Africa was my youth, said Polish reporter Ryszard Kapuscinski who has died at
the age of 74. The Guardian's obituary is by Victoria Brittain.
or 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. No one was more surprised than him when, in his mid-40s, he suddenly became extremely successful, with his books translated into 30 languages. He won literary prizes in Germany, France, Canada, Italy, the US, and was made journalist of the century in Poland.
apuscinski was born in Pinsk, now in Belarus, and in 1945 was taken to Poland by his mother, searching for his soldier father. War as the norm for life was deep in his young psyche after those early years of ceaseless hunger, cold, sudden deaths, noise and terror, with no shoes, no home, no books in school.
Decades later he wrote: "We who went through the war know how difficult it is to convey the truth about it to those for whom that experience is, happily, unfamiliar. We know how language fails us, how often we feel helpless, how the experience is, finally, incommunicable."
After university in Warsaw, where he studied history, he found his metier as a 23-year-old trainee journalist on a youth journal. A story exposing mismanagement and drunkenness in a showcase steel factory set off a political firestorm that sent him into hiding. He was vindicated and sent abroad as a treat, to India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, the first Polish journalist to have that opportunity. Later he moved to the Polish News Agency (PAP), and stayed there until 1981.
In 1957 he went to Africa, and returned there as often as possible over the next 40 years. He covered the whole continent, including 27 revolutions and coups, and was exhilarated by the feeling he was in at history in the making. He and his employers had no money, but he was a deal maker who often had the contacts to help other journalists who did have the money to hire planes, and thus both arrived at the scene of the latest drama. "Africa was my youth," he said later, describing how much the continent had meant to him.
In his early years as a journalist he developed the technique of two notebooks: one allowed him to earn his living with the bread and butter of agency reporting of facts, while the other was filled with the experiences he too modestly believed incommunicable, but which became his famous books, such as The Emperor (1978), on the fall of that extraordinary figure Haile Selassie of Ethiopia. It was his first book to be translated into English, and Jonathan Miller adapted it for the Royal Court Theatre in 1985.
Before The Emperor, he wrote perhaps his best book, Another Day of Life (1976), a unique and closely observed account of the collapse of Portuguese colonialism in Angola, which he described as "a very personal book, about being alone and lost". He was the only foreign journalist, and the only person from eastern Europe, in Luanda in the chaotic and fearful summer of 1975. As the Portuguese settlers piled their lives into boxes at the port, soldiers from apartheid South Africa, Zaire and Cuba moved towards the capital in front of or behind the competing Angolan armies, while shady men from the CIA and the Portuguese PIDE fed rumours of imminent triumph for one side or the other.
Amid the unbelievable stories, the heat, the hysteria, the only thread of certainty in Kapuscinski's days was the evening telex connection with Warsaw, when he would file a story he had concocted from the rumours and the crazy scenes on the street, ask about the weather at home, and complain about the food. He never got that Angola out of his mind, and when we met in London in 1986 he wanted mainly to talk about another book from that period, the Portuguese soldier Antonio Lobo Antunes's South of Nowhere, which he thought was wonderful.
Among his other books was Shah of Shahs (1982), on the last days of the Shah of Persia, and collections such as The Soccer War (1978), The Shadow of the Sun (1998) and, closer to home, Imperium (1993), essays and reportage on the Soviet Union, and five volumes of essays and poems, Lapidarium. A sixth was due to be published soon.
All his writing about developing countries came out of his lived experience there. It was the ring of authenticity that made him as popular among African and Latin American intellectuals as at home in Poland. They all recognised his portraits of the mechanism of dictatorial rule, as well as appreciating his ease and empathy with ordinary people's lives. The Polish film-maker Andrzej Wajda made him his model for the journalist in his film Rough Treatment (1978).
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 quiet and stability of Europe bored him, and in the last years of his life he spent a considerable amount of time lecturing in Mexico, often with his friend Gabriel García Márquez. He spoke always about the importance of reportage, and delivered stinging attacks on news as a commodity, and on the flying "special correspondents" who report on instant drama without context or follow up. He hated what he called the "metamorphosis of the media". 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.
He is survived by his wife Alicja and their daughter.
Jonathan Miller writes: It was a great privilege and very exciting to work with Ryszard Kapuscinski on his magnificent reportage on the last years of Haile Selassie put on at the Royal Court. He told us that he had had several previous requests to make a film set in Ethiopia; but he went on to make it quite clear that it was not really about Ethiopia but about Poland and language. As we rehearsed, it became immediately apparent from the text that he assigned to the various witnesses participating in what we turned into a play that this was an extraordinary representation of ornamental tyranny. I was delighted to discover that he approved of this almost abstract way of representing what he feared might otherwise have been a piece of exotic tourism. He was easy to work with, amiably helpful and, I think, the whole cast enjoyed his reassuring presence. But he was after all a peculiar genius with no modern equivalent, except possibly Kafka.
Adam Low writes: Ryszard Kapuscinski and I made a film together for BBC Arena in 1987. At the time he was writing about Idi Amin and had even drawn a diagram of Amin's brain, which was pinned on the wall of his small flat in Wola, a working-class district of Warsaw. He had acquired an almost celebrity status in Poland, where his books were read as thinly disguised commentaries on communist Poland. As a person Ryszard was extremely modest and self-effacing. He found the business of filming terribly frustrating ("I am not actor!"), and was so self-conscious in public that I was lucky to get one take before he literally disappeared. He had an inexhaustible number of stories about his experiences in Africa and South America, and a unique ability to focus on the telling object – the key he was given in Moscow to a flat in Azerbaijan, the egg he boiled daily in a kettle at the malaria clinic in Tanzania. He could be very funny, about the pomposity of British colonial officials in West Africa or the grandiosity of the Shah of Iran, and equally chilling about the bodies washed up in Lake Victoria during the final days of Amin.
As a child he had seen Polish partisans being tortured and executed by the Germans in the forests outside Warsaw, but his attitude to humanity was always positive and optimistic. He knew from personal experience that even the most seemingly impregnable dictatorship would eventually collapse.
· Ryszard Kapuscinski, journalist, born March 4 1932; died January 23 2007. This obituary first appeared in the Guardian on 25 January 2007.