The Old Africa Hand and the Young Black Filmmaker

Monday February 14 2005

A new film by the Kenyan-Polish Barua brothers proves that, contrary to popular belief, Poland was involved in slavery; BETTY CAPLAN describes how the internationally known writer Ryszard Kapuscinski did his best to block its release

What is it about the continent of Africa that makes people want to use it as a blank screen for their own projections? That makes them unwilling to listen to the genuine voices of those for whom they think they are qualified to speak?

The scramble for Africa is not new, but fresh insights are there in Shades of Poland, a film by Jacob Barua, shot by his brother Stan,) which has just closed the Nova Polska (New Poland) season in France, and which succeeds in turning the spotlight on some shadowy aspects of Poland’s past. Made in 1997, it did not see the light of day until 2001, when it was scheduled for viewing on Polish State Television, but only in the wee hours when few people would be watching.

Although it has been acclaimed by those who have seen it, and achieves an admirable balance and objectivity, the film has had a somewhat chequered career, being quietly shelved at the last minute for no apparent reason at, for instance, the important Ougadougou Festival in Burkina Faso – a key platform for films from this region. Why?

One factor could well be the power and influence of Poland’s resident "Africanist" – the redoubtable Ryszard Kapuscinski, who has taken on the onerous task of presenting the continent to Eastern Europe and the Western world in general and whose most recent book to be translated into English, The Shadow of the Sun: My African Life (Penguin Allen Lane 2001) – brings together essays and articles collected over 40 years by the country’s most highly regarded foreign correspondent. Originally published in Poland under the title Heban (Ebony), the author changed the title for the English edition and appended the phrase "My African Life."

From the time he arrived in Africa in 1957, the year of Ghana’s independence, which also marked the beginning of the end of colonial rule on the continent, he returned again and again whenever the opportunity arose. "I travelled extensively," he says. "I avoided official routes, palaces, important personages and big politics. Instead I preferred to hitch rides on passing trucks, wander with nomads in the desert, be the guest of peasants from the tropical savannah. Their life is an endless toil, a torment they endure with astonishing patience and good humour."

He concludes, "This is, therefore, not a book about Africa, but rather about some people from there; about encounters with them and time spent together."

Kapuscinski has been so lionised by a public eager to hear tall tales from Africa that the Times of London reviewer actually called him "Richard the Lionheart" when the English version appeared in a translation by Klara Glowczewska. He has written some brilliant pieces in the past, but in this book, the contradictions in his thinking are all too evident: "The continent is too large to describe. It is a veritable ocean, a separate planet, a varied, immensely rich cosmos. Only with the greatest simplification, for the sake of convenience, can we say ‘Africa.’ In reality, except as a geographical appellation, Africa does not exist.

But then what does he proceed to do? He generalises.

"More than anything, one is struck by the light. Light everywhere. Brightness everywhere. Everywhere the sun." ("In the Beginning: Collision Ghana 1958)"

It seems that Kapuscinski has never been to Nairobi in July or Lusaka in February. He has not seen torrential rain or grey skies because it is his Africa; he has created it, and so has earned the right to describe it in his own terms. He sets himself apart from other whites whom he sees as being somewhat weak, unable to cope with the climate, sweating profusely and incapable of orienting themselves either physically or culturally. It is another example of a growing trend: the white who is anxious to set himself apart from other shameful members of his own race and ally himself with the true, noble African.

In his book Lapidarium III (Warsaw 1997) which means relics or antiquities, Kapuszinksi makes a brief reference to Jacob Barua: "A young Kenyan, JB, brought the script of his film entitled Black Visions so that I could read it. A documentary. For me, repeating the proposition that many Poles are racists introduces little that is new. What would have been more interesting is something else, namely the examination of the ways that stereotypes circulate. In this case their origin is in the West."

In this way, Kapuscinski marks out Barua as an inexperienced outsider with no right to meddle in Polish affairs, though he knew the family personally, having met them both in Poland and Kenya. He denounced Barua in Poland’s leading newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, accusing the film of lacking any factual veracity and substance even though he had never seen it! Polish State Television became nervous about showing it. A commission of historians subsequently examined the material, and vindicated Barua, much to the disappointment of the Polish State Television boss who called him into his office and demanded to know, "So whose side are you on?" to which Barua replied, "History is not on anyone’s side."

The Barua brothers are, however, particularly qualified to make such a film: their mother is Polish, their father comes from the Mijkenda people, and they grew up in Kenya, later studying at the prestigious National Film School in Lodz, Poland. They have made many films and are fluent in English, Polish and Kiswahili. Stan is now based in Canada, but Jacob manages to keep a foot in both Poland and Africa.

Shades of Poland crams a wealth of material – historical, anthropological, artistic and documentary – into a brief 50 minutes. The film takes us back in time to a Poland where factories producing textiles stood side-by-side with palaces studded with magnificent artworks and sculptures as grand as the best Europe had to offer.

What links the historical episodes in Barua’s film is a sense of the present: the narrative follows the lives of an African family who have lived in Poland for over a decade. Zuu, a Liberian, sells art and artefacts in his small shop in Warsaw, while his wife Winnie, a Kenyan, is an English teacher.

