What Remains in the Congo

Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo by Anjan Sundaram (Doubleday).

Anjan Sundaram’s Stringer is, like much travel writing, simultaneously engaging and off-putting. Engaging in that it, presumably, depicts a region the reader had some preexisting interest in; off-putting because, invariably, it is as much about the writer as it is about that region.

For years, I worked on a team-taught course that included among its readings Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost, a detailed and devastating account of the genocidal havoc wrecked on the Congo when King Leoplod of Belgium held the region as, more or less, a personal fiefdom. The story of the atrocities perpetrated in the Congo in the name of profit is heart-rending. One wishes one could treat these atrocities as anti-colonial exaggerations, but the caliber and detail of Hochschild’s research make that impossible.

However, King Leopold’s Ghost documents not just the atrocities, but a worldwide crusade to end them. So we see not only the megalomaniac Leopold, but also those who revealed his actions and crusaded against them, inclulding E. D. Morel, originally an employee of Leopold’s shipping company, who noticed great wealth arriving from the Congo, but almost nothing—other than guns—going into it; African Americans George Washington Williams and William Sheppard who brought many of the atrocities to light, while suffering under the U.S.’s own racial caste system; and Roger Casement, an Irish nationalist, later hanged for treason, who saw the struggle of the Congolese against Leopold and Belgium as analogous to the Irish struggle against British domination.

In the years since teaching that course I have often wondered and, to be honest, simultaneously wished not to know what contemporary life is like in present-day Congo. The country became independent in 1960 under the leadership of an idealistic Patrice Lamumba, who was assassinated within six months of that independence—and with U.S. cooperation—by his secretary Mobutu Sese Seko, and has since seen constant fighting among and dictatorial rule by para-military strongmen, of whom Mobutu was only the first.

Enter Anjan Sundaram, a graduate student in math at Yale, originally from India, who decides to become a reporter and sets off on his own to Congo to report shortly before the 2011 elections, which were touted worldwide as heralding a new era of democracy in the nation. Not surprisingly, what Sundaram encounters on the ground bears little resemblance to the images “new era of democracy” might inspire.

At first, I resented Sundaram’s presence in his own book. He came across as naive and self-centered, as determined to tell us about the difficulties he had adapting to life in Congo as about the actual lives of the Congolese. My resentment never disappeared completely, but as the book progressed, as Sundaram became more sure of himself and more knowledgeable about ordinary life in the Congo, I found him a more enjoyable companion, one I could learn from and whose complaints seemed not entirely unjustifiable.

One of the great disappointments of Stringer, as compared to King Leopold’s Ghost, is that there are no heroes. The accomplishments of the U.N. and N.G.O.s are negligible, the fighting among various militias from inside and outside the country is endless, and the endurance and denial demanded by day-to-day life are immense. Sundaran is telling us a truth, but this is a messy, violent truth with no change in sight.

At the end of the book, having proven himself as an AP stringer and having survived the post-election violence, Sundaran is able to leave Congo with offers of journalistic postings in several regions. The Congolese remain in Congo, the implication being that their story will continue as painfully as before, but without a ground presence of reporters to cover it.

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