Africa as an Invention and a Duty

BY Eliza Szybowicz

In her newest book, ‘Dom żółwia. Zanzibar’, Szejnert shows that she is aware of the roles and conventions that limit anyone attempting to read or write about Africa

3 minutes reading left

When addressing the topic of Africa, perhaps one should keep in mind a paraphrase of Oscar Wilde’s famous quote about Japan: that “the whole of Africa is a pure invention.” The point being, obviously, to denaturalise, to lose confidence, to reign in our European imaginations fuelled by colonial, neo-colonial, and post-colonial stereotypes (the last of which are rare in Poland). But then one would have to coin another phrase to warn against another trap: the overemphasis of distinctiveness and mystery. This mirror-image commandment would go something like this: Africa does exist and it is your duty to learn about it.

Małgorzata Szejnert, Dom żółwia. Zanzibar.
Znak, Kraków, 384 pages,
in bookstores October 2011
A curiosity and a tragedy

Africa is usually discussed in one of two forms, each differing radically from the other in terms of gravity. In the first genre, media-savvy globetrotters present their travel anecdotes as a series of TV programs, radio shows, or richly-illustrated books. The industry’s best known faces include Wojciech Cejrowski and Martyna Wojciechowska. While the educational value of the content is debatable, its primary purpose is clearly entertainment. Thus when Africa (and the Global South in general) serves as a backdrop for amusing stories, it is a friendly, colourful place full of cultural curiosities and mandatory culinary adventures. Our guides to this theme park combine expertise on local customs with cheerful naïvety. Apoliticality is the fundamental premise of this entertainment format, a rule that even Cejrowski rarely violates.

But once in a while this careless, family-friendly atmosphere is spoiled by an objectionable event. Cejrowski might make a claim about the superiority of the white man, or Marcin Kydryński might fail to understand what’s wrong with his 1995 book Chwila przed zmierzchem (A Moment Before Dusk), in which he describes his sexual escapades on the Dark Continent and claims that African women are wild animals that desire to lay with the white man, particularly Kydryński. It’s hard to shake the impression that Cejrowski and Kydryński’s unabashed racism isn’t a matter of occasional slip-ups, but a manifestation of the hidden logic behind the convention of presenting Africa as a source of exotic entertainment.

On the opposite pole we have political essays discussing serious African issues, exemplified most prominently by the writing of Ryszard Kapuściński. Political reporters are particularly interested in coups, wars, bloody regimes, massacres, and other humanitarian disasters. In extreme cases, they even deal with contemporary genocide. Despite the educational benefits of the genre, there remains a shadow of moral uncertainty about it. It seems serious essays unavoidably offer something that can be described as a rush of peculiar satisfaction, to the writer as well as the reader, judging by the reviews of Wojciech Tochman’s book about Rwanda. The thrill comes from reading drastic literature, the kind that “grabs you by the throat” and hits you like “a sudden slap in the face” (actual quotes from reviews of Today We’re Going to Draw Death). This thrill is no accident either: it is another manifestation of the logic behind the convention. Tragedies feels more real than non-tragedies. Empathy in the face of tragedy is more empathetic than empathy in the face of non-tragedy.

Travel entertainment and serious essays share one more attribute: the aura of carelessness and the aura of special care have an equally paralysing effect on discussion. Entertainment doesn’t hurt, obviously, so what is there to discuss? Get a sense of humor! We also know that it is not acceptable to question experts on African issues, especially if they happen to be involved in them as writers, as made evident by the reactions to Artur Domosławski’s recent book, Kapuściński non-fiction, in which he attempts to provoke a discussion of the author’s additional dramatisation of events that were already quite dramatic. The debate over Tochman’s book quickly ran aground for similar reasons, i.e. the topic and the author’s personal involvement.

