Kapuscinski, more magical than real

What's the truth about Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski

When I was researching my book on Eritrea, I interviewed one of the capital's oldest Italian residents, a frail gentleman with cheekbones so sharp you could have cut paper on them. I asked him about Tiravolo, a district I'd read about, where Soviet generals lounged by the swimming pools of magnificent Italian villas during the cold war, surrounded by lush lawns and flower gardens.

He looked puzzled. "Tiravolo? But that's not a particularly luxurious part of town." The only pool that sprang to mind was the municipal one. Nor did the city boast many lush lawns - water was too precious to waste on mere decoration.

So where had I acquired such misleading impressions? From Ryszard Kapuscinski, the Polish writer and journalist, of course. Kapuscinski, who died last month, may have been many things - poet, weaver of spells, fearless war correspondent - but despite his background in news agency journalism, he was never (in his books, at least) a stickler for accuracy.

Any writer would give their eye teeth for a smidgen of the praise heaped upon Kapuscinski at his death, aged 74. The New York Times described him as a weaver of "shimmering allegories" and the Times hailed him as "a master of reportage", while the Paris Review saluted him as "one of our - the world's - greatest writers".

But there is an interesting nuance to this story. Africa, the continent with which Kapuscinski will always be associated, appears to have barely noticed his passing. Trawling through African newspapers and websites, I have not found a single mention of it. There's a reason. Kapuscinski may have prided himself on shunning the air-conditioned 4x4 and five-star hotel, writing instead about the ordinary Africans he travelled and lived with. Yet his work remained a strictly foreign taste. The few African intellectuals familiar with it didn't much like it. A while ago, I was sent a splenetic round robin by African intellectuals who so hated his work, they were trying to organise an international campaign, with everyone on the mailing list encouraged to turn up at the venues on Kapuscinski's lecture tour and put hostile questions. I felt sorry for the man.

What had got them so incensed? Kapuscinski's sloppy way with the truth, for one thing. There were also the glaring omissions. While his publicists vaunted the 27 revolutions and coups he had covered (a claim so macho, I never took it seriously), he was shockingly silent on, or paid only lip-service to, many of the forces that have shaped African history: apartheid, Aids, the IMF and the World Bank, for example.

Kapuscinski would have helped his own case if he had been more consistent, and modest, about what he offered. If you present your work as "magical journalism", of the García Márquez genre, best not simultaneously lecture a younger generation of journalists, as he did, on their imprecision. And if your prime years in the field were largely confined to the cold war, best not present yourself as an eternal sage on the subject.

But it is the sweeping generalisations that get my African friends frothing at the mouth. A lot of time in Kapuscinski's books is spent telling the reader what "the African" thinks, believes and feels. Try replacing the word "African" with "European" in these sentences - the resulting generalisations are so broad as to become absurd - and you begin to see why some detect a loftiness of viewpoint that is a form of racism. The Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina mercilessly lampooned this vision in his "How to Write About Africa" essay for Granta.

You might assume, having read the above, that I am no Kapuscinski admirer. You would be wrong. I love his stuff. I would recommend his books, couched in qualifications, to anyone wondering what to read on Africa.

Why? Partly because one of the many blights to afflict Africa - at least when Kapuscinski's work was first published - has been the sheer, eye-glazing dullness of non-fiction writing about the continent. A writer's first duty is to entertain, and "dreary" is one adjective that never applied to Kapuscinski.

Yes, there were mistakes, misleading claims, assertions so categorical that they verged on anthropological diktats. But there was also much which rang true, truer than my sophisticated African friends will allow. He had an ear for the quirky exchange, an eye for the humdrum detail that illuminates a different mindset, the surreal moment when modern mores and ancient culture collide. And many of those insights don't strike me as fake.

Above all, he was enchanted by the mundane. Standing at an Accra bus stop, waiting for a car to be repaired in Mauritania, watching the chaos around a Lagos pothole . . . few writers ever dedicated as much attention to the simple experience of waiting. In any culture, a writer who can turn the footage of our lives that hardly ever makes the final cut into the vibrant essence of his work deserves to be read.

This article first appeared in the 12 February 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni v Shia