Hollywood's rediscovery of Africa in the past couple of years is gratifying for those of us who live there, but its films tend to recycle hoary cliches. For a more sympathetic and more insightful look, you must read Ryszard Kapuscinski, who died in January. This Polish writer and war correspondent had a life-long love affair with Africa and The Shadow of the Sun must rank among the world's best travel books. Obituaries described him as a "master of modern journalism", "The Greatest Reporter in the World", and a "Herodotus of our times". rumour had it that he was an outside chance for a Nobel Prize. In the Polish parliament he was praised as "a witness of human suffering and a witness of people's hopes."

Published in Polish in 1998, The Shadow of the Sun spans his African visits of over 30 years to the east, west and centre of the continent in which he exposed himself to situations, places and people that no one else, except some of the hardiest missionaries, would dare to take on.

For him the 20th century totalitarian horrors find their origin in the racism of the colonial era and the slave trafficking. Slavery has left scars even to our day, poisoning relations between Africans themselves as well as between the races. It was a way of telling the African he was a nobody, infra-human. This racism still exists, not only in trade and finance but in culture too.

As an example, he asks why the European languages have not developed a vocabulary that allows them to describe non-European cultures and worlds. Why are there no words to describe the dark, suffocating interior of the jungle; the wide range of insects that are never far away; or, more difficult still, the domain of the beliefs, the mentality and the mystery of Africa and its peoples? Kapuscinski tries, as few writers before him, to see Africa as Africans see their surroundings.

Idi Amin's nightmare reign of eight years is summed up in about seven pages. We learn how his mother carried the bonny boy on her back from the far, inhospitable north of Uganda to the fertile, prosperous south, in search of basic survival. How they reached the garrison town of Jinja, on Lake Victoria, and how with his fine physique, boxing skills and cruel fearlessness, the young Amin was just what the British recruiting officers of the King's African Rifles were looking for. Little did they know that this almost illiterate, unemployed youth would destroy his country and become a name to be feared.

Kapuscinski makes a sharp observation: Amin was a Kakwa, a people whose only concern is how to survive. He was a brute of a man, but worse still were the men he surrounded himself with — huge like himself, poor as he had been, with nothing to lose. So as not to incur the displeasure of their boss and benefactor they played safe and outdid themselves in cruelty towards the Ugandan people.

The African in his environment

In contrast to such dark episodes is a fascinating variety of African portraits. On a visit to northeast Uganda, the home of the warrior Karimojong, the author explains why these people go naked — not only because they consider the human body beautiful and worthy to be shown; but because most of the Europeans who first came to the region died. The Karamijong reasoned that it must be because they wore clothing.

There are hair-raising and amusing moments too: close encounters with an endless herd of buffalo, a cobra under the bed, and murderous Shifta bandits in a remote corner of Ethiopia.

In Lagos the Polish traveller chose to experience life as a Nigerian. Every time he came back to his flat, it had been burgled. One day Suleiman, the night watchman of the previous owner, called on him and advised him not to worry. It was, he said, a neighbourly way of settling inequalities, a sign that he had been accepted, a form of friendship; besides, he had never been mugged, had he? So, leave it at that. Don't go to the police, Suleiman warned, because then he really would get hurt.

Moving east he discovers that Somalia can only be understood with reference to the camel — more important than food and money — and the clan, on which all relationships, friendly or hostile, are ultimately based.

Company is a vital need. The African has an interesting story to tell, and he must tell it; otherwise he will lose contact with his past and therefore his identity. And with the present: discussions among the elders, which must end with consensus however long this may take, never take place in the dark. It is not enough to hear the voice; one's face and the expressiveness of the eyes must show how genuine and convinced the person is.

Here a word must be said for the African greeting. It is never casual, and the worth of the person is shown by the length and strength of the handshake, together with the obligatory questions about his welfare, and that of his relatives. To omit this would be rude and show a lack of esteem for the other.

The problem of Africa, Kapuscinski writes from Ghana, is the contradiction between man and his environment. Africa is pitiless, and huge, and to tackle it man is without equipment: poor, defenceless and barefoot. Technology is at last making inroads, slowly spreading out from the main urban centres, but most of Africa is uninhabited, deserted and endless. And exposed to the scorching sun. Shade and water are indispensable — one cannot survive long without them — yet in countries bordering the Sahara they are in short supply. The author and his driver almost perished of thirst in the Mauritanian desert.

In such a space, time also takes on a different character. For the European and American, time is Newtonian: absolute, real and mathematical, functioning independently of man who is subject to it. The African sees time as flexible, easy-going, subjective. Time is made for man and, in a sense, by man. If one goes to a village for a meeting or a celebration, and no one is there, the question, "When will the meeting begin?" is irrelevant. The proper question to ask is, "When will the people arrive?"

Tragic chapters

Among the multitude of topics on which Kapuscinski sheds light are the spirituality of the African, the greed of the leaders while millions of their countrymen live in truly appalling conditions, or the enormous harm brought about by the introduction of modern weapons.

But it was Europe, after all, that set the standard for greed and power politics in 20th century Africa. At the 1884 Berlin Conference the partition of Africa meant that some 10,000 kingdoms, federations and tribal communities — many of which had been at war with one another and were long-standing enemies — were forcibly joined for the convenience of metropolitan rulers thousands of miles away. As the renowned historian Ronald Oliver put it in his 1991 book African Experience: "Division of Africa? Brutal and devastating. It was more a unification! The number ten thousand was reduced to fifty."

The Second World War changed the racial perspective: Africans saw Whites fighting each other, hungry and homeless, and this was both a shock and a revelation to them.

The 1982-1983 famine in Ethiopia was due not to lack of food, Kapuscinski tells us. The country had plenty. But when the drought struck, the prices were raised beyond the reach of the poor people. Rather than intervene or call for outside help the government, out of national pride, refused to admit there was a famine until it could be hidden no longer.

Perhaps the most tragic chapter concerns Liberia. In the 19th century some well-intentioned humanitarians in the United States thought of sending former slaves back to their "homeland". So, in 1847 the republic of Liberia was formed, with a few thousand ex-slaves who made up less than one per cent of the population. The only thing they had in common with the people already living there was their roots and the colour of the skin. The only reality they had known was slavery, so they enslaved the existing inhabitants who were illiterate, poor and badly organised. The settlers had no interest in abolishing slavery; they created a new form of it. The consequences have been played out in the coups, presidential murders and civil war of recent decades.

The most shameful legacy of all this chaos are the Small Boys Units — child soldiers, recruited almost in infancy, who, fearless as children are and high on drugs, form the frontline in battle. Child soldiers, found across Africa from Angola to Sudan, are one of the greatest disgraces of modern times. Seized from their villages and turned into orphans, they are exploited by the cruelty of greedy leaders, who equip them with small, deadly weapons (that seem to be made just for them) and send them out to kill or die. Only when Africans responsible are convinced of the evil of this practice can they hope for a solution to their other problems.

The Shadow of the Sun is not a complete study of the continent. Kapuscinski did not appear to visit South Africa, or the more westernised regions and capital cities. He did not make a comparison between Africa of the 1960s and the 1990s. But the book is no less perfect for all that. Anyone wishing to catch a glimpse of the real Africa cannot fail to read this memorable book.

Martyn Drakard is MercatorNet's contributing editor for Africa. He lives in Kampala.

Martyn Drakard is a retired teacher of languages who lives in Kenya.