Our people in Zanzibar

In her latest book, Dom żółwia. Zanzibar [Zanzibar: Home of the Turtle], Małgorzata Szejnert shows that she is fully aware of the roles and conventions that limit anyone attempting to read or write about Africa. She doesn’t address them directly, but it is apparent that she has consciously sidestepped as many traps as possible in her narrative. Szejnert’s writing technique, which she previously used in Czarny ogród and Wyspa klucz, is particularly well-suited to this task. Her new book is a chronicle of sorts: a thick, heterogeneous volume with a loose, multi-threaded plot, an inordinate amount of detail on a range of subjects, and numerous characters speaking a variety of tongues, quoted in abundant and lengthy passages. This patchwork is rough and irregular. The stories of the inhabitants of Zanzibar complement each other in some places, but clearly clash in others, and sometimes even fail to share any common ground. The author frequently hides behind quotes and speaks through her characters. She expresses her opinions very indirectly, as if merely offering the readers the material necessary to formulate their own interpretations, inviting us to collaborate with her.

Małogrzata Szejnert
photo: Mirosław Pietrusiński, ZNAK
The slave trader Tippu Tip, the African slave Jacob Wainwright, the Arab princess Salme, the travellers David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley, the revolutionary John Okello, the Taarab singer Bi Kidude, and many others make appearances and are given a chance to say at least a few words; missionaries, explorers, abolitionists, politicians, diplomats, photographers, architects, and largely unknown slum-dwellers; Africans, Arabs, Indians, and Europeans of different nations, among them Poles such as the Romantic poet Henryk Jabłoński, who was appointed the French consul to Zanzibar and who sympathized with the cause of black slaves, as well as Henryk Sienkiewicz, who identified with the British during his stay on the island and expressed little concern for the plight of the slaves.

Incidentally, it would seem that Sienkiewicz foreshadowed the likes of Cejrowski and Kydryński, with whom he shared fantasies about his electrifying effect on the local women. When the future author of Quo Vadis took an evening stroll along the beach, he witnessed naked, giggling black girls running out of the sea. When they ran away, he assumed that they wanted him to chase them. To us it is obvious, although we only catch a short glimpse of the event, that the girls were wonderfully playful and were simply mocking the cocksure traveller.

The case of Jabłoński and Sienkiewicz provides a good illustration of the ambiguity in Małgorzata Szejnert’s reserved narration. Having been conscripted into the Russian army for participating in the revolutionary wave of 1848, and having later escaped the front lines of the Crimean War, Jabłoński looked upon the shackled slaves and saw in them his own longing for Podolia, as well as a certain analogy to the Poles sent to Siberia in the Tsar’s handcuffs. Although his vehement assertions of brotherhood — uttered in the “exalted” style of his era, as Szejnert writes — still come across as noble today, they sound completely different than they would have, were they taken out of context. The author explains the personal motivations behind Jabłoński’s sense of compassion, emphasising the conventionality of his writing while subtly showing her respect for the historical figure. She toes the line between historically-informed scepticism and sympathy.

The pompous and detached Sienkiewicz, in contrast, maintains “a sober perspective”, observing the inertia of a system based on slavery, one which seemed completely natural to everyone — including the slaves themselves — despite the significant legal restrictions of the time. When he says that the “Negroes” are ungrateful to the “white man” for his struggle with slavery and that “to this day, Africans instinctively accept the legitimacy of slavery”, his sober perspective is worth as much as his racism. Szejnert meticulously quotes excerpts of the writer’s more interesting observations, but she also cites his letters with an air of both disgust and amusement. She mockingly recalls Sienkiewicz as saying: “I am the white man who does not yield” (the way to an Arab surrounded by an entourage of slaves loudly clearing the way for their master to cross a crowded street), and remarks on how the author only saw fatigue and the stigma of death on the faces of Germans in the tropics, but mentioned nothing of the sort with regards to the faces of Englishmen.

A stolen ocean

Thus, skipping from person to person, from text to text,tactfully marking her presence, Szejnert tells the socio-political history of Zanzibar, starting with the year 1840. It was then that the Sultan of Oman moved his capital to the island, attracted by its burgeoning trade in ivory and slaves, of which he was the greatest beneficiary. The imagery Szejnert conveys is shocking, but it is not the motivation behind the book. It started with a desire to learn about Zanzibar. The image of a river choked with bodies — swallowed up by the paddlewheel of the steamboat that carried Livingstone on his famous expedition into the heart of East Africa, into lands ransacked by slave traders — is merely the result.

