Ryszard Kapuscinski

Travels with Herodotus

Source: Ryszard Kapuściński (trans. Klara Glowczewska), Travels with Herodotus (Lonson: Allen Lane, 2007 [orig. pub. Podróże z Herodotem, 2004]), pp. 241-243

Text: Theatrical performances abound in the streets and squares. African theater is not as formalistic as the European. A group of people can gather someplace extemporaneously and perform an impromptu play. There is no text, everything is the product of the moment, of the passing mood, of spontaneous imagination. The subject can be anything: the police catching a gang of thieves, merchants fighting to keep the city from taking away their marketplace. wives competing among themselves for their husband, who is in love with some other woman. The subject matter must be simple. the language comprehensible to all.

Someone has an idea and volunteers to be director. He assigns roles and the play begins. If this is a street, a square, or a courtyard, a crowd of passersby soon gathers. People laugh during the performance, offer running commentary, applaud. If the action unfolds in an interesting way, the audience will stand there attentively despite the punishing sun: if the play does not jell, and the ad hoc troupe proves unable to communicate and move the action forward effectively, the performance is soon over and the spectators and actors disperse, making way for others who may have better luck.

Sometimes I see the actors interrupt their dialogue and begin a ritual dance, with the entire audience joining in. It can be a cheerful and joyous dance, or the opposite—with the dancers serious, focused, and collective participation in the common rhythm an evidently profound experience for them, something meaningful touching their core. But then the dancing ends, the actors return to their spoken parts, and the spectators, for a moment still as if entranced, laugh once again, happy and amused.

Street theater includes not just dance. Its other important, even inseparable element is the mask. The actors sometimes perform in masks, or, because it is difficult in this heat to wear one for long, simply hold them near—in their hands, under their arms, even strapped to their backs. The mask is a symbol. a construct full of emotion and resonance that speaks of the existence of some other universe, whose sign, stamp, or presence it is. It communicates something to us, warns us about someone; seemingly lifeless and motionless, it attempts by means of its appearance to arouse our feelings, put us under its spell.

Borrowing from various museums, Senghor collected thousands upon thousands of such masks. When seen in the aggregate, they evoke a separate, mysterious world. Walking through that collection was a singular experience. One began to understand how masks acquired such power over people, how they could hypnotize, overwhelm, or lead people into ecstasy. It became clear why the mask—and faith in its magical efficacy—united entire societies, enabled them to communicate across continents and oceans, gave them a sense of community and identity, constituted a form of tradition and collective memory.

Walking from one theatrical performance to another, from one exhibit of masks and sculptures to others, I had the sense of being witness to the rebirth of a great culture, to the awakening of its sense of distinctness, importance, and pride, the consciousness of its universal range. Here were not only masks from Mozambique and Congo, but also lanterns for macumba rituals from Rio de Janeiro, the escutcheons of the guardian deities of Haitian voodoo, and copies of the sarcophagi of Egyptian pharaohs.

Comments: Ryszard Kapuściński (1932-2007) was a Polish journalist and travel writer. Travels with Herodotus is an account of his early years as a journalist in India, China and Africa, interwoven with his reading of the Histories of Herodotus. The book includes an account of his visit to Senegal in 1966, when the president Léopold Senghor hosted a festival of worldwide black art in Dakar, the Premier Festival Mondial des Arts Negres.