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Listening to the Heartbeat

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As a ‘stringer’ in Moscow in the early 1990s, I could not afford the army of fixers, translators and drivers of established correspondents. I spent hours in queues to obtain permits and tickets. I trudged home on dark, frozen nights, worrying about stories I was missing and longing for the resources of my big-name colleagues. What I didn’t then realize was that my impecunious status gained me a privileged view of the country from the ground up. After months in a blur, the Cyrillic fog cleared and I listened with pleasure to the gripes of passengers on train journeys across the steppe, sharing their sausage and lukewarm vodka. I laughed with Sergei, a retired KGB colonel, over the earthy Russian proverbs he taught me while we worked together on a newsletter. I was overwhelmed by the hospitality of Chechen families who sheltered and fed me when I covered the war in the North Caucasus. But except for the odd ‘colour’ piece, I failed to get the feel of the place into my news stories.

Ryszard Kapuscinski understood the pitfalls of news reporting perfectly. He eschewed any pretence of being a dashing correspondent and wrote of the strange drive that propelled him to dangerous, forgotten places, often lonely but without an ounce of self-pity. As the agency reporter for Polska Agencja Prasowa (PAP) covering the entire African continent, Kapuscinski witnessed the dramatic birth of the ‘developing world’. He was a most unlikely witness, a Pole from a small town swallowed up by the Soviet Union who walked a tightrope when it came to surviving as a journalist. He went on to report from Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and the former Soviet Union. Kapuscinski witnessed more than 27 coups and revolutions, befriended Che Guevara, once awoke from a malarial daze to find Idi Amin standing over his hospital bed and was four times threatened with execution.

Since his death in 2006, he has been called a fantasist and a communist spy, and respected anthrop

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As a ‘stringer’ in Moscow in the early 1990s, I could not afford the army of fixers, translators and drivers of established correspondents. I spent hours in queues to obtain permits and tickets. I trudged home on dark, frozen nights, worrying about stories I was missing and longing for the resources of my big-name colleagues. What I didn’t then realize was that my impecunious status gained me a privileged view of the country from the ground up. After months in a blur, the Cyrillic fog cleared and I listened with pleasure to the gripes of passengers on train journeys across the steppe, sharing their sausage and lukewarm vodka. I laughed with Sergei, a retired KGB colonel, over the earthy Russian proverbs he taught me while we worked together on a newsletter. I was overwhelmed by the hospitality of Chechen families who sheltered and fed me when I covered the war in the North Caucasus. But except for the odd ‘colour’ piece, I failed to get the feel of the place into my news stories.

