Extract from an obituary in the Guardian, 2007:
For Ryszard Kapuscinski, who has died aged 74, journalism was a mission, not a career, and he spent much of his life, happily, in uncomfortable and obscure places, many of them in Africa, trying to convey their essence to a continent far away.
Kapuscinksi described his own work as “literary reportage”. And, although he was personally a modest man, he believed in its importance for understanding the world. “Without trying to enter other ways of looking, perceiving, describing, we won’t understand anything of the world.” The European mind, he believed, was often too lazy to make the intellectual effort to see and understand the real world, dominated by the complex problems of poverty, and far away from the manipulated world of television. The value of news in his day, he said, had nothing to do with profits, but was the stuff of political struggle, and the search for truth.
I said I would tell you about Polish News reporter called Ryszard Kapuscinski.
I first heard of Kapuscinski, when I was looking around the Classics Department at a previous school for a book to read and the then Head of Classics recommended a book recently written called “Travels with Herodotus”. I looked inside the cover and it described its author as having won a prize for being the “Polish Travel Writer of the 20th Century” – which I took to be a pretty good recommendation. It was indeed an amazing book, his last in fact, all about his travels around the Eastern Mediterranean basin with a copy of Herodotus under his arm. Herodotus had been his hero – someone who had written history as literature, but who was essentially, in our parlance, a very modern day reporter; Kapuscinski was his 20th century heir as a travel writer par excellence. The genius of the book, which entwines Kapuscinski’s own travels with extracts from the experiences of Herodotus, was to show just how similar ordinary people’s attitudes were two and a half thousand years ago to what they are now.
Kapuscinski became the first ever foreign correspondent for the Polish News Agency back in the 1960s and for the next 40 years he spent his life travelling the world and reporting on its wonder. He specialised in Africa, but also wrote books on Iran, the Soviet empire, and on South America. According to some reports, he lived through twenty-seven revolutions and coups, was jailed forty times, and survived four death sentences. He lived very much by the day, and he took every possible opportunity as it arose. One of my favourite books of his is called “The Soccer Wars”. In 1969, Kapusckinski was in South America when he received a call from a friend of his who told him that there was almost certainly about to be a war in Honduras. Honduras and El Salvador, neighbouring and rival countries, had drawn each other in a best of 3 match playoff to decide who would go through to the 1970 World Cup Finals. For the first leg in Honduras, the El Salvadorian players’ hotel was surrounded all night by Honduran fans, throwing stones at windows, setting off firecrackers, hooting horns, all in an attempt to allow the players no sleep at all before the game. Honduras, aided no doubt by their fans’ antics, won 1-0. It was, however, a tragic win; back in El Salvador an 18 year old girl, watching the game on television, and witnessing the last minute winner, found her father’s pistol in a desk drawer and shot herself. Nationalistic fervour went through the roof, a cause celebre had been created and a foreboding scene was set for the second leg. There were similar scenes outside the Honduran hotel this time, and on the day of the game the players were taken to the match in armoured cars. In a heavily armed stadium, and under a burning Honduran flag, El Salvador won their home leg 3-0. Within days, and before the third and final leg could take place on neutral territory, the El Salvadorian army had invaded Honduras. Kapuscinski’s friend had been correct, and Kapuscinski, having seized his opportunity, was on site already, and being driven out to the military frontline to report on the war. He tells a remarkable story from the front of being forced off the road by a roadside bomb into the undergrowth, where he rapidly got lost in the middle of the battle. Crawling along the ground under a hail of bullets, he almost literally bumped into a soldier. It was hard to tell which side the soldier was fighting for, and Kapuscinski’s life rested on the answer, but happily he was friendly and the soldier agreed to help him back to safety. However, as they started their escape his saviour was distracted by the boots of the dead lying on the battlefield. The soldier was barefoot himself, and he explained to Kapuscinski that his family, all of whom were peasant farmers, owned no shoes either; so there was a seemingly interminable delay while he scooted off, in the middle of the crossfire of battle, to collect as many boots as he could carry before finally leading Kapuscinski to safety.
Kapuscinski’s stories are many and varied; and for the most part they tell of ordinary people in extraordinary places and situations. Sitting in England reading them makes one realise just how enormous and wonderful the world is. When Kapuscinski died in 2007, I was genuinely saddened. JD Salinger wrote in his most famous book, Catcher in the Rye,
“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.”
Well, with Kapuscinski, it did. Having read all of his books, I harboured this thought that one day I just might meet him and ask him about all of his adventures. His loss to the world was a great one; but he survives in his books, and I recommend them to you wholeheartedly.