Grace under pressure. Why must Africa be caricatured as the hopeless continent? Anthony Sampson is inspired by the daring and insight of a master reporter

The Shadow of the Sun: my African life

Ryszard Kapuscinski <em>Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 325p

Are we at last beginning to see Africa in African terms, without the distorting mirrors of western history and assumptions? For half a century, the west has continued to measure the failures and problems of African countries by its own standards, awarding marks for economic growth, parliamentary democracy or life expectancy.

And the British, from both left and right, have still seen the English-speaking countries through post-imperial eyes, asking questions that reflect their own attitudes. Were Africans better off before independence? Did colonisation and slavery leave scars that would never heal?

The ex-imperial distortions were quickly followed by the distortions of the cold war, which grotesquely simplified reporting about Africa and provided a lurid pageant of goodies and baddies, conspiracies and coups. And a new set of distortions came with the expanding aid industry, which attracted its own white-men's cliches and endless images of starving children, against a background of desperate deprivation and dependence on western intervention.

Behind all these western perceptions have been the same assumptions: that Africa's survival depends on decisions taken in the west; and that, by western standards, most of its societies are disintegrating into chaos and hopelessness. Africa is now seen as "The Hopeless Continent", as the Economist proclaimed it. But who was doing the hoping? And who are we to say that Africans have given up hope - the motivation on which all human survival depends?

To many people who visit Africa, away from the luxury hotels or aid agencies, it stubbornly refuses to abandon hope: telephones don't work, letters don't arrive, electricity breaks down, but still life goes on, with a resilience that baffles foreign observers. People continue to show a capacity for mutual help and for improvising solutions, which suggests a creative human spirit. And places that appear to Europeans as the end of the road seem to Africans as the centre of the world.

And now, at last, younger journalists and writers, who grew up as the cold war was fizzling out and life in the colonies began to be forgotten, are starting to report Africa not for what it might have been, but for what it is; not for what the west can contribute, but for what it provides for itself, through the rubble of past foreign interventions.

A few older writers have always kept their distance from the western cliches; and for readers who have wanted to find a more African Africa, Ryszard Kapuscinski has long been the most engaging guide. As a Polish historian and foreign correspondent, he has been reporting Africa ever since Ghana's independence in 1957, from the quite different viewpoint of a dissident intellectual in a communist country.

Kapuscinski writes not about economic statistics or government policies, but about the lives of the poorest Africans struggling to survive; and he is more interested in the harsh natural elements of the continent - the ferocious heat, the impassable rivers, the sudden nightfalls - than in the inroads of armies or aid workers. "Ordinary people here," he observed in Zanzibar, "treat political cataclysms - coups d'etat, military takeovers, revolutions and wars - as phenomena belonging to the realm of nature."

The Shadow of the Sun does not attempt to provide judgements or assessments of Africa's prospects: it is a collection of reports from over the past 40 years, from opposite parts of the continent, with no consistent theme. "This continent is too large to describe," he explains. "It is a veritable ocean, a separate planet . . ."

Superbly translated by Klara Glowczewska, the book often reads more like a novel or a collection of short stories, written with a bright eye for human eccentricities, and with sweeping statements that sometimes sound fictional. But for people who have travelled through Africa, it offers a much more convincing picture of the continent than do the more prosaic assessments of growth rates, structural adjustment or infant mortality. It shows life through African eyes, and it begins to explain the nature of the resilience that provides the real hope for Africa.

As a Pole, Kapuscinski looks at the colonial legacy from the outside, without any sense of guilt or responsibility for the imperial past. He is fierce about western blunders. Much of the ruthlessness of Africans in their power struggles he ascribes to the legacy of the white colonial elite that they superseded: "All at once, in the blink of an eye, a new ruling class arises - a bureaucratic bourgeoisie that creates nothing, produces nothing, but merely governs the society and reaps the benefits."

He rightly blames the imperial powers for creating illogical new frontiers, which reunified Africa rather than partitioned it, creating unviable new nations. "Colonialism was a brutal unification, brought about by fire and sword. Ten thousand entities were reduced to 50." And he condemns Britain for creating the Sudan out of two hostile populations, in order to divide and rule it, thus giving rise to "the longest and largest war in the history of Africa".

He is equally severe about both sides in the cold war, which ignored the real problems and interests of their client countries, and left behind their arsenals, thereby encouraging civil wars. They saw Africa mainly in terms of their own agents and expatriates: "Whenever I returned from Africa, I was asked not 'How are the Tanzanians?' but rather 'How are the Russians in Tanzania?'."

However, Kapuscinski's main concern is with the societies that Africans have built up by themselves, independently of western influence. In one amazing chapter, "My Alleyway", written 30 years ago, he describes how he lived among Nigerians in a slum alley in Lagos, where the streets were formed by bits of corrugated iron, plastic or cardboard, and where thefts were part of everyday life. "These neighbourhoods, these monstrous African papier-mache creations, are made up of everything and anything, and it is they, and not Manhattan or the Parisian La Defense, that represent the highest achievement of human imagination, ingenuity and fantasy."

Kapuscinski has his own, Polish perspective, and brings some of his anti-western intellectual baggage from Warsaw: it has been suggested that some of his descriptions of African autocracies were really veiled attacks on communist dictators at home.

And sometimes his accounts of weird African places and people go over the top, into semi-fiction. His most celebrated earlier book, The Emperor - which was adapted as a play, performed in London - brilliantly portrays the court of Haile Selassie, the tiny autocrat of Ethiopia, before he was deposed, with sharp and humorous dialogue conveying the extravagant flatteries and intrigues surrounding the emperor. Kapuscinski's picture doesn't quite do justice to Selassie's shrewd diplomacy during the cold war, to his relations with the new black republics, or to the real pathos of his predicament: trying to reform his corrupt administration while unable to escape from the surroundings that had isolated him.

But most of his surrealist and improbable descriptions of Africa have the ring of truth. Having witnessed a few of the same events and encountered some of the same people over the past 40 years (though I have never met Kapuscinski), I was struck by how well he recaptured them: for example, Kofi Baako, the first minister of education in independent Ghana in 1957 (with whom the book opens), and his exuberant and boyish enjoyment of face-to-face power; or John Okello, the wild 25-year-old, self-appointed field marshal who took over Zanzibar in 1964, with his simple and crude concept of the power of the gun: "He throws an old rifle over his shoulder and grabs another in his hand. With his first hand he first adjusts the pistol stuck in his belt, then picks up another one . . ."

Kapuscinski's accounts of the most gruesome events - such as the dictatorship of Idi Amin in Uganda, the genocide in Rwanda and the disintegration of Liberia - are all the more convincing because they are written in a plain style, without the heightened language favoured by TV commentators when describing catastrophes. And he maintains the warm sympathy of someone who is fascinated by Africans, and who goes back to the continent again and again: not to relish the latest atrocity, or to put across a political message, but to record the extraordinary resilience of the human spirit, and how life goes on.

Anthony Sampson's Mandela: the authorised biography is published by HarperCollins (£9.99)