Book Review: Stringer, A reporter’s journey in the Congo – Anjan Sundaram

Anjan Sundaram writes a promising book. The book is part memoir and part reportage. The author is of Indian origin, born and bought up in Dubai. At 22 he is a student pursuing his PhD in Mathematics from Yale and has a promising career as a super bright student. On day all of a sudden, he decides to chuck it all up to go to Congo (where a civil war is raging with only a tenuous peace having been established under the UN) and become a journalist. Explaining his decision he says, “I had left for Congo in a sort of rage, a searing emotion. The feeling was of being abandoned, of acute despair. The world had become too beautiful. The beauty was starting to cave in on itself—revealing a core of crisis. One had nothing to hold on to.” (Now it is up to you if you can make sense of that. I can!) As to why Congo, he quotes the legendary journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, “Such important events, and not a single writer anywhere?” He befriends the teller women of his bank who is a Congolese, and it is with her help that he manages to decide on Congo and book his one way ticket for the country. He was to stay with her relatives in Kinshasa who agree to take him in.

With a one way ticket and little money he lands in Kinshasa and starts his life as a stringer. As is wont to with stringers (know some) he lives in the area of city which can be classified as a slum (no fancy hotels and high life for them, no intellectual pretenses for them either) and starts looking out for stories in this war torn country, so that he can make a living. Fortuitously, (for a stringer, not the victims) there have been a spate of air accidents in Congo, and he could manage to make a living by writing stories on them. He finally gets hired by AP to do stories for them as their local stringer has quit.

The book starts with him trying to retrieve his lost mobile phone which gets him on an adventure trip with the boys who have stolen his mobile. He is also robbed of all his savings at gun point when sharing a taxi with three other Congolese. Apart from his personal tribulations, the book also highlights the exploitative profession that journalism is. When the election is to be held under the UN auspices, the big names fly in to cover the story and he is specifically asked to stay away from a list of important stories, all of which will now be covered by these big names. Luckily (unluckily for the country and its people) for him conflict breaks out after the elections, by which time, the big names have all flown out and he is the only journalist left to cover the conflict. He does so by hiding in a margarine factory (owned by the biggest entrepreneur there who is as Indian) in the heart of Kinshasa. In the end he is hired by AP and is a successful award winning journalist writing for prestigious publications.

The book also helps us understand, though fleetingly the dynamics of African politics, its fluidity and transnational nature. It also offers a glimpse into the organisation of the society, centered around family, clan and tribe.

Anjan’s writing is likely be compared to Naipaul and Kapuscinski, but IMHO he is still to reach the proficiency and elegance of these authors. His language is more florid and lacks the tautness/directness of a Naipaul or a Kapuscinski. (As a student of conflict studies, I must confess that
Kapuscinski was always the first author I read before seeking to delve deeper into the study of the conflict. His writings provide the best overview and peoples perspective on the subject. So on the Iranian revolution the first book that I read (and re read) was the Shah of Shahs). But then this is his debut work, and he does show a lot of promise.

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