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Published:March 4th, 2007 08:20 EST
The Best Reporter In the World

The Best Reporter In the World

By Krzys Wasilewski

There are three authors whose books have guided generations through the changing world. The first is Alexis de Tocqueville, with his immortal Democracy in America. Although it`s been over two centuries since the noble Frenchman visited the then young republic, no better source on the American society has been written ever since. The second is Marcel Proust, whose decadent Europe of the 1920s, virtuously portrayed in In search of lost time, reminds that human nature does not change, regardless the epoch. Finally, there is Ryszard Kapuscinski, who has given his audience something unique " a glimpse into the world of a place unknown to most. Although he is the least known of all the mentioned, his works have given additional dimension to people`s understanding of contemporary Africa.

The first time I visited Africa was when I was only six years old. The cargo ship with corn, aboard which my father worked as a chief engineer, arrived in Egypt and later in Morocco. I don`t remember much from this journey, except for the smell of the exotic spices sold at the Cairo market, and the Moroccan soldier guarding the ship, who would stretch his small carpet on the dirty ground and pray, kneeling towards Mecca. I forgot about Africa, the moment the ship put to sea.  It wasn`t until 14 years later that I rediscovered this amazing continent. Not in the humid atmosphere of an Egyptian or Moroccan harbor though, but in the dense and shady room of an old second-hand bookshop. There, amid rows of covered with dust shelves " a cemetery of abandoned and decaying books " one particularly distinguished itself from this morose collection. It was an old, hardcover copy of The Shadow of the Sun, one of Kapuscinski`s first books on post-colonial Africa.

When, in 1957, Ghana became the first country of the black continent to gain independence from a European power, it was a matter of time when the rest of the colonies would follow the example. Therefore, three years later, 10 other countries won freedom while once unconquered empires of Great Britain, France, Belgium, and Portugal were falling apart like a house of cards. This extensive reshuffle on the political map attracted great attention from all the world media. Apart from rich and experienced news agencies from the United States or France, also smaller ones like Polish PAP and Russian ITAR-TASS wanted their piece of cake. Ryszard Kapuscinski was then an ambitious and talented journalist, in his late twenties and had never been abroad. Working as a reporter for a youth magazine, his travels within Poland were extensive, but neighboring socialist countries, let alone distant continents, remained in the sphere of dreams. It must have been quite a surprise when one day he was summoned to the editor`s office and appointed a position as the first and only Polish correspondent in Africa. Several days later, with his favorite book (Herodotus), few dollars in his wallet, and one borrowed bag, Kapuscinski was on the plane, on his way to a land free of cold and horror, " as the ancient Greeks described Africa.

The Shadow of the Sun is a colorful study on a continent learning the short course of democracy. People of the North. Have we sufficiently considered the fact that northerners constitute a distinct minority on our planet? " Kapuscinski asks at the beginning of his tale. It is 1958 and the young reporter is one of the few whites in Accra, the capital of Ghana, where political campaign had reached its apogee before the country`s first democratic elections. At one point, Kapuscinski follows an emotive mob of several thousands to a sports stadium where he witnesses a brilliant performance of the incumbent Prime Minister, Kwame Nkrumah. Four years later, Nkrumah became Ghana`s life president, dissolved all parties, except the ruling one, and led his country to the brink of bankruptcy. Nkrumah was one of many big men " whom Kapuscinski met during his post in Africa; Ghana was one of many countries whose decline the correspondent observed and reported. In the Congo (later Zair, presently the Democratic Republic of the Congo), he miraculously escaped death when the desperate Belgian occupiers arrested Kapuscinski with one more journalist, and sentenced them to death for treason against the state. The story was leaked to the French press and the both reporters were reluctantly released at the eleventh hour. Further north, in Algeria, the Polish correspondent made an interview with the country`s first president, Ahmed Ben Bella, only to report his overthrow several months later. Kapuscinski was also the first journalist to get through to floundered in revolution Zanzibar, but a quick intervention from the Soviet leadership stopped him short of sending a report to Warsaw; the Kremlin made sure it was the Russian ITAR-TASS to break the hot news first. 

