Sometimes I want to abandon any pretense of a normal life and live like a drifter. I could drop the burden of ordinary work, friends, relationships, property, and just go to unusual places, see unusual things, and exist on the margins of civilization where society doesn’t really make sense, but is never boring. I’d have to give up on safety, stability, and the traditional building blocks of happiness (family, structure, etc.), but I’d gain adventure, ruggedness, and assuredness born from being solely responsible for my safety. I’d live by my own rules.
In other words, sometimes I wish I could live like Ryszard Kapuscinski.
Kapuscinski was born in pre-war Poland and spent his early life under communist rule. He graduated from the University of Warsaw and came to prominence as a journalist after writing an article on the horrible working conditions in a newly constructed Soviet-style municipality. He miraculously threaded a needle by somehow criticizing the government in such a polite and compelling manner that rather than throwing him into the Polish equivalent of a gulag, it listened to him and made effective reforms, and the 23-year-old Kapuscinski was subsequently presented with the Golden Cross of Merit, the highest honor awarded to a subject of the state of Poland.
He leveraged his popularity to become communist Poland’s first roving correspondent. He traveled throughout Europe and then Asia covering international affairs in multiple languages and with a well-received literary flair. In 1957, he was finally deployed to his dream assignment… Africa. He would spend much of the next thirty years roaming around the continent covering post-colonial governments, coups, warlords, and the general lifestyles of the poorest people on earth during an era when few of these countries had functional roads, let alone stable governments.
For pretty much the entire time, Kapuscinski was the sole Polish reporter in Africa, a position which he jealously guarded. On his first visit to Uganda, he passed out after a day and night of driving, and woke up three days later in a hospital where he was diagnosed with cerebral malaria. The doctor told him that he should go back to Poland for medical care. He had a decent chance of dying on the trip home, but a better chance of surviving than if he stayed in Uganda. Kapuscinski instantly determined that if he went home, his government would never cough up the money to send him back to Africa again. So he stayed.
From these journeys, Kapuscinski wrote numerous books, including Shadow of the Sun, a collection of essays spanning from his arrival in Africa in the late 1950s to I think the late 1970s… it’s a little hard to keep track of the timeline due to his writing style. Kapuscinski is a wonderful author, especially at putting a picture in the reader’s mind of desolate life, or at packaging huge swaths of history into flowing explanations. But he’s also a minimalist writer, almost like a journalist version of Chuck Palahniuk. Most of the book’s essays are vignettes of his personal experiences – a long drive, a tour through a village, a meeting with a local official, etc. – where the location is provided, maybe the year, but little else. He describes only the bare minimum of concrete detail the reader needs to know; the rest of the story is carried by mood and tone, and quite effectively at that. My physical copy of the book doesn’t even have a table of contents.
Obligatory note – Africa is not all warlords and poverty and misery, but those are the type of things that journalists tend to cover, so that’s what Kapuscinski and my review will focus on. Plus these essays are 50-70 years old, so I’m sure some of their observations are a bit outdated or overly generalized or lacking in what modern critics would call nuance. But it’s still very much worth writing about for Kapuscinski’s insights.
Shadow of the Sun is a tough book to summarize and review. It’s highly entertaining, and I recommend it to anyone who’s interested in Africa, but for my style of writing, it’s tough to extract and present the most valuable nuggets of wisdom. But I’ll do my best, because there are amazing glimpses into the edges of the world here and I don’t want to forget them.
So here are the most interesting things I learned from Shadow of the Sun, described by a combination of Kapuscinski’s writing and my own understanding:
The population of Africa in 2020 was 1.3 billion. The population of Africa in 1950 was 177 million. Even after the devastation of World War II, Europe’s population at the time was about 550 million, despite being one-third of Africa’s geographic size.
Due primarily to improved technology, Africa experienced a massive population boom from the 1950s onward. The limited available agricultural land of the continent was quickly flooded by young people. There wasn’t enough work to go around, so these people flocked to Africa’s major cities, causing many political and commercial capitals to expand by 5-10X in population within a decade or less.
