Words of Wisdom from Ryszard Kapuscinski — second edition

Ryszard Kapuscinski  was a Polish foreign correspondent who claimed to have covered 27 revolutions and been sentenced to death four times; this may be an exaggeration, but not a very big one. He was a voracious, omnivorous reader and a good conversationalist. He also seemed to genuinely respect people and marvel at the diversity of their traditions, environments and points of view. Not in a sanctimonious sense but in an objective, humanist sense, he calls the developing world “my beloved Third World’ and its millions of inhabitants “my brothers and sisters in the sleepy village of San Juan in the province of Valdivia, the heat-crushed little towns of the Gobi desert and the polluted suburbs of Shiraz.”. He spoke at least five languages, and spoke out vociferously in his writing against racism, xenophobia, and blanket-judging other cultures. He was no saint, but you can see why he is someone I look up to as a journalist and a traveler.

What follows are extracts, some of them translated from French, from Kapuscinski’s books The Soccer War (a collection of dispatches from Africa and Latin America), Imperium (a collection from the former Soviet Union) and The Shadow of the Sun (Africa).

Other Kinds of Logic

‘Here, the border is not a line on a map but rather a school. The students form three groups; the first group is the angry group. These are the most unlucky, because everything around them becomes a source of fury, of foolishness, of frustration, irritation and suffering. Before they can even understand that they won’t change or even improve in the tiniest of ways the reality that surrounds them, they will end up victims of heart attacks or cerebral hemorrhages.

The second group is composed of those who observe the locals and imitate their behaviour  Deep down they adapt themselves to the existing reality and even draw a certain satisfaction from this. For them, there is a very simple rule, one that bears repeating , to themselves and others, every evening regardless of whatever horrors or ordeals the day has brought; “Enjoy this day, because no other one will be as good!’

And finally the third group. For them everything is curious, unusual, unbelievable; they ant to get to know, to analyze and explore this different and unknown world. These ones will manage to act with patience and remain distant, serene, composed and circumspect, without being haughty. ‘ Imperium (35)

In Europe, we have the habit of writing that desert folk are backward, even extremely so. It’s impossible to think that of people who have survived for millennia in the harshest of conditions, creating the most precious of cultures—for these cultures were practical, permitting entire tribes of people to grow and develop while over the same period many sedentary civilizations rose, fell and disappeared from the earth forever…who will the poor, sweating city slicker, with his Fiat with the overheated motor and his refrigerator that he hasn’t a clue where to plug in, go to for advice? Won’t he go look for the white-bearded Turkmen or the turbaned Tuareg? They know where the wells are; they know the secrets of salvation and survival. Their knowledge, alien to all scholarship and doctrine, is enormous, because it is at the service of life itself. (72)

The Somali owns nothing aside from his shirt and his gun. There is the Somali and there is his flock. His wife owns a tent, a teakettle and a pot. They do not accumulate any inanimate objects, which would only be a burden. …Their desires run in a direction contrary to the ideas and ambitions of people in the industrialized world. There people walk through life gathering a thousand things; the Somali discards everything at the side of the road as he walks. (W 250 )

The Westerner who lands in the Soviet universe will lose his footing as long as no one is there to explain to him that the world that surrounds him is not one single world, that he is far from being the most important person in it, that here there are a crowd of different realities weaving in and out of each other, getting tied in a monsrous inextricable knot , the essence of which rests on multiplicity: a bizarre confusion of completely contradictory logics at times mistakenly called “illogical” by those who don’t believe more than one logic exists. (247)

On journalism

Every hazardous passion is like this; it’s a Moloch that wants to devour you. *W 137)

Our job is like a baker’s work; the rolls are tasty as long as they’re fresh, after two days they’re stale, and after a week they’re covered with mold and have to be thrown out. (W 141)

The news almost always came from Moscow. Even if something was going on in Khabarovsk, it was commented on from Moscow. My journalist’s blood only pumped for one thing. I wanted to go to Khabarovsk, to see what was happening there with my own eyes. (95)

I was driving along a road where they say no white man can come back alive. I was driving to see if a white man could, because I have to experience everything for myself. I know that a man shudders in the forest when he passes close to a lion. I got close to a lion so that I would know how it feels. (W 130)

