The Cobra’s Heart – Penguin Great Journeys

The Cobra’s Heart is a succinct yet expansive book about a Polish journalist’s experiences and observations in 20th-century Africa.  Just under 100 pages, it’s merely an excerpt of Ryszard Kapuściński’s full-length book, The Shadow of the Sun.  Upon finishing it, I was happy to find the full version already on my to-read list (added, though forgotten apparently, in 2013) as well as pleasantly surprised that this miniature made me want to read the full book.

Though the titular chapter – in which the author has a close call with a deadly cobra – is interesting enough, it’s the historical-political anecdotes that I found the most intriguing.  In “I, a White Man,” he talks about the feeling of apartheid in Dar es Salaam, a coastal city in Tanzania which encompasses neighborhoods from the comfortable, predominantly white Oyster Bay to the dry, dusty African suburbs away from the water.  He explains how, upon the eventual departure of the Europeans, a new elite class emerged which continued to exploit the common people and led to events such as the 1966 military coup d’etat in Nigeria. In “Amin,” Kapuściński paints a portrait of Idi Amin, the notoriously brutal dictator of Uganda in the 70s.

The fishermen threw their catch onto a table, and when the onlookers saw it, they grew still and silent. The fish was fat, enormous . . . Everyone knew that for a long time now Amin’s henchmen had been dumping the bodies of their victims in the lake, and that crocodiles and meat-eating fish must have been feasting on them. The crowd remained quiet.

Kapuściński has a great writing style, descriptive but not too wordy or overly “clever.” Some reviewers have described his full-length book as too bleak or negative.  I can’t speak to that (yet), but I think these excerpts show someone with real interest in the subject and empathy with the people he is describing.