Ryszard Kapuscinski

Master of 'literary reportage'


Ryszard Kapuscinski, journalist: born Pinsk, Poland 4 March 1932; married 1952 Alicja Mielczarek (one daughter); died Warsaw 23 January 2007.

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 Europe.

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.

Alex Duval Smith

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