I continue walking around in circles, exhausted. Dying of thirst. There’s nothing to drink. Night has fallen. … There aren’t any taxis. Resigned and demoralized, I end up standing in the middle of the highway, sticking out my hand in which I’m holding a ballpoint pen. I’m not there for long; children always have the eagle eye. One child, riding by in a car with his father, passes a man who looks entirely willing to offer him a ballpoint pen. The kid asks his father to stop the car. I ask where 117 Poukhin Street might be. They pick me up and off we go. (141)

I went to Kumasi without any particular goal. In general having a goal is considered a good thing, positive, motivating. But on the other hand, those with a goal have blinkers on; you have your objective in mind and nothing else. Now, what is around you, the larger horizon, the deeper field, is often much more interesting and important. (S30)

On xenophobia, racism and ethnic conflict

Ignorance is not a lack of knowledge, it’s an active attitude, a refusal and rejection of knowledge. (154)

Today’s world is submerged by a nationalist revolution; those are the waves on which we will sink in the 21st century. … The problem is that nationalism cannot exist without conflicts, without grievances and outstanding claims. Where there is nationalism there are enemies, a conflict environment, war. (177)

Our suspicion and rejection of the Other, the Foreigner, comes from an ancestral, tribal terror: our ancestors saw in the Other, in the member of another tribe, a source of misfortune. Pain, fire, sickness, drought and famine don’t come from nothing! They must have been brought, given, spread around by someone! But by whom? Not my people, our people, my relatives, because they are good, life is only possible among good people. The proof of that is that I’m alive. The guilty parties must then be Others, foreigners. That’s why we come in conflict with them, argue with them, make war with them—to get revenge. If we suffer a misfortune its source is not in us , it is elsewhere, outside the community, far away, among the Others. (S191)

The world is threatened by three scourges, three epidemics. The first scourge is nationalism, the second racism, the third religious fundamentalism. All three share the same characteristic, the same common denominator: total, aggressive and all-powerful irrationality. It’s impossible to get through the head of a victim of one of these calamities. A sacred fire is burning in his mind, a fire to which he is ready to sacrifice anything. Any attempt to speak calmly with him is doomed to failure. He has nothing to do with discussions; the only thing that interests him is if one approves of his points, if one recognizes he is in the right, lets him win. If not, one means nothing in his eyes, one doesn’t exist. For him, people exist only as tools, as instruments, are useful only as weapons. For him there are no people, only issues. (258)

I can’t bear that language, the language of white, black and yellow. The language of race is disgusting. (S231)

Speaking and thinking [of so-called ethnic conflict] in only ethnic categories is illusory and wrong. This logic erases, kills all deeper values—good and evil, truth and lies, democracy and dictatorship, in reducing everything to this one superficial and secondary dichotomy: one person has nothing but good qualities because he is X, another is worthless because he is Y. (S177)

[This was originally written about Rwanda, but I eliminated all specific references because it is just as applicable when you talk about the war in the Balkans in the 1990s, the conflict in Sudan, the conflict in the Russian Caucasus, or the recent “War on Terror.” ]

On the news cycle

In a very general and simplistic way, one can say that the main difference between the first and second halves of our [20th] century (especially these last few years) is that the people of these two epochs have lived—and live—in two totally different universes. The people of the first half of this century, particularly in the Soviet Union, are closer to cavepeople than to people who today, sitting in front of their computers and typing on their keyboards, can receive all the information they want…the adults of the first half of the century were as poorly informed as children, whereas today even the children are adults. (324)

No war can be conveyed over a distance. Somebody sits eating dinner and watching television—CUT—pillars of earth blown into the air—CUT—the tracks of a charging tank—CUT—soldiers falling and writhing in pain—CUT—and the man watching television gets angry and curses because while he was gaping at the screen he oversalted his soup. War becomes a spectacle, a show, when it is seen fro a distance and expertly reshaped in the cutting room. (S 179)

On war

[The Sudanese civil war] is the longest and most deadly in the history of Africa and likely of the world, but as it is taking place in a lost province of our planet and not threatening anyone directly, at least not in Europe or America, it hardly arouses any interest. What’s more, the theater of this war, with its vast and tragic killing fields, is practically inaccessible, because of poorly developed communications and the drastic restrictions imposed by Khartoum. So practically no one on earth knows that at this moment, in Sudan, a horrible war is going on.