Kapuscinski returned to the black continent in the 1970s, after a short episode in Latin America. As with his previous visit to Africa, also this time, he happened to be in the right place, at the right time. In 1974, Ethiopia " the only African country that successfully opposed European powers throughout the entire colonization period " saw its thousand-year old monarchy being wiped out by a military coup. The events surprised the ruling Emperor, Haile Selassie, so much that his Imperial Majesty " did not urge a word of protest when armed soldiers threw him in the dungeon of his palace where he was tortured and left to starve to death. 

The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat attempts to answer the question why from a stable monarchy Ethiopia turned into anarchy in a matter of few months. Kapuscinski does not put on the clothes of a historian; instead, he is a mere stenographer who writes down what Haile Selassie`s former servants decide to disclose to him. The witnesses vary from peasants who met the emperor only once in their lives to his personal servants (including those whose only job was to clean the monarch`s shoes, walk his dogs and clean after them, assist him with bathing, greet his guests " the list is endless) to the members of the military junta which took over power. Their stories are touching, sometimes funny, sometimes scary " but they always depicted the tragic reality of the hidebound regime. The Emperor is not only a tale of one corroded Ethiopian monarchy, in its deeper sense the novel is a universal tale about all regimes " whether Pol Pot`s Cambodia, Augusto Pinochet`s Chile, or the communist dictatorships in Central Europe " all of them were corrupted to bones, caused the death of millions of people, and left wounds which have yet to heal. 

Four years later, in 1982, Kapuscinski published Shah of Shahs. To some extent, the novel resembles The Emperor: the background and actors have changed, but the plot has remained almost untouched. Here, the reporter traces the roots of the 1979 Iranian revolution, which toppled the brutal dictator as well as American ally, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and installed the Islamic theocracy. The revolution rages on, shots can be heard all day long, the streets of Tehran are thronged with disorientated people, but Kapuscinski begins his novel by describing his hotel room. The greatest disorder reigns on a big, round table: photos of various formats, cassette tapes, amateur 8mm film, bulletins, photocopied leaflets " everything piled up and mixed up, like at a chaotic flea market, with no order or logic. " For an untrained eye it could be an egregious mistake " after all, who cares about a mess in a room while history is changing its course? However, this is Kapuscinski`s method to illustrate epic events contrasted with minor situations. He does not interview big men, " whose faces fill newspapers every day; he proves that the story begins not at the very top, but in ordinary people`s homes, in their daily routine, in their problems and hopes. A despaired passer-bye stopped on the pavement will tell you more than a number of eloquent politicians. 

Throughout his entire career, Kapuscinski remained faithful to the dictum that history is made on the streets. When Portugal colonizers were leaving Angola in panic, he stayed in a desolate hotel, being the sole white journalist reporting on the end of yet another empire. In 1969, he was on all fronts of the Soccer War fought between Honduras and El Salvador, fearlessly interviewing soldiers and peasants to the accompaniment of whizzing bullets. Closer to his native Poland, in Russia, Kapuscinski traveled across the Soviet Union at the time of its collapse to find out what ordinary Russians, Georgians, Armenians, or Lithuanians thought of the developing situation. 

Kapuscinski`s last book, The Stranger (published only in Polish), was his last will and testament. He warned that Europeans should give up the old dreams of their superior status since other regions with different sets of values were becoming the world leaders. Herodotus wasn`t afraid of meeting strangers, " Kapuscinski states to his favorite writer, so neither should we. "

Ryszard Kapuscinski was born on March 4, 1932, in Pinsk, Poland. His father was a colonel in the Polish Army during World War II and narrowly escaped the fate of other Polish officers who were executed on Stalin`s order. After the war, Kapuscinski began history studies at Warsaw University, simultaneously working for a youth magazine. For almost 30 years, he was a member of the Polish Communist Party, which he left in 1983, when the military junta introduced martial law and outlawed the Solidarity Movement. During his reporting career, Kapuscinski traveled to India, China, Africa and Latin America. Most of his 27 books have been translated into other languages with his articles appearing in The New Yorker, The New York Times, French Le Monde, Spanish El Pais and German Der Spiegel -- to name only the most distinguished titles. Claus Christian Malzahn of Der Spiegel called Kapuscinski the best reporter in the world, " whose workplace was the entire world. "

Despite seeing powerful dictators toppled down and wars declared for a lost soccer game, Kapuscinski never lost his sense of humor. When asked what he liked the most about his work, he replied, I could not only go wherever I wanted, but it was my job to go wherever I wanted: if there was trouble, I was meant to be there to see it. "

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