Spooking the herd

“A mighty force slumbers in the heat, mighty and —should it explode anywhere near us— deadly. It is the force of a mountain avalanche, only inflamed, frenzied, driven by foaming blood,” wrote Ryszard Kapuściński, the famed Polish journalist, stopped by a herd of buffalo while traveling overland by car between Tanganyika (now Tanzania) and the soon-to-be independent Uganda.

Worried about spooking the large beasts, Kapuściński remembered a discussion with a biologist who noticed that even the sound of their research helicopter failed to stir buffalo grazing alone. But when it flew over a large herd, “it sufficed for there to be among them a single overly sensitive one, a hysteric, a hothouse flower, who at the sound of the engine would start to thrash around waiting to flee. The entire herd would immediately panic and, in terror, begin to move.”

With Kapuściński’s sensitivity for narrative tension, his passage captured not just the potential for danger, but might rightly have rendered the aim of foreign reporters: To be agitated and aware and to move the masses. For Kapuściński, this message would have resonated personally.

In the months after his trip Uganda, Kapuściński suffered with a bout of cerebral malaria which so depressed his immune system he then contracted tuberculosis. As the diagnosis threatened his stay in the region, he told his doctor that “Poland had never before had a permanent correspondent in sub-Saharan Africa.” Kapuściński believed his illness, if ever shared with his editors, would force him back home, “and that thing that had been a lifelong dream… to work in Africa—will vanish forever.”

Taking the buffalo as metaphor, Kapuściński would certainly have been the loner — the “hysteric” — who sought to move his herd (the readers and the reticent) with news from far-off places. And for years, he did just that —drawing out stories that textured a continent, that explored the unknown and that laid the foundation for a generation of journalists.

This is where Pirates, Poachers and Palm Oil comes in.

The project will report, unsurprisingly, on the practice that once threatened those buffalo: poaching. But the goal is also to draw connections between issues well known to residents of Nigeria and Cameroon, and poorly covered from afar. From Faro National Park in Cameroon to that country’s expansive fields of palm, and even to Nigeria’s coast and the boys who could be pirates, Pirates, Poachers and Palm Oil seeks to provoke, through sheer force of reporting, a stir from the masses.

With less than a week left before deadline, though, I need your help. For as little as five dollars, you can pledge your support and join me on the front lines. With updates from the field, original photographs, and behind-the-scenes video, you’ll be closer to the action than ever before.

As Kapuściński knew, “the [African] continent … is a veritable ocean, a separate planet, a varied, immensely rich cosmos.” With your help, Pirates, Poachers and Palm Oil will provide just a few of its stories. The stoic and stubborn be damned.

**Author’s note: In recent years, the veracity of Kapuściński’s reporting has been questioned. In his 2012 biography of Poland’s most celebrated journalist, author Artur Domoslawski asserts that much of Kapuściński’s nonfiction/reportage was —damningly— imagined. While this post draws on his work (and perhaps even more on his lyricism and knack for literary construction), it is not to be taken as endorsement of practice. There is no substitute for accurate and balanced reporting.** 

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