For a long time, Europe has feigned an interest in Africa. “What goes on there?” we ask, expecting a comforting reply. Our questions are a consequence of our bad memory - after all, it was thanks to colonial exploitation that we could develop for 300 years - and from an indifference that short agency dispatches and expansive, all-knowing reports have only served to intensify. Wojciech Albiński writes differently about Africa. In his accounts, we learn about daily life in South Africa and Botswana, as seen from the perspective of a foreign resident. Indeed, this paradoxical combination - foreignness with familiarity, astonishment and knowledge - means that Albiński’s writing doesn’t so much elucidate the real situation of Africa as make us aware of our own ignorance - it allows us to understand that we cannot understand everything. The author has lived and worked in Africa for thirty years, so he is not a new arrival, and certainly not a tourist. However, his observations and stories are still primarily characterised by their restraint. At all times we feel the narrator knows and understands more than he tells us, but something holds him back from drawing ultimate conclusions, making generalisations or formulating neat summaries. Thus his prose does not include phrases like “Africans are lazy, but proud,” or “People in Africa are used to cars now, but still believe in magic.” As a geodesist, Albiński travels around southern Africa a great deal , and he perceives his task as a writer to be documenting what he sees. This is why he has created a narrator who above all looks and listens. He is a good observer: attentive, vigilant and sympathetic. He knows something of the local languages, so he is able to communicate. He does not impose himself on anyone, so people are happy to invite him to share their table or campfire and entertain him with their stories. Because of this, just like an ethnographer, Albiński becomes a collector of anecdotes and tales that do not add up to a recognisable whole. Thus we see political conversations taking place in Pretoria that are deciding the future of the state, while at the same time in the background the small-time wheeler-dealers, the travelling salesmen of postmodern commerce, are arranging profitable contracts for themselves through confidential chats with various ministers. We see the history of the state picking up speed as it enters the fold of the democratic-liberal leviathan, while at the same time we encounter tribes still settling their grudges on the peripheries. We are also informed of Europe’s hand in all this: her envoys are most interested in keeping Africa at peace, so they act according to the principle that “the compromise justifies the means,” but in trying to stay in control, they invariably cause confusion and bloodshed. Finally, Albiński shows that not only does Europe have something to offer Africa, but that the reverse is true as well. The African version of vetting people in public life for the sake of state security can serve as a good example - this is a phantom that has arisen in North America recently and is already raging across the post-communist countries. South Africa is the only country in the world to have successfully avoided bloody solutions to its problems.
- Przemysław Czapliński
“A kingdom at the crossroads?” “A brutal act bodes ill for the reform programme.” Lying in front of me were two weeklies and several newspapers. The headlines were alarming. The front page of the daily paper showed a picture of a king in ceremonial dress, with his belly bare, wearing leather sandals and sitting in the company of his four wives, who were staring blankly into space.
It was afternoon in Sandton. I was drinking coffee on a square designed by François Pienaar, with stylish buildings on all four sides, one of which is a fashionable hotel. It was a sunny day, and clusters of girls and women were strolling by, as well as tourists carrying colourful bags.
Small café tables filled half the square, which had a fountain playing in the middle. A great jet of water kept rising and falling at irregular intervals. Under the watchful eye of their parents, some children kept creeping towards it cautiously and then running off with a scream as soon as the jet rose up.
A buttocks parade had just begun. Black, white and Brazilian, big broad buttocks kept rolling by, amazingly mobile, and hardly what you would call girlish. Buttocks the size of small fists ran by on high-heeled shoes, while others were wrapped in pink cotton cloth. For anyone sensitive to it, a miscellany like this one could be heaven or hell.
I went back to the papers. Kingdoms induce little sympathy these days, and the country under attack was small and wedged in among the mountains. The journalists were reproaching the monarch, pointing out the fragility of his throne and suggesting reforms as the only salvation. At the same time, the young king, they complained, was deaf to sound advice.
In a long article, the editor enumerated the king’s mistakes, such as his unsuccessful attempt to buy a jet plane, in which he had wanted to travel the world, or his plan to build five palaces, which had been criticised by the illegal opposition, but endorsed by the submissive Council, and finally the choice of a new wife… This issue had embittered the nation, because the facts surrounding her consent to the marriage were not at all clear, and some difficult questions had been asked. One feckless guy had claimed to know the girl and advised the king not to marry her.
Fifteen years ago, six boys were sent to school in England. Each was the child of a different queen and was brought up to be able to assume the vacant throne some day. But which of them was the true heir, which one had been secretly appointed, was known only to three trusted advisors, who would never have betrayed this confidence, not even under torture. So why were six boys picked out? Why not just one? On the day the old king died, the advisors made their way to England. They called the boys together and a solemn silence fell as they laid their hands on the shoulders of one of them. They haven’t left him alone ever since.
There is nothing more important than choosing a wife, especially if she is to be the fifth. The candidates should come from different parts of the country, each from an important family that is close to the throne. In this way, the unity of the state is maintained and blood ties are created.
After returning home, the young king acquired a taste for the local girls, but he followed his own personal inclinations, which shocked his subordinate Council. “You should not regard women as individuals,” they explained to him in a paternal manner. “Look, during the Reed Festival, a thousand girls will dance before you, each wearing nothing but a few cornstalks and a flimsy garland on her head… They all have a wonderful sense of rhythm and their skin is glossy with olive oil. You might fall in love with one girl today, but how will you recognise her tomorrow?”
But the king would not abandon his whims, and insisted on them even more. His latest fancy was a young woman who had just finished her studies in law. “I’ve had enough of being poor, I want to be a queen,” a normal girl would sing. But this one rejected the king’s favours. “I’m in the middle of writing my doctoral thesis on human rights and it’s absorbing me entirely,” –was her excuse for refusing the king’s offer. So the king’s emissaries abducted her from home, thus circumventing the superfluous formalities. At this point the girl’s mother, a school teacher by profession, took the king’s lackeys to court, demanding the return of her daughter with compensation. The case was scheduled for trial, but was then dropped from the agenda, and judgements were pronounced that were most unfavourable to the royal court.
One journalist wrote in despair: “Dark clouds are gathering over the kingdom.” Surely he knew that dark clouds are a portent of rain? And that rain is a blessing from God? And that blessings from God are obtained by the king through the intercession of his dead ancestors? Not wanting to accuse the monarch of desiring absolute power, the experts blamed the sclerotic Council.
On the world stage, the kingdom had always been overlooked. It wasn’t in anyone’s way, nor did it have any natural resources. The cause of the currently heightened interest was a new scandal, the origins of which were not yet entirely clear.
A group of tourists, most of them Europeans, had been unceremoniously expelled from the country. They were hustled off to the border without any explanation, and without having their visas cancelled. Their hotel reservations were of no use – the boundary barriers just rose and fell…
When the unhappy deportees were interviewed, the issue flared up and the story made front page news. A Russian tourist had lost his suitcase in the rush. Two Bulgarians and a Swede had had to wait eight hours for a plane in a stuffy room at the airport. “Now I know what it means to abuse human rights,” said an indignant Romanian. “They didn’t threaten to shoot us,” attested a Serb, “but they certainly considered it.”
By chance I was a witness to the events that gave rise to all this indignation, and can give an impartial account of what happened.
Translated by Anthony Pirnot