On June 30, 1960, the Democratic Republic of the Congo was formed after fifty-two years of Belgian colonization. Its charismatic leader, Patrice Lumumba (1925-1961), served as an inspiration and hope for the people of Congo, who wished to govern themselves and move their country into a new direction. Less than one year later on January 17, 1961, Lumumba was executed in Katanga as a result of a coup by military colonel Joseph Mobutu (1930-1997). The assassination and seizure of power by Mobutu, set in motion a cycle of violence that has continued for more than five decades. Between 1994 and 2003, the conflict known as “Africa’s first world war” ravaged the country and caused the deaths of an estimated five million people. Rebel groups continue to operate in various regions of the country, continuing the system of violence. In 2005, Anjan Sundaram was finishing his final semester at Yale University, where he graduated with a degree in advanced mathematics. After forming a friendship with a cashier, he made the decision to abandon a career in corporate American and move to the Congo, where he would ply his trade as a foreign correspondent in one of the most tumultuous places on earth. This book titled “Stringer’ is a memoir of his time in the Congo and the many people that became a part of his life.
As the book opens, Anjam has just had his phone stolen and is trying desperately to get it back with no luck at all. He eventually finds his host family, who are relatives of the cashier at Yale. His dwellings are primitive by western standards and his fan soon becomes the desired object in stifling heat. He soon learns that as the saying goes, he is not in Kansas anymore. Kinshasa is gritty and daily life is hard without relief. His housemates, Nana and Jose, do their best to help him along but even they have their moments that nearly push Anjan to the brink. He soon begins to run low on money and realizes that soon desperation will set in. At the suggestion of a friend, he offers his services a field reporter for the Associated Press. He is quickly hired and his job as a journalist soon takes him into the belly of the beast far removed from the polished campus at Yale University.
As the story moves forward, the author provides information on the Congo’s history where needed to give the reader an idea of why certain conditions currently exist. And though he does mention Lumumba, the book is not meant to be a thorough history of the Congo. For additional reading, I do recommend Leo Zeilig’s “Patrice Lumumba: Africa’s Lost Leader“, which is an excellent biography of the late leader. The focus here is about what Sundaram sees and hears as he moves throughout the Congo consider by many to be parts unknown. The scenes he describes are surreal but a reflection of the turmoil that continues to engulf the country. The threat of death hangs over him throughout the book in the form of rebel patrols, shady cab drivers and even a touch of malaria. As I read the story, I was sure I had the same thought as many others who have read it: he must be crazy to give up a promising career to migrate to the Congo. The author realizes his choice would be surprising to many but it is clear that his decision was based on a real desire to truly experience a conflict that remains one of the worst in modern history.
The true gift of the book is Sundaram serving as eyes and ears on the ground to show others the truth about life in the Congo. The descriptions he gives sound like hell on earth with the lack of sanitation, devalued currency, corruption and the near total collapse of a political system. Mock elections and the continuing cycle of dictatorship do little to inspire the people with the belief that one day their nation will embrace true democracy. Hanging over the book is the ghost of Mobutu, whom the author discusses at several points in the book. His grip on the country, many years after his death, is apparent all over. It is a nightmare that replays itself as conflict rages between government forces battling insurgent rebel patrols. Massacres, pillage and systemic murder are the tools of the trade, highlighting the prevalence of death in the Congo. Sundaram is the Associates Press’ eyes on the ground and soon moves over to the New York Times. As an American of Indian descent, his presence in the Congo is both the source of curiosity and hostility. Ethnic divisions and fears of the Central Intelligence Agency’s role in Congolese affairs, result in a cloak of suspicion traveling with him everywhere he goes. On more than one occasion, his admission to being a “reporter” is the source of agitation to those who prefer to operate in secrecy.
Undoubtedly, there is more to the Congo story than what it presented here. And while I would have liked the book to have gone just a little longer to see how Sundaram eventually leaves the Congo for good, the story stands on its own merits. It is a very profound account of life in the Congo, where nothing is guaranteed. Life is expendable and democracy is reduced to a catchphrase. The reality is painstakingly explained here in an account that will open the eyes of many who are only vaguely familiar with the country that had the potential to set a new course for the continent of Africa. Good read.