Do widzenia, Kapuscinski

Autor:John Matshikiza

I was lurking around the lobby of the famous old Hotel Kempinski in
Berlin, hoping to catch a glimpse of the famous writer and journalist
Ryszard Kapuscinski and approach him for an interview. I had told the
organisers of the Berlin-based Lettres Internationale prizegiving we
were attending (this is about three years ago) that this was the hook
for me in flying all the way from Johannesburg, gratified as I was by
the invitation they had extended to me to be part of the event. The
chance of meeting one of my great living heroes, who was to deliver the
keynote address, had clinched it for me.

But trust no one. While the hosts of the event had promised me that the
meeting would be arranged, I nevertheless spent all my time scanning
the various public parts of the hotel — the breakfast room, the lobby,
the reception desk — in case the busy organisers let him slip through
their fingers.

The bell hops — Turks, Albanians, Lebanese and one or two Germans who
were prepared to take menial employment — were looking at me
suspiciously. After all, I was behaving suspiciously, jumping nervously
out of the plush leather seat in the lobby every time the lift door
opened with a discreet clang and scanning the faces of everyone who
stepped out.

Not that I really knew what he looked like. He is too modest to have
his face on the back covers of his many books. But someone had told me
the night before that he was an unremarkable looking, shortish, roundish
guy with glasses. The bellhops became even more suspicious when I hung
around a man fitting that description who was in animated conversation
with a friend at the reception desk, hoping to catch his attention. The
man ignored me. I finally decided this was not Kapuscinski after all
(Kapuscinski would never be so discourteous as to ignore me) and
continued my lobby patrol.

The night before, in the same lobby, someone I had been talking to whispered, “Hey, look who’s there!”

I swung my neck around. But it was only Nana Mouskouri, Greek pop
nightingale of the 1970s. I didn’t rush over for an autograph.

Then one of the young hostesses of the event came up to me and said,
“Excuse me, sir, Mr Kapuscinski is just finishing another interview, and
then he can see you.”

So there I was, sitting opposite the man at last in those plush, hushed
leather seats. He had a gentle smile on his face that never went away,
whatever we were talking about: genocide in Rwanda, Africa’s amusing
vagaries, the war in Iraq, whatever.

Where do you begin to ask questions when you’re sitting with such a
man? I had first come across his work almost 30 years before, when I
read The Emperor, his remarkable account of the last days of Haile
Selassie of Ethiopia. I later read his account of the downfall of the
Shah of Iran and, much later, Another Day of Life, recounting a critical
time in the Angolan civil war, The Soccer War, set largely in Latin
America, and, grandest of all, The Shadow of the Sun, a meditation on
about 40 years of covering the African continent for the Polish news

All these books were immensely readable, informative and amusing in
their detailed descriptions of people, places and events — almost like
reading a novel, except that the events he was describing really

One of the questions I eventually did manage to ask him was how he was
able to achieve this. How did he make it all so real for the reader?
“Authenticity of experience has a more powerful impact,” he replied. “A
culture steeped in the traditions of fiction has a strong hunger for
authenticity.” Rather than on-the-nose, factual journalism, I took him
to mean.

The authenticity of Kapuscinski’s experience, and his ability to share
it with us in his 20 or more books about his travels around the Third
World, is quite awe-inspiring. You can’t imagine him being one of those
flak-jacketed, Ray-Banned, “Anyone here been raped and speak English?”
journos. As he tells me: “If you want to know the other, you have to go
to him.”

Empathy with “the other” is what gave all his writings the edge. An
English colleague once grew quite hot with me for putting Kapuscinski’s
style of journalism far above the crass conclusions of most Western
coverage of the African continent. “Ah, but he had all the resources of a
state press agency under communism,” he said to me. “We don’t have

On the contrary. Poland’s press agency was far from wealthy, and was
not about to throw any superfluous resources Kapuscinski’s way. He
travelled through Africa mostly as the ordinary people did, on rickety
buses, on crowded passenger trains, in taxis that had lost all hope of
ever again knowing what a shock absorber was. That’s the way he loved

So the experience of a man like this is not to be sneezed at. That, and
the fact that he is never condescending towards his subject — a white
man who is prepared to understand Africa rather than tell Africa and the
world what Africa is.

So we sat in those heavy seats in the lobby of the Hotel Kempinski and
talked for longer than the time allotted to us. So many interesting
observations about the world and its ways from a man who took the time
to take in so much of it, with such care and compassion. It’s amazing to
think that he is gone.

Polish journalist and writer Ryszard Kapuscinski died on January 23 2007 at the age of 74

Do widzenia is goodbye in Polish

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