“The European mind is willing to acknowledge its limitations, accept
its limitations. It is a sceptical mind. The spirit of criticism does
not exist in other cultures. They are proud, believing that what they
have is perfect.” — Ryszard Kapuscinski
“The greatest mind to bear upon Africa since Conrad.” — The Evening Standard on Ryszard Kapuscinski
I have tried, just once in my life, to be an Angry Black Man. I planned
a picket in New York City against a man I love to hate — Ryszard
Kapuscinski. He was going to speak at a conference organised by American
PEN. Nobody seemed to want to join me. There were better things to do
in New York, like drinking — I do not lie — a hibiscus juice and
chilli margarita. So I got drunk.
The next day, Chimamanda Adichie, a Nigerian writer, told me that she
would help me gatecrash the chichi party being held in the apartment of
Salman Rushdie’s friend, Diane von Furstenberg. Google had informed me
that Kapuscinski and Rushdie were friends.
We stood in the sad corner of the Von Furstenberg cathedral, with a
mournful-looking Eastern European writer. Kapuscinski was not there. A
DJ was playing Michael Jackson. We ate raw celery, raw carrot and raw
Soon, Chimamanda was spotted and whisked away by a warm and fruity
cloud of Important People in Publishing. I walked around, looking for
any cooked vegetable, any non-roughage. There was nothing. I drank a
martini. After a while, Chimamanda came out towards me and said: “Come,
now you can tell Rushdie about Kapuscinski.”
I stood in front of The Rushdie, somewhat nervously. Then, I asked him
why he had invited the racist writer Kapuscinski to come to the PEN
“Not Ryszard? Oh, Ryszard is not racist! He is a beeeewutiful soul!”
I quoted to him some Kapuscinski lines. Rushdie looked at me
compassionately, and said: “Those must have come from his older works.” I
was about to refute this, when he turned to his wife and forgot about
me. I headed for the bar to find a martini.
Since he died, Kapuscinski has been called “the master of modern
journalism”, “Translator of the World”, “the Greatest Reporter in the
World”, and “Third World chronicler”.
He is also the guy who came up with my all-time classic lines about
Africa: “Let us remember that fear of revenge is deeply rooted in the
“In Africa, drivers avoid travelling at night — darkness unnerves them, they may flatly refuse to drive after sunset.”
“Africans eat only once a day, in the evening.”
“In Africa, the notion of abstract evil — evil in and of itself — does not exist.”
“Africans believe that a mysterious energy circulates through the world.”
“… in Africa, a cousin on your mother’s side is more important than a husband.”
It was Kapuscinski, more than any other single writer, who inspired me
to write the satirical essay “How to Write about Africa”.
In his review of The Shadow of the Sun for the Times Literary
Supplement in 2001, John Ryle pointed out that serious omissions,
factual inaccuracies, obvious inventions and lies appear with great
consistency in much of Kapuscinski’s writing.
He concluded: “His writing about Africa is a variety of latter-day
literary colonialism, a kind of gonzo orientalism … conducted in the
name of humane concern, that sacrifices truth and accuracy, and
homogenises and misrepresents Africans even as it aspires to speak for
David Rieff, in a review of the same book, wrote: “One scarcely knows
where to begin. The level of generality — the white man, the bush, the
torment — is such that Kapuscinski’s assertion not only can’t be taken
seriously, it can barely be discussed … It is the kind of thinking …
that one associates with racist skinheads …”
Kapuscinski died anointed, in the M&G too, as a hero of Africa.
There are many fools like Kapuscinski wandering about. They don’t get
published. They do not become legends. The questions about him have more
to do with lingering superstitions about the continent held by editors
and foreign correspondent types, who built him up entranced by his
Polish-flavoured, left-leaning, Rider Haggard world of strange,
voiceless, dark peoples doing strange, voiceless, dark things.
Ecstatic fans said his distortions of reality were actually
“allegories” and “metaphors”. Those sharp eyes that saw deep allegory
became suddenly vague about the naked social Darwinism that underlies
all his work. When Kapuscinski was critical of the sloppy reporting of
the facts by “Western journalists”, when he repeatedly said his work was
reportage, based on facts, it was assumed that he was just being a
modest, Polish, authentic, left-leaning, beautiful-soul kinda guy.
Too modest to admit that his literary Africa was so amazing, it replaced the real thing in their eyes.