When a similar process took place in Britain, France, Germany, or later in Japan, South Korea, China, and elsewhere, the result was industrial revolutions. Better agricultural techniques create more food. More food means bigger populations. Excess people move to cities. More people in the cities means cheaper labor. Cheaper labor gets funneled into factories. Factories generate high productivity, capital becomes more valuable, profits are reinvested, innovation occurs, and the whole economy expands. There are growing pains to be sure, but the process turns a backwards agrarian people into a modern, wealthy, industrial people.
This did not happen in Africa. Due to some combination of insufficient capital, insecure property rights, lack of expertise, corruption, and probably many more factors that anyone can name, there were few industries set up to catch the incoming migration of young people from the countryside to the cities. Instead of becoming factory workers in primitive but profitable factories, most migrants became bayayes.
Bayayes are young people who move from the countryside to the cities looking for work. If they’re lucky, they settle in ugly government housing projects where they’ll find some distant cousin or clan member who will pack them into a tiny windowless concrete room with ten other people. If they’re unlucky, they’ll erect shacks on the outskirts of the city out of scrap metal and refuse.
A small percentage of bayayes become minor entrepreneurs. Kapuscinski describes a woman who buys some millet and vegetables in the morning. She makes and sells meals throughout the day with the objective of earning enough money to buy the same amount of food the next morning and have enough left over at night for her one daily meal.
Another small percentage of bayayes will be recruited for nefarious ends. A majority of bayayes are young men, and having lots of young purposeless men standing around is not healthy for a society. Some get initiated into street gangs where they pilfer what little wealth they can find. Others get recruited into revolutionary armies where they pilfer a little more wealth and destabilize the struggling post-colonial states springing up throughout Africa. And some were recruited by the colonial armies; one particularly husky, mean-looking bayaye who always hung around the British barracks in Kampala was brought into the colonial force, trained, promoted, and eventually became Generalissimo Idi Amin of Uganda, one of the most brutal dictators of the modern world. By Kapuscinski’s telling, somewhere between many and most of the famous African dictators followed the same path, including Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe.
But those were the rare exceptions. The vast majority of bayayes do nothing. Literally… they do nothing.
For a time, Kapuscinski had an apartment in Lagos, Nigeria. But unlike the vast, vast majority of white people, he lived in the heart of the city with the locals. He describes the narrow alleys of his neighborhood being packed with bayayes who just sit and stand around all day. Like, for the entire day. They have no jobs, no money, no goals, and they eat so little that they have no energy for leisure activities. The closest thing to an objective they have is keeping out of the sun, so they slowly move around the alleys to stay in the shade. Their highlight in a day might be some sort of public commotion, like a thief being caught, which will cause an enormous crowd to swell and watch the proceedings. Eventually:
“The onlookers disperse, returning to their places under walls, under roofs – to the shade. They will stay there until evening. After a day of heat and hunger, one is weak and listless. But a certain stupor, an internal numbness, has its benefits: man could not survive here without it, for otherwise the biological, animal part of his nature would bite to death everything that is still human in him.”
With no skills, no education, no available work, and a massive over-supply of labor, how do bayayes survive?
Mostly by sharing what little wealth they have. Every once in a while, someone will get lucky and pick up some day work as a laborer or delivery boy or something, and then they will immediately disperse their earnings to their extended family or clan members in the vicinity. Consumption levels are so low, that a meal every day or two seems to be enough to suffice. Despite this, Kapuscinski notes that the tavern near his apartment in Lagos was always full at night.
It’s worth stating explicitly – bayayes don’t save money. They have a scarcity mindset borne by their environment. Any money earned must be spent to stay alive, especially since the money could be stolen at any time, or food itself could become scarce. Any money left over from subsistence needs must be distributed among familial bonds, and anything left after that should be spent on rare enjoyments in life, like a warm beer.
“Land of Children”
At the time of writing one chapter (he doesn’t give an exact date), Kapuscinski says that half of Africa’s population was under 15. That’s hard to wrap my mind around. Imagine half the population consisting of literal children, and much of the rest of the population being not much older. How does that impact the economy? Productivity? Innovation? Societal trust? The military? A lot of the successful African warlords were only in their 30s when they led armies to conquer and rule a nation, but by post-colonial African standards, they were practically old men.
(Googling says Africa’s current average age is still under 20, with some countries falling as low as 15.)
