Across The Dark Continent, Kazimierz Nowak (2019)

A mesmerising travelogue through 1930s Africa 

Sorus, 978-83-65419-66-8, £14.99, paperback 394pp

Translated: Ida Naruszewicz-Roger

In the late summer of 1936, Kazimierz Nowak arrived at an oasis settlement in French West Africa. By that time he has spent over a month dragging himself across the Sahara desert – often passing the rotting bodies of less fortunate travellers, human and camelid.

Nowak and bike outside the Polish Consulate in Cape Town

He booked into a luxury hotel – but, before his first night was up, decided that it was too noisy. Next he tried a hostel, but ‘recoiled’ when he saw how filthy were the rooms. So he took his trusty tent and pitched it on the edge of the village, all the better to fulminate about the malign influence of Europeans on ‘the dark continent’. 

It is an impulse that runs throughout this luminous account of a journey almost without precedent in its ambition.

A Pole, Nowak was born in 1897, and is usually associated with Poznan where he lived as a young adult. The aftermath of the First World War making a living was difficult, so Nowak cycled around Europe, financing himself, and the wife and children he left behind, with articles and photographs that he sold to Polish newspapers and magazines.

Two-wheeled departure for Africa in 1931 took his itinerant journalism to another level. It could not have been a more rackety enterprise. The continent was notionally carved up among the great European empires. In reality, beyond border posts and modest attempts at ‘rule’ over urban areas, much of Africa was beyond the reach of conventional law, social services or health provision. Nowak made his journey with almost no resources. Throughout, he slept on roadsides in his tent, he frequently ran out of money and relied on the kindness of strangers. He suffered significant medical emergencies that, on occasion,  laid him low for weeks.

A djembe player in Angola

Despite this, over five years, he pedalled from Tripoli, south through Sudan, Kenya and the Belgian Congo, to Rhodesia and South Africa, before turning north again through Angola, French Equatorial Africa, Nigeria and French West Africa.

He is an evocative writer. Here he is bedding down in Cyrenacia, then in Italian Libya. 

“The tent flapped in the breeze and my sleeping surroundings stirred my imagination. White crosses on the tombs of the fallen and the skeletons of the dromedaries and horses glowed white in the velvety  darkness. Hyenas milled around crunching bones in their powerful jaws, attracted to the lingering odour of the carrion. Ravens squabbled over the remnants of the prey, squawking balefully. Giant lizards rustled amidst the salty grasses, hunting for snakes, and I could hear the pounding hooves of fleeing gazelles in the distance. An owl hooted in the ruins of the fort as jackals, up on the hills, howled pitifully at the moon. The fire was dying down and fatigue was taking its toll. As my eyes closed, I immediately feel into a deep sleep.”

Fishermen in French Equatorial Africa

His perspective is unusual. He reports from the dusty roads rather than the luxury accommodation enjoyed by most western visitors to the continent. He is also not a product of one of the imperial powers. As a result, he feels no compunction in pointing out the glaring iniquities of colonialism.

“The whites in Africa have talked themselves into believing that they are a superior race and ought no to dishonour themselves with physical work. I frequently heard from the English that I brought shame to the white race by making my own tea and pitching my own tent. In their view, such tasks should be carried out by hired servants.”

Not only is Nowak’s travelogue compelling, his pictures deserve a book of their own (notwithstanding the many that illustrate this book). He takes receipt of a Contax (presumably a Contax I 35mm rangefinder), a few months into his journey, and would go on to take more than 10,000 exposures. He not only recorded his journey, but also augmented his finances by taking portraits of wealthy subjects along the way. He even created a make-shift darkroom in the back of a dug-out canoe in which he navigated a section of the Congo. Many of his pictures are what today would be called ‘selfies’, and show their author ‘in situ’. My guess would be that such pictures made articles easier to sell.

It is remarkable that Nowak made it back to Poland – arriving there in 1936. Tragically, however, he died within the the year, his body so ravaged by his travels that pneumonia quickly consumed him. Soon Poland was invaded, then at war, and then convulsed in reconstruction along Soviet principles. Nowak was all but forgotten. A book of his photographs was published by his daughter in 1962. Only in the late 1990s, however, did Lukaz Wierbicki start to compile material that Nowak had written – both published and in letters to his family.

These he complied to form Across The Dark Continent. Several editions have become necessary as additional material came to light. This English translation appeared in 2019, but it is clear that a greater trove of material exists – some already published in Polish, much yet to see the light of day.

These publications have encouraged a revival of interest in Nowak, particularly in Poland. There have been tribute rides, he has a commemorative plaque in Poznan and a foundation exists to promote his work. 

It is all well-merited. Nowak provides a unique view of a largely vanished world. His work deserves both dissemination and celebration.

TD May 20

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