Ryszard Kapuscinski understood the pitfalls of news reporting perfectly. He eschewed any pretence of being a dashing correspondent and wrote of the strange drive that propelled him to dangerous, forgotten places, often lonely but without an ounce of self-pity. As the agency reporter for Polska Agencja Prasowa (PAP) covering the entire African continent, Kapuscinski witnessed the dramatic birth of the ‘developing world’. He was a most unlikely witness, a Pole from a small town swallowed up by the Soviet Union who walked a tightrope when it came to surviving as a journalist. He went on to report from Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and the former Soviet Union. Kapuscinski witnessed more than 27 coups and revolutions, befriended Che Guevara, once awoke from a malarial daze to find Idi Amin standing over his hospital bed and was four times threatened with execution. Since his death in 2006, he has been called a fantasist and a communist spy, and respected anthropologists have accused him of factual errors. He has also been accused of racism for attempting to summarize an ‘African’ mindset; and, more recently, he has been tarred with the brush of collaboration in a McCarthy-style witch hunt led by the right-wing Polish government. But in his books, there is none of the familiar name-dropping bravado of correspondents’ memoirs, which date almost as quickly as their news pieces. Machine guns probably did answer the clatter of Kapuscinski’s typewriter on numerous occasions but this was just what he wished to escape in his books. He wanted to turn his back on the white noise of events and capture the human struggle as lived by the majority across the globe. His lean books, influenced by Gabriel García Márquez among others, say more about the dynamics of dictatorship and Third World poverty than a library full of earnest development journals and academic tomes, and all in vital, glittering prose. Kapuscinski did this by consciously ignoring dates and big names. He told one interviewer, ‘It’s not the story that is not getting expressed: it’s what surrounds the story. The climate, the atmosphere of the street, the feeling of the people, the gossip of the town, the smell; the thousand, thousand elements of reality that are part of the event you read about in 600 words in your morning paper.’ The Soccer War begins with Kapuscinski battling mosquitoes and solitude in a mangy hotel in Accra, drinking beer with a tubercular English carpenter and a Lebanese playboy washed up after Ghana’s independence in 1957. PAP has little foreign exchange so not for Kapuscinski the five-star, air-conditioned ghettoes where visitors, ‘despite finding themselves geographically in Africa . . . continue to live in Europe’. He describes an unbearable, cloying heat, battling to breathe the ‘wet cotton’ air, waking from an unsatisfying, whisky-induced sleep. From the hotel, he sets off to cover a demonstration against a recent article in Time, critical of Ghana’s new leader, Kwame Nkrumah. People are encouraged to ‘come and express your anger’. Kapuscinski has a moment of panic when the crowd thinks he might be a Time journalist. Ordinarily, such an event might make two short paragraphs in a newswire report. But from his hot, sweaty vantage point in the crowd, Kapuscinski weaves the tale of Nkrumah’s extraordinary path to power. He takes the reader through Nkrumah’s mission education, his scraping for a ticket to study in the US, working in the Chester shipyards, selling fish on the streets of Harlem and preaching on a Sunday when not studying or promoting his pan-African ideals. On his return to Ghana, he is unknown but he has learned the power of the street, unlike his Oxfordeducated contemporaries. ‘Those Oxford men want to travel the road of legality. But Kwame has read Lenin. Lenin guides him to the streets: Look, he says, there is power. Power? Kwame wonders. Crowded streets, the shouts of hawkers, children sleeping in the shade of doorways.’ Eventually the great man arrives at the demonstration. He tells an enraptured crowd that after Ghana’s hard-won independence comes the next task – economic reconstruction. The demonstration over, Kapuscinski bumps into a friend and asks why he didn’t attend. ‘“What did Kwame say about wages?” “He didn’t say anything,” I admit. “You see? Why should I have gone?”’ Kapuscinski was at pains to underline that, ‘except as a geographical appellation, Africa does not exist’. But he saw certain patterns develop during the struggle for independence and he witnessed how that dream too often ended in one-party rule and poverty. The Soccer War is a manifesto for what he once described as his ‘literature by foot’, writing of his own travails to grab the reader by the scruff of the neck and make him feel how people live and work. Critics pointed to Kapuscinski when the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina satirized the ‘Africa book’ in his wickedly funny essay ‘How to write about Africa’ (‘Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these’). But Kapuscinski’s run-down bars, shanty towns and clanking vehicles are the antithesis of Gap khaki Africa, as are the ordinary men and women – coping as refugees, harvesting a crop, arranging a marriage – who populate his books. What is extraordinary is their struggle to survive, against all the odds. How was Kapuscinski qualified to make his observations? He himself grew up as a subject of empire, for a short time under the Soviets, then the Nazis and then again under the Soviets. But like another Pole, Joseph Conrad, he chose to tackle the subject of empire and its inevitable corruption of governors and governed in Europe’s former tropical territories. In a short chapter in his book Imperium, there is a tantalizing glimpse of Kapuscinski’s childhood in Poland. As an 8-year-old, he watches in 1939 as Soviet troops destroy the church in his home town of Pinsk, Polish before the Second World War and now in Belarus. The classroom windows shake as the single artillery piece sets to work. Later, at the train station, he watches as anxious people with bundles are