[The war ended in 2005]

The only chance small countries from the Third World have of attracting a lively international interest is when they decide to shed blood. This is a sad truth, but so it is. (W 184)

People who write history [and determine news lineups—my note] devote too much attention to so-called events heard round the world, while neglecting the periods of silence. …silence is a signal of unhappiness and often of crime. It is the same sort of political instrument as the clatter of weapons or a speech at a rally. Silence is necessary to tyrants and occupiers…Today one hears about noise pollution, but silence pollution is worse. Noise pollution affects the nerves; whereas silence is a matter of human lives. No one defends the maker of a loud noise, whereas those who establish silence in their own states are protected by an apparatus of repression. (W 190)

A person who lived through a great war is different from a person 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 really share it, you can’t tell someone ‘Here, take a little bit of my war.” (W 200)

On Africa

When you reach a place where you find out that you have white skin…this is a discovery, a sensation, a shock. I had lived for twenty-five years without knowing about that skin. A hundred children play in the courtyard of the townhouse I live in back home, and not one of them has ever given his skin a thought.  They only know that if it’s dirty, that’s bad. But if it’s clean and white, that’s good! Well, they’ve got it wrong.  It’s bad. Very bad. Because white skin is the wolf ticket. … Right away you find out what’s assigned to you, what line you’re supposed to stand in. Right away that skin starts itching; it either affronts or it elevates. You can’t jump out of it and it cramps your style. You can’t exist normally. You will always be above, below or off to the side. But never in your own place. (W 62)

On arriving in Africa, [many Europeans] disappear into luxurious hotels, never venture outside the pampered neghbourhoods of the whites, and in short, despite finding themselves geographically in Africa, continue to live in Europe—except that it’s a substitute Europe, reduced and second-rate. Indeed, such a lifestyle does not agree with the authentic traveler and is beyond the means of the reporter, who must experience everything, and at his own cost. (W 137)

In his book The African Experience, the historian Ronald Oliver points out a paradox. It is common to say that the colonists split up Africa. Split it up?!, Oliver marvels. It was more like a brutal unification, by iron and fire! From two thousand [states and kingdoms] to fifty.

Through it all, much remains of this diversity, this mosaic, this tableau which metamorphosizes before your eyes, this puzzle formed of countless stones, cubes, shells, straws, sticks, sequins and leaves. The more we look at it , the more we realize its pieces are changing shape, changing form, changing colour in a spectacle which turns the head with its richness, its mobility, its coloured vibrations. (325)

On Re-entry Shock

(read these if you want to know how I feel when I got back from East Africa…)

I have come home from Africa, a jump from a tropical roasting-spit into a snowbank.

“You’re so tanned, have you been in Zakopane?’

Will the Polish imagination never stretch further than Plock, Siematycze, Rzeszow and Zakopane?” (W39)

[I can imagine replacing “Poland” with any North American country and the city names with Atlanta, Miami, Myrtle Beach and Los Angeles or similar. ]

In the great glass block of Fumicino Airport, we watched the splendid and—to us, at that moment—exotic world of contented, calm, satiated Europeans on parade. …as the members of this unimaginable world passed by us…I suddenly felt that, sad truth or gross paradox that it might be, I felt more at home back there in Stanleyville or Usumbura than I did now. Or perhaps I simply felt lonely. (W 83)

Africa was a film that kept playing, an unbroken loop, nonstop, in show after show, but nobody around me cared what was happening in my cinema.

People were talking instead about who had taken whose place in Koszalin, arguing about some television program…or giving each other merry advice about how you can travel to Bulgaria for a holiday inexpensively and actually make money as well. I didn’t know the man who had gone to Koszalin, I hadn’t seen that television program and I had never been in Bulgaria.

(W 144)

On the developing world in general

People [in Sudan and elsewhere] aren’t starving because of a lack of food. The world is groaning under the weight of all its food. But between those who want to eat and the full shelves of storehouses there is a major obstacle—a political game. Khartoum limits the international aid destined for the starving. Many planes that reach their destinations are pillaged by local gang leaders. Those with weapons have food, and those with food have power. We are talking about people who don’t worry about transcendence, the essence of the soul, the meaning of life or the nature of being. We live in a world where people crawl on their stomachs to try to scratch up a few grains of wheat to survive until the next day. (203)

