Solidarities Across Borders

Reporting the Third World

Touted by John Le Carré as ‘the conjuror extraordinary of modern reportage,’ and by Gabriel García Márquez as ‘the true master of journalism,’ Ryszard Kapuściński was the first Africa correspondent from socialist Poland. He was seen as Poland’s most celebrated foreign correspondent working primarily for the Polish Press Agency. Between 1951 and 1980, he embarked on a tricontinental journalistic career, covering more than twenty-seven revolutions and coups in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the Middle East. The accounts of this memorable tricontinental career are present throughout his published works, but most vividly recorded in The Soccer War (1978) and The Shadow of the Sun (1998). What is remarkable about Kapuściński’s work is not only the dizzying range of locales, actors, and events he experiences and encounters firsthand, but his method and his craft.

In an interview with Scott Malcolmson in 1991 for the Paris Review, he states that he started covering the decolonisation struggles in Africa and Asia in the 1950s because he was always fascinated with ‘history-making’ – not only as a process of recording events but especially as a craft. Travels With Herodotus (2007) is arguably Kapuściński’s most direct exposition of his own method via a reading of the ancient Greek historian Herodotus’ Histories: it was his reading of Histories during his first travels outside of Poland in the 1950s that helped him develop a method of reportage. His encounter with Herodotus allowed Kapuściński to hone in on the difference between what he does (reportage), and what others do (journalism). What might this difference suggest about the ethics of bearing witness to violence, to revolution, to devastating political upheavals through reportage?

In the 1991 interview with Paris Review, Kapuściński confesses that his interest in the Third World was sparked because he came from a very poor part of Europe, so his own experience of poverty made him feel at home in the places he visited as a reporter. Imperium (1993), the book documenting the author’s travels throughout the Soviet Union in the 1960s during its disintegration and after its collapse between 1989 and 1991, opens with a chapter on Kapuściński’s own experience as a child in Pińsk, the Polish town bordering Belarus. His childhood memories of the 1939 post-Soviet occupation of Pińsk paint a very grim picture and add a sense of ambiguity to his relationship to the Soviet Union (and to Eastern European communism) – an ambiguity that echoes throughout his work of Third World reportage. In the same interview he states that, while reporting on revolutionary struggles in the Third World, he felt he had to balance his need for authenticity in writing with the need to follow the line of the Communist Party that liberation always be presented in a perfect light.

Kapuściński saw reportage as depending primarily on others, namely on the ability of the reporter to forge relations with the people one encounters, and thus it is ‘the form of writing most reliant on the collective.’ Then, there is the thorny issue of ‘the fact’ of reportage: what is a fact? Kapuściński stated that contrary to the myth of objective facts espoused by journalism, he understood facts as a multiplicity of elements: gossip, climate, atmosphere of the place, the reporter’s own feelings. According to Kapuściński, all these are facts in the sense of being building blocks that construct a slice of time and space, produce an atmosphere, an evocative narrative of a system, a mentality, or a specific way of seeing.

The question of the ‘fact’ of reportage is even more poignant with Kapuściński given the amount of ink that has been spilled on the controversies around his fabrication of certain ‘facts’ in his writings. If Kapuściński had claimed nothing less than writing fictional narratives, there would be little controversy around his books. But he repeated many times: ‘I am not a fiction writer [because I have no imagination].’ He argues in Travels with Herodotus that the past ‘as it really was’ is irretrievable: “The past does not exist. There are only infinite renderings of it.” This kind of statement brings into focus the question of the responsibility of the reporter: whereas the artist can and does embellish history with imagined events and actors, should the reporter resort to this same stylistic device?

American journalist and historian Adam Hochschild delivers a passionate defense of Kapuściński’s method, calling it ‘magical journalism,’ and stating that his writing is allegorical and was intended to transcend the rigours of Polish communist censorship at the time. Hochschild argues that it does not matter whether said people or circumstances literally existed or if Kapuściński made them up, what emerges from Kapuściński’s writing are evocative, even haunting, portraits of autocracy, of resistance, of survival, of simple but transcendental humanity.