Their two girls, Daisy and Melissa, were born in Poland. Their home is in a typical Soviet-era block of flats where Daisy learns to play Beethoven’s Ode to Joy on a keyboard. It is a wry comment on their apparently joyless existence, cooped up in a tiny space miles away from home, which is not to say they aren’t glad to have better chances in Europe, in a country which has only just joined the EU.

While Jacob Barua takes the trouble to get to know the members of the family he portrays as individuals – following them in their daily lives and activities at home, work and school – Kapuscinki’s Africans remain for the most part extras in a fable of his own making. In the whole book, there isn’t a single African he gets to know intimately. Furthermore, there is no sense of people who, despite long hours of toil, have managed to create their own distinctive cultures, music, dance and artefacts – objects which are much in demand in Zuu’s shop, the older the better for his customers, who also seem to disdain modernity.

For Kapuscinski, women are totally absent apart from Madame Diouf who is noteworthy mainly for the amount of space she succeeds in taking up.

"I had the impression that Madame was becoming ever more immense, that there was more and more of her. She was returning home to Bamako proud of her cheap purchases. Satisfied, victorious, she filled the whole apartment with her person."

He claims never to have thought about the question of skin colour in Poland or in Europe. In I, A White Man, he expresses outrage at the very thought that he could be lumped together with those who had cried, in Conrad’s words: "Exterminate the brutes!"

He writes: "I was not able to conjure within myself that cleansing, liberating emotion – guilt; to show contrition, to apologise. On the contrary! From the start, I tried to counterattack: You were colonised? We, Poles, were also. For 130 years we were the colony of three foreign powers. White ones, too." (P40-41)

By contrast, Barua’s film explores the complexities of history and allows the images to speak for themselves. The plain sound of the reel accompanies footage of hapless journeys to Africa’s interior in the early 20th century where the Polish adventurer is shown proudly shaking the hands of bewildered natives and placing a proprietary foot on the back of the wild animal he has shot and claimed as a trophy.

The Polish pre-war Sea and Colonial League had one million members, many of whom dreamed about possessing some of Germany’s former colonies like Cameroon for themselves. They fancied Angola, too, and thought of ridding themselves of their many Jews by relocating them to Madagascar and, of all places, northern Kenya.

They conjured up fantasies of places of plenty, where the sun would shine constantly, the white man would rule and the black man work. They didn’t imagine the natives would mind much as they were, after all, rather backward.

Here is what Kapuscinski says of the Tuareg: "The outside world holds no interest for them. It does not occur to them to explore the oceans, as the Vikings did, or to tour Europe or America. Despite the fact that the French occupied the Sahara for more than half a century, the Tuareg had no desire to learn French, were interested neither in Descartes nor in Rousseau, in Balzac or Proust."

No wonder the few remaining palaeolithic tribes in remote places shoot arrows at foreigners!

Yet there are those in Poland’s history who saw things differently. The leader of the 18th century Polish insurrection, Thadeus Kosciusko, bequeathed his entire fortune to buying the freedom of slaves in the USA, though his close friend President Thomas Jefferson failed to carry out his wishes.

Then there is the much-misinterpreted Joseph Conrad, Kapuscinski’s fellow countryman, who was shocked by evidence of ivory-traders’ complicity in ritual murder and cannibalism.

A steamboat captain, his voyage down the Congo turned him into a writer who found it the height of hypocrisy that Europeans had "only 70 years before protested about slavery but now accepted barbaric rule by Belgians, which cut off hands for the slightest offence." The rush to exploit the continent’s great riches was for him the "most despicable that was ever to soil the conscience of humanity."

There is footage of President Jomo Kenyatta just after Kenya’s independence, visiting farmer Leon Kudla as a mark of homage to the Polish community. He had himself been a student of the great Polish anthropologist B. Malinowski, who encouraged scholars to try to value the cultures they were studying in their own terms. Malinowski’s introduction appears in Kenyatta’s book Facing Mount Kenya.

Yet the shadow penetrated some very dark corners. In 1981, General Jaruzelski’s martial rule motivated 10,000 Poles to emigrate to South Africa in spite of apartheid, seeking a chance to make their fortunes. And it was a Pole, Janusz Walus, who murdered Chris Hani, designated heir to Mandela in the ANC. Walus had ties with neo-fascist groups in his hometown Wroclaw, where in 1990, a pack of skinheads attacked Africans celebrating Mandela’s release from prison.

Unable to carry out the research for the film directly, Barua resorted to various forms of subterfuge. Archivists weren’t happy about showing evidence of what Polish aristocrats paid for slaves in London, so he asked for seemingly innocent material like receipts for the kitchen expenditure in Polish palaces.

Is criticism, particularly self-criticism, the hallmark of European civilisations, as Kapuscinski claims? From the reception given to Shades of Poland and the reluctance of the authorities to show the film, it would seem not.

Barua proves that, contrary to Kapuscinski’s assertions, Poland was indeed involved in slavery, and Poles, albeit on a limited scale, were employed by Germans and Belgians, were implicated in the misappropriation of land and the humiliation (both mental and physical) of Africans. For that, it deserves to be widely shown.