This was the drama of Lumumba and Nehru, it is the drama of Nyerere and Sekou Touré [and Laurent Gbagbo? And Aboulaye Wade? My note]. The essence of that drama lies in the terrible material resistance that each one encounters on taking his first, second and third steps up the summit of power. Each one wants to do something good and begins to do it and then sees, after a month, a year, three years, that it just isn’t happening, that it is slipping away, that it is bogged down in the sand. Everything is in the way. The centuries of backwardness, the primitive economy, the illiteracy, the religious fanaticism, the tribal blindness, the chronic hunger, the colonial past with its practice of debasing and dulling the conquered, the blackmail of the imperialists, the greed of the corrupt, the unemployment, the red ink. Progress comes with great difficulty along such a road. The politician begins to push too hard. He looks for a way out through dictatorship. The dictatorship then fathers an opposition. The opposition organizes a coup. And the cycle begins anew. (W 106)

The idea of a “transition period” allows the authorities to excuse anything. It isn’t going well? Well what do you want, we’re in a transition period. The food available leaves a bit to be desired? That’s normal, we’re in a transition period. The same old crooks are in power? Don’t worry, it’s only a transition period…(331)

On people in general

(In my opinion, if anyone is authorized to speak about people in general, it’s someone who has traveled the world all his life and met people from anywhere and everywhere.]

People make spectacles of themselves all the time, without even thinking about it. But then, if it were otherwise there would be no literature. Writers would have nothing to observe. (W 139)

There is so much crap in this world, and then suddenly there is honesty and humanity. (The Soccer War)


In the hall [of the Hotel Yakutsk] the only foreign newspaper that the newsstand sells is the French daily L’Humanité. I buy it, only for a photo to which I wouldn’t have ordinarily paid the least attention. Sitting in my room, I stare at the picture on the last page. An elegant new highway is visible there, the Autoroute A6, and on the highway you can see endless lines of clean, elegant cars. I’m suddenly fascinated by everything—the white lines on the highway, the large, clear inscriptions, the glowing lights. There, everything is washed, clean, harmonious.  “The Easter long weekend has begun,”  read the caption.

People are tired of Paris and they want to  take a rest. “That’s so far,” I thought, staring at the photograph as if it had come from Venus.(199)

[I’m only adding this because it reminds me acutely of something that happened at the guesthouse in Burundi. Stuck inside on a Thursday (or maybe it was a Friday) night waiting for someone’s friend to come and fix my piece-of-garbage phone,  I was channel surfing and stumbled upon a Radio-Canada newscast. It wasn’t even their international news; it was the local Montreal newscast. Who knows why.  Suddenly, streaming into this living room in one of the smallest and poorest countries in the world, six time zones away no less, were the voices of people sticking  their heads out of air-conditioned SUV windows to complain, in thick joual accents, about the traffic on the West Island bridge. “Athanase, Athanase, come look!’ I remember shouting. “C’est chez nous, ca!” Twenty minutes later I was channel-surfing and found a Quebec sitcom that I remembered seeing promos for during the 2008 Olympics, right before I left Canada for Russia, sitting on my overprotective French landlady’s couch. The sitcom’s setting alternated between Montreal and Abitibi. The characters—all white– talked (in duck-quacking joual so pronounced it had to be subtitled in ’International French’ ) about Rue Ste-Catherine this , mon chum that, depanneur du coin the other, and the two sloppily dressed guys passed a box of Tim Hortons donuts between them. The maroon box with the floating donuts on it is instantly recognizable to anyone  who’s ever attended a potluck or a morning meeting in Canada, . That box completed the surreal effect for me. I pinched myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. Athanase stared at the screen in wide-eyed fascination but could not understand a word that was said. I felt like I was watching dispatches from another universe.]


About msmarguerite

Young Quebec City-based freelance journalist. once and future nomad. I blog about life, about travel, about things I notice and every so often about work. I enjoy language learning, singing, swing dancing, skating and...other stuff, sometimes. My heart is somewhere in East Africa, Haiti or Eastern Europe. English, français, русский, malo slovensko, un poco de espanol, um pouco de português ndiga ikirundi, mwen ap aprann kreyòl...
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2 Responses to Words of Wisdom from Ryszard Kapuscinski — second edition

  1. Lenguaraz says:

    Thank you very much for sharing this quotes. I love Kapuscinski’s work very much, and I’m using some of his ideas to build an “intercultural training” program (yeah, big ambitions). I wonder if you have some more extracts of his book that I can print and share with my students. I’ve been looking for a digital version of “The Other” and it has been impossible to find (the class is in English, and I’m in France). Do you think there’s another page with some more extracts ?

  2. Pingback: A few simple rules | Ruby Pratka – Year of No Fear

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