Review of Ebony by Ryszard Kapusinski

19 Apr

“This continent (Africa) is too big to describe. It is a whole ocean, a planet apart, a heterogeneous cosmos and of extraordinary richness. Only out of a reductionist convention do we say:Africa. In reality, save for the geographic name,Africadoesn’t exist”.

So screams Ryszard Kapusinski’s book, Ebony.

I was curious to read the book as I thought that as an African, it would give me an insight of an “outsiders” view of my continent. But little did I know what I was in for. The book is a curious mix of journalism and narration that has left me impressed, nay, very impressed, and pondering.

It is not about Africa, he (the author) goes on to explain, but about some people he met there and their experiences together: life with the nomads, revolutions, Zanzibar, the clan structure, Amin Dada, living in the slums, catching malaria, the little histories of the people’s fight to survive day after day, etc. Each of the paragraphs composes the vivid mosaic of a world pregnant with expectation.

However, it is not just an adventurous narration of some happy-go-lucky-tourist-gone-to-Africa.  Drawing from experience with living with the Africans (as opposed to the typical tourist in a beach hotel or in a safari resort that is common today), he writes with that wisdom drawn from watching and studying them, making light of day the profound determination and stamina he displays in many of his experiences. To tell the truth, I don’t think that I would risk dying of dehydration in the Sahara, to get to some lost town in the desert, nor drive a jeep at 1km/hr through a herd of buffalo to arrive in time to see the independence celebrations.

The author is a renowned journalist who has travelled on many occasions to many countries in Africa: Ghana, Zanzibar, Rwanda, Uganda, Benin, Tanzania, Nigeria, Kenya, Sudan etc. He had the rare chance to witness the handover of power from the European colonizers to the natives. In his journeys, he avoided the official routes, the palaces, the beaches and the hotels, important figures, welcoming ceremonies and politics. He has lived with the nomads and in slums, suffered thirst in the Sahara and caught the much feared malaria, and survived. In this book, he tells of his extraordinary adventures laced with unwavering determination plus glimpses of the reasons that make Africa be what many in the West perceive it to be: a place ridden with disease, war, corruption, hunger and all other atrocities existent. In between the lines of Ebony, one can deduce that colonization and the neo-colonization, is a great evil. However, the natives are not free from blame, especially the leaders, who many times are more interested in filling their coffers than in working to build the nation.

Kapusinski, who has been called the best reporter of the century, thus emerges with an extraordinary work that confirms his profound and penetrating look at the so-called Dark Continent. In the words of Lawrence Wescher, this work is somewhere between Kafka and García Márquez.


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