Whenever the author encounters material that could easily be turned into a bit of trivia, she also considers the media mechanisms behind it. A green sea turtle named Suzie travelled thousands of kilometres to lay her eggs in the place where she herself was born, all the while tracked by a satellite and thousands of fans around the world, who were gripped by the fate of the animal, only to lose interest as her journey came to an end. As an author who treats closeness and distance as states that depend on the will of the observer and are subject to a game of appearances, Szejnert writes about the geographically remote island of Zanzibar without exotification, at once avoiding forced familiarity.

The point of departure in this meandering tale is contemporary Zanzibar, which, despite gradual liberalisation, has yet to hold fully democratic elections, and has experienced rapid re-colonisation by the tourism industry in recent years. After a period of Arab and European colonisation, a short stretch of independence, a socialist revolution in 1954, unification with Tanganyika, and single-party rule with no tolerance for opposition, the island is now being annexed by wealthy and arrogant foreigners. “The inhabitants of Zanzibar”, Szejnert writes, ”often the descendants of slaves — people who had once been ‘stolen’ — say that strangers are now stealing their ocean.” The parallels between historical and modern colonisation are evident in the scenery. Szejnert is constantly on the lookout for traces of history in the landscape and architecture, but it quickly becomes obvious that the division of space in today’s Zanzibar resembles that of the island under the Sultan or the British Protectorate: the coasts and their ocean vistas are reserved for luxury hotels that cater to a foreign, largely white, clientele, while the black Zanzibaris live in the slums in the “inferior” part of the island.

The beaches around the hotel resorts are fenced off; walls hide entire gated communities, complete with private roads and squares. Even baobab trees are occasionally enclosed by fences, behind which ID badge-wearing tourists nap. The hotels are extraterritorial; they do not hire locals and their supplies are sourced elsewhere. The pay no taxes to Zanzibar. They don’t worry about water and energy service or waste disposal, much less green sea turtles, for whom it is becoming increasingly difficult to find an empty beach on which to lay their eggs.

These hotel enclaves are perhaps the only place where Szejnert doesn’t set foot. Instead, we are taken on a tour of Nungwi, a large inland village where Mtuma, our guide to the “inferior” part of Zanzibar, lives. We follow her every step of the way; from the very moment she leaves her house, which is built from pieces of coral reef, we realize the immense gap between the comforts enjoyed by tourists and the living conditions of Zanzibaris. The latter must make do without electricity. They rarely find employment, and those who do have jobs cannot afford health care and education on their meagre salaries. Even nature bears the stigma of the divide between the privileged and the excluded: “The black, dusty part of the island is completely devoid of plant life, while in the white, sandy part there grow palm trees, ornamental cacti, trimmed hedges, and cascading purple and orange-hued bougainvillea.”

The 1963 general elections for the island’s independent government saw a voter turnout of 99%. One of the photographs in the books shows a long, winding line of women in Muslim garb queuing in front of a polling station. As she follows the Zanzibari people’s path from slavery to attempts at political independence, Szejnert portrays them individually and collectively as energetic, active, elusive agents. In one example, the author describes their lively, energetic, and unpretentiously utilitarian art forms: Taarab music — improvised Swahili songs that deal with current events — and Tingatinga paintings, made by hundreds of poor islanders in hopes of hawking them to aficionados of “native” African art. Even when the book portrays a nagging vendor or a Masai posing for pictures in full gear, it is clear that what the visitor sees are locals forced by poverty to play the role of the “native”.

I particularly enjoyed the adventures of Jutta, a German lady who attempted to teach local women to bake cakes, and who complained to the author about the infamous African “mentality”. Teaching, she said, was an arduous process, as the students had neither a sense of time nor space, and couldn’t even plan the most trivial tasks. They seemed incapable of arranging two objects side by side, she said. Szejnert returns to the store a few months later, by which time Jutta had left, and the local women had started a small business. It turned out that the Jutta’s contract had ended, and her former students “moved into the store, demonstrating a lightning-fast work ethic, an excellent sense of space, and the ability to predict events and think about tomorrow.” This incident is a snub to racists and cultural bigots, while the element of surprise, the subversion of the situation, and Szejnert’s gleefully ironic writing make it an optimistic omen for Zanzibar.

translated by Arthur Barys