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Incredible journey

Journalist's Congo experience offers insight into war-torn country

Sundaram provides valuable insight into the daily lives of a people often reduced to mind-numbing statistics.


Sundaram provides valuable insight into the daily lives of a people often reduced to mind-numbing statistics.

Anjan Sundaram is an award-winning journalist who has reported from Africa and the Middle East for the New York Times, Foreign Policy and The Associated Press.

His book is a vivid account of how he abandoned life as an outstanding mathematics student at Yale and the prospect of a lucrative position with Goldman Sachs to go to the Democratic Republic of Congo in the hope of launching a career in journalism.

Sundaram's reasons for turning his back on a career in high finance appear to have been inspired by the moral courage of Serge Lang, his mathematics mentor at Yale, as well as by the African books of Polish writer Ryzard Kapuscinski.

To learn on the job, he picked a country that is, on the one hand, rich in minerals crucial to the economy of the modern world and, on the other, a cesspool of kleptocracy, rape, slavery and mass-murder.

Don't look here for an analysis of the economics and history that lie beneath the appalling horrors of Congo life; nor does Sundaram pretend Stringer is anything of the sort.

At one point, another journalist describes Sundaram's approach as "Gonzo-style" -- perhaps, if you can have Gonzo journalism without a preponderance of sex, drugs and profanity.

He writes unapologetically about himself and how he was influenced by the people and events he experienced in Congo.

Through a series of impressionistic anecdotes, he builds up an outsider's view of people struggling to live and preserve human feeling in a state founded on corruption and brutality.

With, it seems, no more advanced planning than to arrange lodgings with a family on the brink of destitution, he arrives in Kinshasa.

Within the first 50 pages, his cellphone is stolen and he chases the thief through the dangerous streets of Kinshasa, smokes pot and drinks pastis in a no-go area ruled by feral teenagers, is robbed at gunpoint of most of his money and finds the police work only for those who can buy their services.

Fortunately, he is soon hired as a stringer for The Associated Press. Although he is to be paid only for stories printed, he will have an income, however precarious.

Through what often seem to be accidents and wrong turns, he gathers material for news stories that attract international attention.

His big break comes during the 2006 election when a vicious battle breaks out in Kinshasa between rival militias. As most other correspondents have left the city, he becomes one of the few news sources there.

Remarkably, by his own account, he spent all but one day of the battle sheltered in the guest room of a margarine factory. Nevertheless, his isolation did not stand in the way of his filing constant reports.

As the battle raged outside, the New York Times called him. His career was made.

Occasionally, Sundaram's prose overreaches. Water flows into a "sonorous tub," two men (fully dressed) have "buxom chests," a conversation is "ludic."

Whatever his reasons for going to Congo -- and there remains the suspicion that, like many non-African authors, he started out seeing Africa as merely a convenient trove of exciting stories -- he provides valuable insight into the daily lives of a people often reduced to mind-numbing statistics.

As interesting as that is, for any kind of understanding of the human catastrophe in Congo, this book needs to be read beside more substantial works like Jason Stearns' Dancing in the Glory of Monsters and Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost.

Bearing that in mind, Sundaram's memoir is worth reading as a portrait of the journalist as a (very lucky) young man.


Winnipegger John K. Collins worked and travelled in West Africa in the 1960s.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 25, 2014 G8


Updated on Saturday, January 25, 2014 at 8:24 AM CST: Tweaks formatting.

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