Africa is the poorest continent in the world, and aside from a few minor hold-outs in Asia, it’s the last bastion of desolate, death-defying absolute poverty. I’ve seen Asian slums, but I didn’t have a mental picture of real poverty until Shadow of the Sun. Two scenes come to mind:
First, Kapuscinski describes Abdallah Wallo, a village on the border of Mauritania and Senegal. What’s striking about this place is that it’s not afflicted by unrest, civil war, overpopulation, or even drought or famine. It’s just naturally an extraordinarily difficult place in which to live:
“There is also no vegetation in Abdallah Wallo, no greenery, flowers, or shrubs, no gardens or orchards. Man lives here one-on-one with the bare earth, loose sand, and crumbling clay. He is the only living creature in the hot, blazing emptiness, and is wholly preoccupied with survival, with the effort to remain above the ground.”
Everyone lives in mud and clay huts, which is their only source of shade. It’s excruciatingly hot during the day, so much so that at mid-day, everyone goes back into their huts and lies down and does… nothing. It’s too hot to sleep or talk, so they just lay down and stare off into space until the heat returns to a tolerable level of sweltering. But it’s also surprisingly cold at night since the thin desert air doesn’t trap heat, so there are only a few scarce minutes per day at dawn and dusk when the temperature could be considered comfortable.
There are no animals Abdallah Wallo. The only source of food is their own crop fields and occasional pittances they trade for. They grow corn, rice, and cassava, though not much of it:
“Wisdom and experience dictate to these farmers that they work little and slowly, take long breaks, conserve their strength, energy. For these are weak people, poorly nourished, without much energy. If someone were to start working intensively, toiling, going all out, he would grow weaker still and, in his exhaustion, easily succumb to malaria, tuberculosis, or any of the hundreds of other tropical diseases lying in wait, half of which are fatal. Life here is a constant struggle, an endlessly repeated effort to tilt in one’s favor the fragile, flimsy, and shaky balance between survival and extinction.”
While the men slowly work the fields, the women slowly make one meal per day, which is always, without fail, rice with some sort of spice sauce. Kapuscinski notes that the richest people in this region will eat one large meal per day, the poorest people will eat one small meal per day, but everyone eats a single meal made of the same stuff. That is, except for when famine strikes, in which case no one eats at all.
At night, when the temperature falls to near-freezing, the village becomes dead silent. There really isn’t much to take about since they do the same thing every day. Wood is too scarce to burn for light and everyone is low on energy anyway. So they just lay there in silence until they fall asleep.
This is life at the bottom of subsistence. I’m struck by the emptiness of this existence. Everything is slow, little happens. People barely work, they don’t do anything fun or dynamic, they just exist and get by… and for good reason. What could look like laziness on the surface is a rational response to an extreme environment. The people of Abdallah Wallo are poor because they aren’t productive, and they aren’t productive because their environment doesn’t allow them to be, at least not without a massive capital injection. Kapuscinski points out that there is a river nearby, and the land could be irrigated, but what would be the point? There are few people there, little capital available in the country, and better places to spend it.
And then there’s the endless cycle of life in Abdallah Wallo. Every day is the same, every meal is the same, all work is the same, nothing is built in the village, nothing new happens, there aren’t even seasons. They just do the same thing over-and-over and if they’re lucky, the scorching desert gives them barely enough food to survive. If they’re not lucky, it doesn’t.
Maybe this is an incredibly naïve question, but… why would anyone live like this? Presumably, these people have lived in Abdallah Wallo for centuries, if not millennia, and they are just barely surviving. So why not move to a different biome, or a city, or anywhere else? Why not spare a handful of scouts to search for slightly more fertile land, or another food source, or something other than barren desert?
Is it a matter of tradition and culture? A lack of initiative? Are their resources so chronically low that they could never spare enough surplus goods to migrate? I don’t know.
The other scene of absolute poverty that sticks with me is from an unspecified year in Dakar, Senegal. Dakar was typical of African capitals in being poor, squalid, and overrun by bayayes, but Kapuscinski saw the destitution ratchet up a notch during a train ride outside the city.
