation.  This explanation is usually not right and often has negative overtones, as it must if you are trying to make sense of something you truly believe doesn't obey common sense.  "Resolving" your bafflement in this way ends up dehumanizing the people you're trying to understand, frustrating you yourself, and most importantly, shutting you off from a real possible explanation in favor of cliched, pat answers.  When a journalist does this, the journalist isn't learning anything new; they are restating what they already know of themselves.  The reader ends up learning more about the journalist, and not about the place or people or phenomenon the journalist is supposedly describing.  You can get away with this self-centered pontificating if you're in a position of power; indeed, as has often happened in the history of anthropology or journalism, your inaccurate outsider's interpretation of something may come to supersede the actual explanation understood by the people you are describing, who may not have much entree to shape mass media and gain public attention.

In short, Kapuscinski at times takes the arrogant attitude of, "This doesn't make sense to me, so it must not make sense at all."  This is as if I were to read a novel in Chinese, without understanding Chinese.  It would make no sense to me, and seem like pure gibberish.  But this says more about me than about the novel.  I'm the one who can't understand the sense of it; it's not that it doesn't make sense.  But this revelation will only occur to me if I am humble enough to understand that my perceptions and my interpretations are not a Gods-eye accurate rendering of absolute, objective reality.  There's a whole world out there independent of me, and if I don't understand it, it's my shortcoming, not the world's.

Anyway, I would still highly recommend The Shadow of the Sun.  It's an easily digestible overview of a whole lot of recent history across a broad cross-section of African countries.  Just take the author's observations with a grain of salt, remembering that they are his observations and interpretations, not the final word in "how Africa is".

Around the same time I devoured Ryszard Kapuscinski's book, I also breezed through a book I'd picked up a long time ago called "African History:  A Very Short Introduction," from Oxford Press.  This book is almost the polar opposite of Kapuscinski's approach.  While the title might give you the idea that it is an overview of the history of the African continent, it is in fact a book about how different people have studied (or tried to study) African history.  It starts off by affirming that "Africa" is a pretty murky concept (do we include North Africa?  white South Africans?  the African diaspora abroad?), and keeps up that tone, questioning even the most basic assumptions of what we can or cannot assert about peoples, periods, trends, and ideas.  The book argues convincingly that different approaches to "doing" African history tend to say more about the time and place that the historian is living in than the period he or she is supposedly studying!  So where Kapuscinski at times offers too-facile generalizations ("This is what happened, and this is what it means"), the Oxford Press has us questioning everything ("What do you mean by this?  By "happened"?  Whose meaning, and what is "meaning", anyway?).

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