However, even great admirers of Kapuścińskis prose, such as Salman Rushdie, took issue with the reporter’s changing of certain ‘facts’. In his critically acclaimed narrative of Haile Selassie’s last years in power, The Emperor (1978), Selassie’s death is recorded in the book as having occurred ‘naturally’ with the Ethiopian emperor dying in his sleep (in reality, Selassie was assassinated by Derg military officers). The following question then emerges: why did Kapuściński not simply stick to the facts? Here perhaps is where he saw the difference between journalism and reportage; the latter seeks to evoke an atmosphere, an impressionistic portrait of not only an event or an actor, but of a period, a mood, or a time.

In keeping with that pursuit, The Soccer War (1978) takes the reader through three continents convulsed by anticolonial and anti-imperialist struggles, by military coups and wars, from Nkrumah’s passionate public speeches in Accra to the 1965 coup against Ben Bella in Algiers to the aftermath of Lumumba’s assassination in the Congo, and the war between El Salvador and Honduras depicted as a soccer war – it is a Third Worldist tour de force. There is a palpable Third Worldist zeitgeist that permeates the book, with its anti-imperialist ethos, its solidarity with anticolonial struggles, and its fascination both with leaders (Nkrumah, Lumumba, Ben Bella, Sekou Touré and Nasser, among others) and with ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances. Reading The Soccer War in 2024 one can understand why contemporary writers and reporters like Andre Vltchek mourn the death of investigative journalism and state that with the passing of journalists like Kapuściński, Wilfred Burchett, and John Pilger we have also lost ‘great assets, great potential guns and ammunition in the fight against imperialism and neo-colonialism.’

But encountering the (colonized or oppressed) other in compassion and solidarity is a messy process, and while Kapuściński is revered for his literary Third World reportage, he has also been eviscerated for what Aleksandar Hemon (writing for The Village Voice) called the ‘proto-racist essentialism’ that emerges in The Shadow of the Sun (1998). Written 20 years after The Soccer War, although covering the same period but in retrospect, The Shadow of the Sun does have a qualitatively different feeling to it, more cynical and less effusive in its encounter with African decolonisation.

Had the demise of the Third World project and the collapse of the communist world cast a different shadow on Kapuściński’s Third Worldist ethos? Perhaps this shifting disposition can be understood through Kapuściński’s own comment on the reportage method of Herodotus: ‘the cultures of others are a mirror in which we can examine ourselves in order to understand ourselves better.’ What kind of reflection does the mirror of decolonisation and its aftermath throw on our contemporary present of unrelenting imperial violence, dehumanisation of the other, and genocide?

In an interview with Jon Stewart for his Daily Show, CNN chief international anchor Christiane Amanpour claimed recently that there are no journalists ‘on the ground’ in Gaza. When Stewart retorted that there are in fact journalists in Gaza, but ‘they’re being killed,’ Amanpour corrected herself: ‘I’m talking about independent, western journalists who are not able to get there, or anybody else, except for those people who are absolutely risking their lives every single day.’ Steven Thrasher’s analysis of this CNN interview brings to the fore a number of thorny issues: including the myth of journalistic independence and the continued dehumanisation of local embedded journalists whose views and reporting continues to be dismissed. The latter happens because local journalists are seen as lacking the required patina of the well-traveled reporter, which presumably makes a journalist both credible and well-informed.

Some of the criticism of Kapuściński’s reportage mentions that as a white male reporter he had the privilege of access to spaces and voices that many others would not have had (a fact Kapuściński himself mentions repeatedly throughout his writings). And yet, the many journalists in Gaza, who risk their lives (and those of their families) every day to document live the genocide of their own people, are seen as too painfully confined by their own location to produce ‘independent’ reporting. Thrasher offers this insight: it is their so-called ‘lack’ of independence, namely their first-hand witnessing of unspeakable horrors, their personal experience of famine and starvation and of watching their own families being massacred and yet continuing to report ‘on the ground,’ that makes their voices a gift to all of us and that should also prompt us to re-think if there is such a thing as independent journalism.

What, then, makes journalists ‘independent’? In some ways, Kapuściński had the privilege of engaging in literary reportage because he could afford to maintain a certain emotional distance from the horrors he was documenting – the Gazan reporters could never afford such privilege. This does not make Kapuściński’s writing less valuable, but its method and craft do raise questions about the privilege, location, and voice of the one engaging in reportage – and the facts they choose to present.

Feature image: Kapuściński commemorative plaque in Warsaw [cut to size]. Adrian Grycuk.

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