Ryszard Kapuściński and I could have met decades earlier, but we got together over a later-abandoned plan to do a science fiction film. (The only adequate place to shoot this film was Southern Sudan, but at the time there were nine factions of rebels fighting the central government—and also fighting each other. Ryszard had been caught in an ambush down there recently, and he had the prudence to dissuade me from pursuing my plan.) I contacted him in the first place, because he seemed to share with me a science fiction idea “in reverse,” a much more probable possibility than intergalactic travel: a future where most of our technical abilities and most of our knowledge are lost, a situation similar to what happened after the end of Roman antiquity.
We both were convinced that our highly technological civilization is not sustainable. We both had seen first signs of this during our travels in Africa.
Shortly after the independence of the Congo, the country lapsed into unspeakable chaos. The eastern provinces in particular had dissolved into tribal strife and cannibalism had become rampant, and I, having just turned eighteen, had set out to witness all this, in order to grasp and understand how Germany could have turned utterly barbaric in an inconceivably sudden departure from its deep-rooted culture.
Ryszard, crossing through the Sudan, had reached the Congo only months before I had shown up near its border, and in the span of a year and a half alone he was taken prisoner forty times and was condemned to death four times. I fell very ill in the Sudan near the Congolese border, and scrambled back to Assuan in Egypt where I was found by the technicians who were building the dam. Kapuściński was one of the very few who made it out alive, and I thank God on my knees that I never made it into the Congo.
What was the worst, I asked him.
Once, locked up in a dark dungeon, he said in this very soft-spoken voice, drunken soldiers kept throwing poisonous snakes into his cell. “That was not so good,” he said and touched his hair. “Within a week,” he added, “my hair turned white.” Ryszard said that casually, and in his next sentence he wanted to know about Vienna.