A few days ago, a citizen reporter wrote about the reporter and great
satirist Art Buchwald who died recently. I thought it appropriate to
follow up with a personal tribute to Ryszard Kapuscinski, a worldly
gentleman and great reporter who died Tuesday of a heart attack. He was a
man whose writings gave me a passion for travel, world affairs and the
thrill of “being there” where events happen.
In my early student days as an aspiring reporter, writer and “minor
scribbler,” I kept a copy of Kapuscinski’s classic book The Soccer War
in my Air France travel bag for companionship. It served me well as
inspiration during my travels.
In an effort to understand what was going on in Iran, in order to give
news context and enlighten myself, I read Shah of Shahs. Kapuscinski’s
account of the last ruler of the Pahlavi dynasty of Iran which helped me
understand how tyranny provides a fertile ground for revolution and
When I needed to know about the eccentric Ethiopian monarch Haile Selassie, I turned to The Emperor.
Kapuscinski, who came from behind the iron curtain, was a remarkable
reporter in the sense that he documented the last days of rotten
regimes. He was a prescient observer of things to come. At times he was
there for the final fall. As well, he was one of the first reporters and
correspondents to venture into conflict zones and parts of the world
that were off limits to many of his mainstream colleagues both in the
East and West. He covered, analyzed and described happenings few of us
would know about in detail today if he had not been there to relate
Born on March 4, 1932, Kapuscinski became, without doubt, one of
Poland’s most famed reporters. His international reputation is now
legendary. He was one of the only full-time “roving reporters” for the
Polish Press Agency; hence, its “world correspondent,” so to say.
In the 1960s, he traveled the world, mostly to the developing regions.
He covered wars, conflicts, uprisings and revolutions. He documented the
African independent movements, and much later the process of the
disintegration of the Soviet Empire (see his personal travelogue titled
Imperium). He approached his assignments through meticulous reading and
researching books on his subjects or the “target country.” His written
works are a unique literary genre, blending “literary journalism” with
visual and frequent historical references that “frame” the events within
a specific period.
Comparisons are seldom accurate, but at times they must be made.
Kapuscinski, in my view, is the Albert Londres of our time. Like
Londres, who saw the pernicious effects of colonization a century
earlier, Kapuscinski played witness to the slow and painful
decolonization process in Africa with a wry wit and a critical eye. He
was a marvelous storyteller. He was able to paint portraits of the
people he met with words. With enviable ease and charm, the intrepid
Polish journalist blended into the settings of his reportages by
immersing himself in the mundane lives of those around him, then
described the events as they happened to impact his subjects.
Also somewhat like Londres, Kapuscinski in his dispatches, essays and
articles decried and described the absurdity of absolute power in a
tragicomic manner through the use of vivid, colorful language and
Whether reporting from Russia or Africa or Latin America, Kapuscinski
in his own words said he wrote for “people everywhere still young enough
to be curious about the world.” His vivacity, brilliance and
inquisitiveness about the world is a memorable legacy for all reporters
— citizen or otherwise — to cherish.