Autor:Alex Duval Smith
Ryszard Kapuscinski, journalist: born Pinsk, Poland 4 March 1932;
married 1952 Alicja Mielczarek (one daughter); died Warsaw 23 January
The Polish reporter Ryszard Kapuscinski was the 20th century’s most
telling spokesman for the millions of ordinary people who are trapped in
the vagaries of authoritarian regimes.
He could have done it anywhere, but fate and the limited budgets of his
Polish employers took him, chiefly, to Africa. There, he told the story
of Haile Selassie through the anecdotes of a man at the palace gates
whose job was to wipe visitors’ shoes after meetings with the Ethiopian
emperor and his incontinent dog, Lulu. In Tanzania, political upheaval
was brought into perspective by a report from a village where all that
mattered to the peasants was the long wait for rain.
When Kapuscinski died on Tuesday, the Polish parliament honoured him
with a minute’s silence and the Speaker Marek Jurek praised him as “a
witness of human suffering and a witness of people’s hopes”. His
publisher, Marek Zakowski, said Kapuscinski was “a rare kind of great
personality who was always curious to learn more about the world. He was
curious to meet people.”
Born in 1932 in the sub-zero Third World of eastern Poland, Kapuscinski
spent his early years in Pinsk (now in Belarus) against a background of
women pounding corn, hod carriers slipping through mud and bearded
peasants wearing rags. He started smoking at the age of seven “because
of the hunger”.
During the Second World War, his teacher parents brought Ryszard and
his sister to Warsaw, where the family lived just outside the Ghetto and
Ryszard contributed to buying his own shoes with profits he made from
selling blocks of soap. He studied History at Warsaw University and,
after graduation in 1955, he joined the youth paper Sztandar Mlodych
(“Youth Standard”). “His gift, which was apparent from the start,” said
his Polish colleague Miroslaw Ikonowicz, “was his ability to listen.”
After the 1956 Budapest uprising, it became easier for Poles to travel
and Kapuscinski was sent on his first foreign assignment, to India,
Pakistan and Afghanistan. In 1957 he began more than 10 years with the
Polish press agency and, because his writing talent had been recognised,
he was a frequent contributor to the company’s small-circulation,
uncensored Special Bulletin.
It was the period when the Cold War gave birth to the Non-Aligned
Movement and African countries moved one by one towards independence.
Kapuscinski became an international reporter on a shoestring, running
out of money, being robbed, encountering Idi Amin, Che Guevara, a deadly
cobra, the Shah of Iran, tuberculosis, malaria, prison, TB and malaria
at the same time, missed flights, death sentences (four), sleeping telex
operators, coups, scorpions and almost certainly hundreds and hundreds
of punctured tyres.
From 1975, his articles were translated and compiled into more than 20
books, including Wojna futbolowa (1988, translated as The Soccer War,
1990), about the 1969 conflict between Honduras and El Salvador sparked
by football rivalry. Cesarz (1979; The Emperor, 1983), a biography of
Haile Selassie, was dramatised for the Royal Court in 1985, directed by
Jonathan Miller. Andrzej Wajda’s 1978 film Bez znieczulenia (Rough
Treatment), in which a foreign correspondent falls to pieces on his
return to Poland, was inspired by Kapuscinski.
When I met him in Warsaw in 2001, he was already a wise old man of the
reporting profession who rather resented the time he had to spend giving
lectures and writing forewords to other people’s books. A celebrity in
Poland, he was not uncomfortable with his fame but treated it with noble
humility and elegance. He and others, including his friend Gabriel
García Márquez, had found a name for his style – “literary reportage”.
He was tipped for the Nobel Prize.
His top-floor study, in a villa converted into flats, was what you
would expect of a writer – lots of books, a few keepsakes (and no
internet). On the floor, by the door, lay a pair of lapcie – shoes from
Pinsk made from strips of bark. “We wore these instead of leather
shoes,” he said. “They could be African.”
Kapuscinski was self-deprecating in his descriptions of life on the
ground in Africa – how, in 1963, he was treated in Tanzania for TB by a
doctor who had “one syringe for the whole hospital”. Given that he was
not going to be flown back to Warsaw by the Polish news agency, he was
treated locally. “Nothing creates a bond between people in Africa more
quickly than shared laughter,” he writes in Heban (1998; The Shadow of
the Sun, 2001), “for example, [laughter] at a white man jumping up
because of a little thing like an injection.”
In the Cold War era, when all the clever people were busy choosing
their political allegiances, he took sides with ordinary people for whom
the influences of the weather were much more important than any change
of regime in a faraway city. He was not really political but his
engagement with the lives of the masses in Africa, Asia and South
America was taken to reflect an allegory of Cold War life in Eastern
He wrongfooted intellectuals who would ask him brainy questions like
“Who do you read, who inspired you?” He would say Joseph Conrad, but
only because the author of Heart of Darkness was Polish. On other
occasions, Kapuscinski would answer more prosaically and truthfully that
he always went through a ton of cuttings before going out on a story.
He regretted the deluge of information delivered by the electronic age:
Television viewers are being manipulated and are unaware of it. In the
developed world of multi-media, we have too many fables, too much
make-believe. People are hungering for authenticity and an understanding
of the trends which affect their lives and those of others.
He wanted young journalists to deepen their cultural and anthropological knowledge:
In my early reportage, there was more description of landscapes and
cities. Now the reader already has the image – it is on television – so
the reportage journalist has to go beyond it. Getting to the core of a
culture takes hard work and time, not the three days in Rwanda or two
nights in Sierra Leone that most media organisations give their people. I
hate this trend. Kapuscinski’s obsession with putting the ordinary
under thorough scrutiny shone through every word he spoke or wrote.
Krzysztof Masion, a colleague on the newspaper Rzeczpospolita, said:
Kapuscinski showed us another world, incredibly poor, which, for many,
comes down to one shirt, one pan, a spoon and a mouthful of water.
Nearly two-thirds of humanity lives in this empty and silent world. He
reminded us – we who are always dissatisfied and insatiable – of what is
superfluous and secondary.