herded on to freight cars. His mother says they are deportees but she starts crying before she can explain further. His father is captured by the Soviets, escapes and appears briefly one night at the family home. Kapuscinski is bursting to tell him about learning the Russian alphabet at school but is told to go to sleep. The father is gone in the morning, and the next night the family is held up at gunpoint by Soviet troops demanding to know his father’s whereabouts. They are about to arrest his mother when his little sister attacks one of the soldiers, butting him in the stomach. The commander orders them to leave. Kapuscinski survives the war on a diet consisting largely of flour and water, his feet shod in bark. Later he told one interviewer that shoes had become an obsession. In the eponymous ‘soccer war’, Kapuscinski swoops into Honduras where he has been tipped off that a war is about to start with neighbouring El Salvador after ugly scenes at World Cup qualifying matches between the two countries. Kapuscinski captures perfectly the absurd causes of war and the motives of those who cover them when he accompanies a group of foreign correspondents who petulantly demand access to the front line. ‘Rodolfo Carillo of CBS said he had to catch a despondent commander sitting under a bush and weeping because he had lost his whole unit . . . One wanted to record the cries of a casualty summoning help, growing weaker and weaker . . . Naotake Mochida of Radio Japan wanted the bark of an artillery officer shouting to his commander over the roar of artillery – using a Japanese field telephone.’ Kapuscinski gets caught in an ambush and is pinned down, unsure as to who is ambushing whom. He bumps into a soldier hiding in the bushes and has a nervous moment working out which side he is on. The soldier turns out to be a Honduran who is delighted to be ‘ordered’ by Kapuscinski, waving a press pass, back from the front line. But before he retreats, the soldier stares at the feet of the dead strewn about him. ‘Look at all those shoes!’ he says. ‘All my family goes barefoot.’ Kapuscinski has to wait while the soldier hides the boots under a bush. ‘He had already calculated that he could trade one pair of army boots for three pairs of children’s shoes, and there were nine little ones back home.’ Many correspondents would have tried to ‘read’ the battle taking place. Kapuscinski, like Stendhal before him in The Charterhouse of Parma, knows that only confusion, fear and desperate thoughts of survival are paramount in the soldier’s mind, because he has lived through war himself. He has seen friends deported, he has been bombed and he has stood all night in line on a frozen street risking death because there is the rumour of a sweet ration. He has lived the poverty and violence of those on whom he reports and he holds them up as more worthy of scrutiny than a warlord or mercenary.
A person who has lived through a great war is different from someone who never lived through any war. They are two different species of human beings. They will never find a common language, because you cannot really describe the war, you cannot share it, you cannot tell someone: Here, take a little bit of my war. Everyone has to live out his own war to the end. War is the most brutal of things for a simple reason: it demands horrendous sacrifices.
Kapuscinski falls prey to disease on his travels, described in The Shadow of the Sun. One morning, he wakes in Dar es Salaam to find his pillow sticky with blood. An Irish doctor diagnoses tuberculosis, a disaster for the young reporter who has no money for a Western hospital but despairs of ever leaving Poland again if he is sent home for treatment. The doctor deliberates for a moment and then arranges for him to attend a clinic for penniless Tanzanians. The clinic is run by two paramedics, Edu and Abdullahi. ‘In the disturbed, paranoid world of racial inequality, in which everything is determined by the colour of one’s skin (calibrated by shades of difference), my illness, while physically incapacitating, had an unexpected benefit.’ He is seen and accepted by them on their own ground and his TB becomes a magic key which opens up Dar es Salaam to the reporter in a way unimaginable to the white communities living in downtown Oyster Bay. Kapuscinski’s writing shines with a delight in the humanity ranged around him – forever questioning, playing, moving, scheming, cooking, scolding – and a determination to see his fellow men and women as equals, whatever their circumstances. On one of his trips back to Poland, the editors try to ensnare Kapuscinski behind a desk. What follows in The Soccer War is a three-page diatribe: ‘Sometimes a man will get up from behind his desk to walk down and talk with you at the other end of his office, in a couple of armchairs or at a round table. Such a person knows what desks are and knows that a chat between people divided by one is like a discussion between a sergeant perched in the turret of a tank and a raw frightened recruit standing at attention and looking right into the barrel of the big gun.’ His travels sometimes came to a halt when his pieces went against the political creed of the day. But near the end of his life, he was declared Poland’s ‘Journalist of the century’. In a speech in 2003, Kapuscinski looked to the Greek historian Herodotus as his model for opening up the world to others:
Herodotus comes across as a man open and full of good will toward others, making contact with strangers easily, curious about the world, investigative, hungry for knowledge . . . His attitude and bearing show reporters what is essentially important to a reporter: respect for another man, his dignity and worth. He listens carefully to his heartbeat, and the way thoughts cross his mind.
The gently spoken writer could not have better summarized his own work.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 18 © Chris Bird 2008


About the contributor

Chris Bird was a foreign correspondent. He is now a junior doctor, dreaming of escape from the NHS labyrinth.

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