He describes a mass of people living in a makeshift shanty town around and on the train tracks. The trains don’t run on any recognizable schedule, so people and huts scatter at the last second as the train approaches to avoid getting crushed. These people were basically the last of the bayayes to arrive in Dakar, and the worst off. They can’t even fit into the ramshackle outer-suburbs of the city, so they cluster around the train tracks so the handful of small-scale merchants in their ranks can hawk food to the moderately wealthy train passengers.
These people are essentially refugees without a refugee camp. At least the typical bayayes very occasionally work or join the army. But aside from the few merchants, these people do not work or produce anything at all. They do not have housing. They do not have a water or food source. They exist solely on the donations of international aid. They have no governance, no oversight, no order. And there are tens of thousands of them outside Dakar, and millions across Africa. From Kapuscinski:
“I think of the camp we passed leaving Dakar, of the fate of its residents. The impermanence of their existence, the questions about its purpose, its meaning, which they probably do not pose to anyone, even to themselves. If the truck does not bring food, they will die of hunger. If the tanker does not bring them water, they will die of thirst. They have no reason to go into the city proper; they have nothing to come back to in their village. They do not attend schools. They have no addresses, no money, no documents. All of them have lost homes; many have lost their families. They have no one to complain to, no one they expect anything from.”
This might be an even lower/worse-off/more desperate way of life than the villagers at Abdallah Wallo. At least the latter fend for themselves, they wake up every day with a sense of purpose and earn their lives. The people outside of Dakar have the most passive existence imaginable.
Of course, this is not their fault. I’m not saying these people should magically conjure factories or irrigation or something. I doubt I would do any better if I was born in a subsistence Senegalese village and then migrated to the city, and then ended up living under scrap metal on train tracks.
I’m just astonished by this mode of existence. It’s not even something out of a dystopian novel, it’s less than that. These people are kept alive by generosity from distant foreigners, but only just barely kept alive, with no hope for anything more than day-to-day survival. It’s hard for me to wrap my mind around.
Time and Waiting
Keeping in mind Shadow of the Sun’s essays were mostly written in the 1960s and 70s…
Kapuscinski says that Europeans and Africans conceptualize time differently. European time is objective, meaning it’s held outside man, and man is subordinate to it. African time is subjective, meaning it is bent by man and especially social convention.
None of this is metaphysical, but practical. European busses leave at a particular time. African busses leave when they get enough passengers. European town hall meetings start at a particular time, African town hall meetings start when enough people wander by the town hall.
The subjective sense of time also reflects a culture that has no written history (as was the case for most of Africa at the time). Most of the people Kapuscinski interacted with relied on oral tradition to understand their long-dead ancestors. Particular storms, battles, and other events were remembered only as taking place “long ago” or “when the tribe came here” or by some other vague reference point. Precise years and dates were irrelevant, and this lack of precision filtered down to day-to-day planning.
By Kapuscinski’s understanding of African time, a bus can’t leave at a specific time because:
- Infrastructure is terrible, therefore travel times are volatile, therefore it’s impossible to say when enough people will arrive at the bus station to catch the bus. It’s also impossible to say when the bus will arrive at its destination for the same reason, so the time it leaves isn’t important.
- Kapuscinski constantly describes much of Africa’s baseline climate as so hot, humid/dry, bug-filled, and generally insufferable that even passive existence is too taxing to be productive. Ie. the people of Abdallah Wallo can’t work hard because it is literally dangerous to do so. Thus Africans cultivated relaxed activity norms where precise timing didn’t matter.
- Distinct days, dates, and times are rarely considered in a cultural context of no written history and high illiteracy. So specific timing for a bus schedule is an alien concept to most people.
So how do Africans deal with bus scheduling?
They get very good at waiting. And just like time, waiting is somehow fundamentally different in Africa. The people don’t do anything while they wait, they just sort of… shut down:
“What does this dull waiting consist of? People know what to expect; therefore, they try to settle themselves 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.”
Maybe they’re really good at zoning out? Maybe when waiting is such a regular yet part of life, people adapt to getting through it with as little stress as possible?
Liberia is Fucked Up Even By African Standards
My favorite chapters in Shadow of the Sun are Kapuscinski’s dense, borderline-literary histories of people and places. His chapter on Rwanda got me to read the book. His chapter on Idi Amin is also great. But I think my favorite might be his chapter on Liberia.
