Author: Anjan Sundaram
Publisher: Penguin India
Price: Rs 399
If you read international news publications, you will know that ‘aspiring’ Africa is the next big thing. In December 2012, Time magazine pointed out that Africa was “rising”. The Financial Times too, on January 1, 2013, confirmed that Africa was “hooked on growth” even as it cautioned that the success wasn’t “continent-wide”; and in its March 2, 2013 issue, The Economist’s special report on Africa waxed eloquent about how children have ditched guns for an education, how HIV infections have fallen and how mobile phones are as readily available in the once dark continent as they are now in India.
Amidst all these ‘shining Africa’ stories, Anjan Sundaram’s Stringer, an account of his years in war-ravaged Congo, is revelatory. Sundaram moved to the Congo in 2006 intending to cover the elections, or what he calls, “the country’s first chance at democracy in less than four decades”.
This decision was the fallout of a disillusionment Sundaram — then a 22-year-old algebra student pursuing a masters course in Yale — felt with the world. By his own admission, Congo was not the best place to kick-start a career in journalism, simply because the rest of the world did not care about its news. But his resolve was strengthened by an unusual friendship he shared with a Congolese bank teller in the US who offered him the option of staying with her family in Kinshasa.
Having got there, Sundaram doesn’t gloss over the realities of life in the Congo. You have vivid descriptions of war and poverty, but also a glimpse of normal life in the country. You have an impish young boy who eats face cream in Kinshasa, where “troublesome children often confessed” and were tortured by pastors till they admitted to working for the devil; good families sending their daughters to rich and suitable male outsiders and a family that struggles to cure an infant of pneumonia.
The house Sundaram lives in is searingly hot, has running water that is murky and a room infested with rats. At the luxurious Grand hotel in Congo, where he is to meet a correspondent for the UK’s Guardian newspaper, Sundaram heads to the toilets just so that he can “experience” running hot water.
The author has already been compared to a ‘young Naipaul’; but the thought, prose and execution are his own. Sundaram tackles scenes of fear and death in painstaking detail, but it is his stunningly personal, simply-written paragraphs on the way of life in Congo that gives you a sense of the country beyond the African stereotype. For example, on resisting his host’s niece’s advances and accusing her of stealing, Sundaram’s host serves him cow stomach for dinner, possibly in retaliation.
He deftly handles issues relating to Congo’s resource curse — the paradox of having a land rich in precious resources like tantalum, but with a population that’s astoundingly poor. One cannot help but be charmed by Sundaram’s honest portrayal of his life as a journalist in the Congo. His perpetual state of being broke, his elation at bagging a job with the news agency, the Associated Press, and his desperation to find story ideas will resonate with journalists everywhere.
The author deftly handles issues relating to Congo’s resource curse — the paradox of having a land rich in precious resources like tantalum, but with a population that’s astoundingly poor.