Ryszard Kapuscinscki: A matter of life and deadlines

Why does Ryszard Kapuscinscki, the king of reporters, understand the Third World? Because he was brought up in it.
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The Independent Culture

At first, Ryszard Kapuscinski's top-floor study in Warsaw looks like a generic author's work-room: books on every wall and table, magazines stacked neatly on the floor. There are no clues to his personality or to the source of his empathy for simple folk ­ until you spot the pair of ragged old lapcie standing by the door. Lapcie (pronounced "wap-say") are shoes made from woven strips of bark.

"It was very marshy where I grew up, in Pinsk," he explains, "and people were really poor. We wore these instead of leather shoes... They could be African." He reaches high into a bookcase. "This was my childhood," he says, turning the black-and-white pages of a pictorial odyssey of Eastern European misery: bearded peasants wearing rags, muddy roads, ramshackle homes and someone pounding corn. "It could be Africa," he muses.

In the near-half-century since Kapuscinski first set foot in Africa, he has evolved into the most accomplished and travelled journalist of his generation. His coverage of what he calls "my Third World", known outside Poland through 20 books, is unanimously admired by the profession, especially by those of us ­ photographers and reporters ­ who try to understand Africa, Asia or South America and explain it to a world occupied at its PlayStations.

For The Shadow of the Sun: my African life (translated by Klara Glowczewska; Allen Lane, £18.99), Kapuscinski has dug up his old notebooks and articles and revisited Ghana after independence; the racialism the British left behind in Tanganyika (Tanzania); a 1966 coup in Nigeria; Charles Taylor's conquest of Liberia; and despotic personalities such as Idi Amin and Mengistu Haile Mariam. In snippets evocative to anyone who has travelled in Africa or tried to meet Western deadlines from a continent with its own, unique sense of time, he writes about an encounter with a cobra, a cramped train journey from Senegal to Mali, the mirage he saw after he hitch-hiked with a lorry that broke down in the Mauritanian desert.

The book gives a voice to Africa's peasants in rags ­ communities that pound corn outside their ramshackle homes, much more interested in the weather than politics. After all, the weather can change your life for ever. A rainstorm that makes your road impassably muddy can cut you off from the market and force you to leave your ancestral home. A military coup ­ to which journalists flock ­ is just a change of characters in a faraway capital.

Kapuscinski, a history graduate who started in journalism at the age of 18, says the media is increasingly failing to explain what matters about Africa and the Third World. "Journalists like covering hunger stories because they are localised, simple and we can always send some rice," he says. "But hunger comes from poverty ­ which is a much bigger issue and demands real reflection and sacrifices."

Kapuscinski describes his genre as "literary reportage" and, these days, spends several weeks a year lecturing in Mexico with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Both of them believe that reportage is more important now than ever. "Television viewers are being manipulated, and are unaware of it," he says. "In the electronic age, we are receiving a lot of information and impressions, but no explanations. In the developed world of multimedia, we have too many fables, too much make-believe. In reality, people are hungering for authenticity and an understanding of the trends which affect their lives and those of others.

"Journalists must deepen their anthropological and cultural knowledge and explain the context of events. They must read," he says, sweeping his arm regally through the air to indicate his own landscape of research ­ a dense collection of books covering three continents, as well as maps and magazines, but no internet. In a few gaps on the walls, some souvenirs, all suitcase-sized, have found a home. There are masks, a harpoon spear from the Niger river, and an empty Dutch rum bottle, once traded for slaves.

Kapuscinski believes journalists have the responsibility to be spokespeople for those they portray. "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. The media magnates are increasingly, dangerously, marginalising the Third World, removing it from our field of understanding and making it out to be a place of disquieting fighting and horror, as against our own virtual pseudo-reality of consumerism."

In Kapuscinski's own life, there has been little room for make-believe. The son of teachers, he started smoking aged seven "because of the hunger" in Pinsk. Like many African places, his community was sliced by the pen and ruler of a faceless mapmaker ­ Pinsk ended up in the Soviet Union after 1945. His parents escaped Stalin's population transports only by fleeing with their son and daughter to Warsaw.

But the now-successful writer, grey-haired, bald and a little portly, admits history dealt him a lucky card. "After the Budapest uprising in 1956, we Poles were allowed to travel. That was also when the Third World's liberation movement started in Asia. In 1956, at 25, I made my first foreign trip, to India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Third World became my field, with only one interruption, in the mid-1980s, when the start of perestroika forced me to take a break and write Imperium, about the Soviet Union."

The Shadow of the Sun is the first in a trilogy of Kapuscinski's continents. Now he is working on South America; later he will do Asia. "These days," he says, "I lead a strange triple life. There is my time at home, which is spent on administration, writing recommendations for scholarships and trying to find time for my own work. Then there is the travelling ­ I made 34 foreign trips last year ­ to launch books and lecture... I am invited to stay in five-star hotels; one of them recently was charging $350 a night. Or I could be in South America with Indians at high altitude who never wash because it is too cold to undress."

In that world Kapuscinski is happiest, metaphorically strapped into his lapcie, and drawing well-water at daybreak with people for whom distance is measured in terms of "far", "not too far", "very far" or "depends on the weather". It is a world in which the only consistent measure of time is the length of your shadow, where only Westerners read maps, and where the unpredictability of everything is all you can be sure of.

"The greatest barrier to Europeans understanding Africans is the laziness of the European mind," he argues. "To liberate ourselves from thinking we create stereotypes. But... there are differences. You can explain everything historically because every culture is deeply logical. I witnessed independence in Tanganyika [Tanzania] and Nigeria. When African ministers took over the residences of the whites, fully equipped with kitchens, pools and other luxury, they still cooked in the garden and invited everyone over. That was simply their way of life.

"Tribalism is similar. It is a disaster of contemporary African political life. Yet the tribe, traditionally, was a wonderful thing. It provided safety to communities obliged by the forces of nature to move on. Africa has always been a continent on the move," he concludes. "People there understand that you cannot fight nature; you just have to avoid it. Europeans have been able to harness and profit from their nature. In most of Africa, nature is so violent that it is an eternal enemy. These are the things which shape people."