In high school (or was it middle school?) I learned that Liberia was an odd footnote in American history where some well-meaning abolitionists set up a small African colony for freed American slaves. The country got going, but never attracted many immigrants, primarily because most black Americans had been in the US for generations and felt little connection to Africa. One thing I didn’t learn from school was that Liberia was strongly supported by Southern slave owners who wanted to drain free slaves from the US to quell the abolitionist movement.
An even more interesting tidbit I didn’t learn from school was that the black Americans who settled in Liberia established a racist, ethnonationalist state which exploited, oppressed, and enslaved the local Africans.
The Americo-Liberians based much of their culture and governance on the Southern states and plantations they fled. For about 150 years, the elites treated most locals like second class citizens and enslaved the rest for their plantations, especially the valuable rubber crops developed in the early 1900s. Though the Americo-Liberians were small in number, they had better technology, more wealth, and better organization than anyone else in the land. They also had eternal foreign support from the paternalistic US government.
Kapuscinski doesn’t go too deep into the Americo-Liberian culture and philosophy, but I’d love to hear more about it. How did people who were once enslaved or descended from slaves decide that the only thing wrong with the Southern system was who deserved to be enslaved? Did they pick up on a bit too much cavalier culture?
Liberia was fairly stable for most of its history. The Americo-Liberians ruled with an iron fist, and the local Africans were too poor and disorganized to do anything about it. Liberia’s leader from 1944-1971 was William Tubman. He was a typically fabulously corrupt Americo-Liberian, but he was really good at placating all the right people with spoils, so he kept Liberia stable and ruled longer than any other Liberian president ever. Tubman’s successor was William Tolbert. Tolbert was also a typically fabulously corrupt Americo-Liberian, and not very good at placating the right people with spoils.
Enter Samuel Doe. Doe was a member of one of those small local tribes which had been in Liberian land for millennia and had suffered the brunt of oppression and enslavement at the hands of the Americo-Liberians for about 150 years. He left his village for Monrovia (Liberia’s capital), became a bayaye, and then took the Idi Amin path of getting recruited into the army and surprisingly rising through the ranks. Eventually, he and some army friends went to President Tolbert’s palace, quickly fought their way inside, and then hacked Tolbert to pieces with a machete before throwing his organs on the front lawn. The next day, Doe and his mates executed most of Tolbert’s cabinet, and Doe became the first non-Americo-Liberian president of Liberia.
By Kapuscinski’s telling, Doe was unprepared to rule a country even by African warlord standards. He was 28 years old, “barely literate,” lazy, had never had a real job, and “he didn’t really know what it was that he was supposed to do as president.” So Doe took the Billy Madison route of lounging around his presidential palace, playing with expensive cars, and sleeping with lots of women.
He was surprisingly able to do this for ten years, mostly because the downtrodden locals (who formed the vast majority of Liberia’s population) were just happy to get the Americo-Liberians out of power even though Doe basically continued the Americo-Liberian playbook with a new group – he invited nearly every single individual from his small tribal ethnic group to the capital and showered them with houses, wealth, cars, and whatever other spoils he could corruptly plunder from the people.
Meanwhile, Liberia went through an Atlas Shrugged-style economic collapse:
“There is not much to say about his administration. He governed for ten years. The country simply came to a standstill. There was no electricity, the shops were closed, the traffic on Libera’s few roads died out.”
Enter Charles Taylor. (Yes, everyone has old white American names.) Taylor had been one of Doe’s top lieutenants during the coup and was given a cabinet position, but was fired a few years later ostensibly for embezzlement, but presumably really for pissing off Doe since literally everyone was embezzling. Taylor fled to the United States, was arrested by US authorities on a Liberian warrant, and somehow escaped US custody before he could be extradited. He then snuck out of the country and didn’t appear on anybody’s radar until he became a soldier and protégé of Libyan dictator Muammar Ghaddafi.
In 1989, Taylor showed up in Liberia out of nowhere and used his newfound military skills and money from Ghaddafi to launch the National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL), which like all patriotic/freedom/restoration Fronts in Africa was basically a warlord commanding a horde of teenagers with machetes and assault rifles.
