What I’m Reading Now: “Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo” (2014)

stringerI’m really not sure what purpose this book serves. While I don’t want to beat up on it too badly, fearing that if I ever get around to writing a book someone will mercilessly eviscerate mine, I can’t say that I really understand what “Stringer” says that the numerous other books on the Congo haven’t.

Anjan Sundaram was a PhD student in math under the great algebraist Serge Lang at Yale. One day, in an inexplicable moment of odd judgement, Sundaram decides to abandon what one would assume it to be a promising academic career to become a journalist. He befriends a lady at the bank who offers to contact her family in the Kinshasa and set him up with a place to stay.

Sundaram doesn’t like the DRC. In fact, it’s hard to tell whether he likes anyone at all. It’s hard to understand why he’s there and his lack of street smarts and simple human compassion quickly grate on the nerves. Half the book are scenes of him getting ripped off, even by his own host family and him not seeming to understand why.

His writing views the Congo through a lens of disdain, fear and condescension, echoing nearly a century of writing on the Congo. This may be by design. It’s hard to divorce oneself from Conrad when writing on the Congo (but not impossible). Regardless, though he claims to make pains to reveal the positive side of being a street kid, a group of whom he seems to form the deepest connections, the scenes are so fleeting as to relegate an otherwise potentially interesting subject to be mere window dressing.

He has odd realizations throughout the book, apparently surprised that rural Congolese are capable, hardworking people:

On the periphery of that village area I met a woman with a child on her back. Bending over, she was tilling someone else’s field. She said she worked from 6 :00 a.m . until 8: 00 p.m.— a fourteen-hour workday. But she earned only enough to eat the leaves of beans. Her hut was tiny and dark. A white rabbit cowered in the corner. She squatted inside , waiting for the leaves to boil. This woman struck me as something new in the world. She did not fall into any obvious category of African destitution: she was not a refugee or diseased or the victim of rape or violence. She was willing to work. It seemed to me that by any system of distribution of wealth— communist, socialist , capitalist— she had no reason to be poor.

Good God. I was constantly struck by Sundaram’s ignorance of developing countries, given that he’s from one.

Sundaram, Anjan (2014-01-07). Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo (p. 160). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The press on this book is incredible. I saw Sundaram on the Daily Show the other day and thought that, given the rarity of having such publicity fawned on a book about Africa, it must be distinctly interesting. My assumptions were incorrect. “Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo” while flying up the best seller charts offers nothing new. I get why people want to read books like “Stringer,” as it offers a window into a place that most can never go, written in a language they can understand. But it is troubling is that light fare from slumming academics would receive so much praise, while African literary artists continue to be ignored.

Sundaram’s prose is quite good. I only wish he had taken the time to do something more insightful with the book.

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About Pete Larson

Researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Lecturer in the University of Michigan School of Public Health and at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I do epidemiology, public health, GIS, health disparities and environmental justice. I also do music and weird stuff.

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