The arrival kicked off the First Liberian Civil War (and definitely not the last). President Doe sent an army of his tribal countrymen against Taylor, which immediately proceeded to plunder the countryside instead of fighting. Taylor’s forces proved their superiority by first destroying Doe’s army and then plundering the countryside. They swept across Liberia until they get to Monrovia where they were finally stopped by Doe’s loyalists.
Enter Prince Johnson. For typically African warlord-y reasons, Johnson, Taylor’s chief lieutenant, broke away from Taylor and formed the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL), thereby sinking the civil war into a three-way stalemate.
(At this point, Kapuscinski stresses the absurdity of three warlords leading three armies fighting for control of a “city” which burned day-and-night, had no functional economy, and whose streets were literally lined with corpses).
Enter the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), an alliance between the governments of most of West Africa led by the relatively stable regimes of Nigeria and Mali. ECOWAS formed the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG), an international army deployed to try to stop countries from falling into political chaos.
ECOMOG sent an army to Liberia to try to set up some sort of compromised semi-democratic government and at least stop everybody from being macheted in the streets. These forces were far better equipped and more competent than any of the local Liberian armies, and they managed to launch an amphibious landing at Monrovia to set up a base of operations. For not entirely understood reasons, President Doe was pissed off that ECOMOG hadn’t paid him a visit or coordinated with him or something, so he got in his fancy Mercedes and drove down to their base to give them a piece of his mind.
Doe was captured on the way by Prince Johnson’s men. His many hours of torture, disembowelment, and eventual execution were captured on film and distributed throughout West Africa by Johnson to publicize his victory. Doe’s loyalist army collapsed and fled the city.
Taylor and Johnson continued fighting for a few more years and further hollowed out the meager wealth of Liberia. Johnson briefly held power, but ended up fleeing to Nigeria as Taylor battered down his door. ECOMOG tried to make peace and finally succeeded in establishing an oligarchic compromise government in 1990.
Less than a year later, Doe’s old supporters (mostly from his tribe) created the United Liberation Movement of Liberia for Democracy (ULIMO) which then took over a big chunk of the country. In 1992, the coalition government fell apart, Charles Taylor fled Monrovia, rallies his forces, and launched an unsuccessful assault on the capital held by the ECOMOG-backed regime. In 1993, the United Nations send in the UN Observer Mission in Liberia (UNOMIL) to help ECOMOG out since their troops were bogged down in a bunch of other collapsing West African countries. Fighting between the government, Johnson, and the ULIMO raged on for another few years until a ceasefire was declared in 1995. After another bout of fighting in 1996, elections were held in 1997, Charles Taylor won the presidency, and ECOMOG was so sick of being there that it decided to back Taylor’s regime, thereby ending the Liberian civil war…
Until 2003 when the Second Liberian Civil War broke out. A whole bunch of exiled Liberians from the many purges and overthrown governments formed the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) with the backing of a newly established government in Sierra Leone, a rebel group in Guinea, and for some reason, Moldova. They quickly swept aside the weak Liberian army and besieged the capital until President Taylor resigned. His vice president, a guy awesomely named Moses Blah, temporarily took power, but gave it up as international bodies once again set up a semi-democratic barely stable Liberian government, which rules to this day.
After resigning, Charles Taylor fled to Nigeria, Nigeria handed him back to Liberia, and Liberia handed him over to the UN. Always wily, Taylor spends the following decade somehow convincing a dozen European courts why his various trials for war crimes were unfair, but he finally got convicted in 2012 and ended up in a British prison where he lives to this day.
Meanwhile, Prince Johnson (Taylor’s traitorous lieutenant who tortured President Doe on camera) returned to Liberia in 2004 after Taylor was deposed. He got elected as a Senator, unsuccessfully ran for president, but sits in the Liberian Congress to this day.
And… that’s the modern political history of Liberia. It’s a whirlwind of disorganized acronym warlord armies slaughtering each other and the Liberian people for temporary power over a desolate hellscape while distant foreigners haphazardly try to stop the madness to inconsistent results. While Liberia may be a particularly crazy instance of African politics, it’s shocking how many African countries have followed a similar path.
The Average African Warlord
This is a digression from Kapuscinski and Shadow of the Sun, but I’m fascinated by the Average African Warlord (what I’ll call an “AAW”). Liberia is a particularly chaotic example of a failed African state, but Samuel Doe, Charles Taylor, and Prince Johnson fit an AAW template.
They were all army officers who rose through the nepotistic, corrupt, non-meritocratic military ranks until they took power in a moment of chaos (which was either caused by themselves or completely random). Then they used their power to personally enrich themselves with cars, houses, women, and other hedonistic ends. Most AAWs also devoted significant energies to squirreling away as much cash as possible in offshore accounts as a backup plan. To stay in power, they brought in equally corrupt lackeys to staff the government and military, and they killed anyone suspected of nefarious plotting on a whim. Eventually, some group named the People’s Liberation Army for Democracy rallied enough dissidents and child soldiers to start a civil war. The AAW did his best to fight it off, but his decadent, incompetent army was usually no match for the new generation of bloodthirsty plunderers. If the AAW is smart, he’ll hop on a plane to a friendly country and live off his foreign bank account either into a long retirement or until he finds the opportunity to retake power at home. But more often than not, the AAW is captured, tortured, and executed by his enemies, along with all of his friends, comrades, family members, and maybe his entire tribe.
Are AAWs smart? As in, do they have high IQs? They must be good at something to climb the slippery pole of power, but what is it? Intelligence must be a factor, but I don’t think it’s a big one. Kapuscinski portrays Idi Amin, Robert Mugabe, and Samuel Doe as pretty dull. In the first two cases, Kapuscinski claims they took over their respective countries (Uganda and Zimbabwe) because disgruntled British military commanders purposefully promoted brutish incompetents during decolonization to fuck with the incoming governments. And Doe literally didn’t know what to do when he took power, so he ruled in the laziest way possible.
But then again, Amin ruled for eight years, Mugabe for 30 years, and Doe for ten years. If they were outright stupid, I assume they would have lost power quickly, either at the hands of vengeful foes, or some ambitious lieutenant. None of these men were knowledgeable about economics, international politics, or law, but they at least seemed somewhere between semi-competent and highly competent in the intrigue necessary to keep enemies at bay. That must require some level of intelligence.
Maybe ruthlessness is the key. Doe became the president of Liberia because he was ruthless enough to get a bunch of his army friends together and launch an assault on the presidential palace. Amin murdered every possible competitor for power and never stopped murdering them until he was deposed. I don’t know as much about Mugabe, but I assume he walked a similar path.
Charles Taylor was ruthless enough to flee his homeland, escape US authorities, work for Muammar Ghaddafi, launch numerous Liberian insurrections, negotiate with foreign governments that hated him, and then confuse the court system so well that he ended up in a comparatively cushy prison cell in the UK rather than being chopped to pieces on the streets of Monrovia. To paraphrase what I said about the conquistador, Hernan Cortes: Charles Taylor was not a good man. He wasn’t a neutral man. He was a horrible man who caused untold misery for millions of people. But at the very least, one can say that Taylor was a man who lived a full life, and a ruthless one at that.
But for every Doe, Amin, Mugabe, and Taylor there have doubtlessly been thousands of wannabe AAWs who could have launched a bid for power, but either chickened out or were killed off by a more ruthless competitor. If one AAW doesn’t use child soldiers, another will. If one doesn’t plunder every neutral tribal village, another will. If one won’t use slave labor to mine diamonds to finance the war effort, another will.
Is ruthlessness always the best strategy in Africa warlordism? Or is it like Game of Thrones where being evil is effective in the short run, but causes long term problems as allies mistrust you and enemies multiply? Has there ever been a successful African warlord who took the Julius Caesar route of being really nice to his civil war enemies, and pardoning them whenever he could, and not stealing the government’s money, and not plundering the wealth of his subjects? Or do all African Julius Caesars get outcompeted by their more ruthless counterparts?
Why is much of Africa so… Poor? Dysfunctional? Chaotic? Call it whatever you want, but no one denies that most of the nations of sub-Saharan Africa are at the bottom of virtually every metric of national prosperity (wealth, literacy, life-expectancy, etc.). At the time Shadow of the Sun’s essays were written, many nations of Asia could compete for the lowest ranks, but since then, China, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and to a lesser degree the countries of South East Asia have moved up to “developing” or “developed” status. Even India, which still has wide swaths of absolute poverty, has made enormous strides over the last thirty years. But much of sub-Saharan Africa has not.
Kapuscinski doesn’t address why this is the case directly in any of his essays, at least not in Shadow of the Sun, but I found his descriptions of Africa’s climates to be insightful.
Sub-Saharan Africa’s dysfunction starts with its natural environment. Most of Europe, the Americas, and Asia range from arid to sub-tropical with a nice layering of temperate biomes in-between, and with the odd deserts or tropics here-and-there. But sub-Saharan is mostly desert or tropical jungle or adjacent climate (like the plains of the Serengeti), with only sporadic temperate zones and a bit of Mediterranean climate on the southern coast.
What sort of life can a people build in these environments? The deserts have almost no water, periodic droughts, few resources, scorching day heat, chilling night colds, sandstorms, and little arable land. The people of Abdallah Wallo literally can’t work hard because they’ll die of exhaustion. The nomads of Somalia survive by riding camels from oasis-to-oasis until they almost inevitably hit a dry patch, and then die. There simply can’t be much civilization growth in such places, at least not without massive external investment.
The jungle is no better. European explorers used to call it the “green desert” because despite the super-abundance of life, there was almost no way to extract it for human use. The tools needed to cut down jungle and cultivate crops didn’t exist until the 20th century. The air is constantly hot, sticky; everything is wet all the time, and so the most hearty and virulent diseases proliferate in Africa’s jungles: malaria, yellow fever, jungle rot, parasites… even a simple cut can be a death sentence due to the speed of infection.
It’s easy to forget that until the late 1800s, white people basically could not go into the interior of Africa. They would die. Usually from malaria, but possibly from one of the other dozens of diseases that thrive in tropical environments. Local Africans fare better due to immunological and cultural adaptations to these diseases, but they are by no means immune.
So again, what sort of civilizations could proliferate in the jungles? For most of African history, not much more than small tribes of hunters, gatherers, and primitive cultivators could develop. There were a few more advanced kingdoms in the north, particularly in Mali and Ethiopia, but from my limited knowledge of them, they never really passed medieval technology until the colonial era.
No, not all of Africa is dessert and jungle, but much of the rest of it isn’t much better for development. The steppe-like Serengeti plains of east Africa are beautiful and teeming with wildlife, but low-rainfall plains have never been a hotbed for civilizations. It wasn’t the similar Russian steppes which first birthed Eurasia’s cities, not even along their many winding rivers. Granted, these expanses would eventually carry huge populations, but not until major advances in irrigation, land-travel, and trade made their agrarian capacity worth developing. Before that, the coasts of the Mediterranean, the rich soil of the Italian peninsula, and later the forests and hills and close potential ports of continental Europe served as far more prosperous platforms for civilization.
So, much of sub-Saharan Africa wasn’t environmentally suited for societal and economic development. That is until ambitious Europeans pumped capital into the continent starting in the 1600s, and especially ramping up in the late 1800s. These colonization efforts introduced agricultural techniques, irrigation, railroads, and even legal systems which could all theoretically facilitate the development of a largely undeveloped continent.
But by Kapuscinski’s telling (and the general historian consensus), somewhere between much and all of the colonizing efforts were exploitative and oppressive. The capital injections served to simply extract resources for European benefit, and any second-order benefits for the Africans were somewhere between mostly and entirely incidental, and therefore not implemented properly for sustained growth.
The Belgians and Germans were the worst of the colonizers and casually geonocided African people who didn’t go along with their plans. The British and French were undoubtedly more benevolent and made real efforts to support African development, but in an arrogant and high-modern manner. Beyond whatever economic issues their colonial rule may have wrought, Kapuscinski expounds on the societal toll of colonialism, which he says has cultivated a deep inferiority complex in many Africans. The nicest part of any African capital is undoubtedly the white neighborhoods where luxurious mansions are situated in lush gardens and maintained by dirt-poor African servants, while only a few miles away, tens of thousands of Africans cluster in dilapidated slums, including the civil servants who are supposed to keep the country running but are paid so little that they need bribes to feed their families.
I’m sure a climate-based explanation is only the tip-of-the-iceberg for explaining African poverty, but it’s a good place to start.