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A Novice Reporter Begins His Journey In The Congo

Jan 5, 2014
Originally published on January 5, 2014 9:13 am
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Anjan Sundaram had all kinds of options in the late summer of 2005. He had a master's in mathematics from Yale, a lucrative job offer from Goldman Sachs; and he was just about to begin a Ph.D. But he left all that behind and made a dramatically different choice. He headed to the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of the worst conflict zones in the world, to try to start a career in journalism. At the time, the death count in that war was more than 4 million people. That number continues to rise.

Sundaram has written a memoir of the time he spent working as a freelance reporter for the Associated Press based in Kinshasa. The book is called "Stringer." It's the term for a journalist who's not on the permanent staff of a publication, and subject to much more insecure circumstances. I began our conversation by asking him why he left the security of his previous life in mathematics.

ANJAN SUNDARAM: I was just about to begin my Ph.D., and the field I was studying, abstract algebra, is very beautiful - it's really abstract - but beyond a certain point, mathematics begins to become about the beauty and not its usefulness. And at that point, I felt I needed to immerse myself in something that mattered more immediately, was more real than merely beauty. And that's what drew me to a place like the Congo.

MARTIN: Your decision to go to the Congo was somewhat random, though, right? I mean, did you have the Congo squarely in mind?

SUNDARAM: I wanted to get to a place of powerful events. It could have been Congo; it could have been anything else, at that point, to be absolutely honest. I had read about this huge war. It was even then the worst war in the world, in terms of its death toll. A few things happened to point me towards Congo. I was paying my final bill at Yale for the semester and the cashier was Congolese. And I started talking to her. She thought I was crazy to abandon my education, abandon my job offers and end up in a place like the Congo. But eventually, she became my friend, and she let me live with her family in Kinshasa. And I knew that at that point, I wanted to go to Congo because I felt I had an in to society there, that I would see it from the inside.

MARTIN: I wonder, what were your expectations in those early days, when you first arrived? Were you full of optimism about what this would mean personally for you, for your career?

SUNDARAM: I felt that there were things in the world that I wanted to see. I was full of energy to go out and see them - oblivious, almost, to the affect that they would have on me. I felt that there were famine, that this was a real part of people's lives; and it wasn't being spoken about or reported. And I felt this drive to want to go there and see it. The journalism, I was immensely lucky. I found a job as a stringer with the Associated Press not too long after I arrived and just after I had been robbed of almost all my money. So, I was in immense need of some employment. It turned out that journalism was a perfect vehicle to take me to places that I wanted to be in, to take me to events that I wanted to see and to feel the emotions that I was seeking.

MARTIN: In the beginning of the book, you pay a visit, a nighttime visit to this enclave of teenagers living in what appears to be some kind of drug-fueled haze in a kind of a community, like a ghetto of sorts. Does that mean the people you met didn't spend a lot of time reflecting on the past or planning for the future?

SUNDARAM: Absolutely. The people I met were, to a great degree, able to live in the moment and even forget the immense pain or suffering that were minutes old or just an hour old. They seemed to forget with such ease and be able to live in the present, whether that meant just enjoying the music or enjoying a conversation or enjoying a joint. That moment was so precious to them. It was something extraordinary that I found in these children.

MARTIN: Is there a way to give a sense of how these generations of violence and civil war and political unrest and famine, how this affected the people who you interacted with. Did everyone you meet have a story?

SUNDARAM: A single day in the lives of many of the people I met there would be enough in its intensity and its richness to fill up a while life in some other countries. This was incredible. I met people who had witnessed their own family members being killed. I met these children in the cemetery, who we just described. They had been forcibly exorcised by their family because their family often was not able to feed them. And so they needed to get rid of the children somehow. So, they accused them of being haunted by the devil.

I think in a broader sense, the war, the conflict - and these are all effects of the war and the conflict - it impedes people's abilities to affirm themselves. I found that the Congolese people would express themselves to no end but it was very difficult to find a job, to hold an occupation, to build a career and all the things that we in the West or other countries use to affirm our identity. Those are lacking for the Congolese. And this leaves an incredible void for them. I think we all feel a need to believe in something permanent within ourselves, something like a soul. And I think this fundamental need is denied to the Congolese.

MARTIN: You went to a place that was dramatically under-covered and really, really difficult. You said at the beginning of our conversation that this was, to some degree, about you. You were looking to be exposed to something about the human condition that you hadn't seen before. So, what did you learn and how did that change you?

SUNDARAM: You're absolutely right. I went there to be exposed to something about the human condition that I was not finding in other places in the world that I felt I had even been shielded from by my family, friends, society. We turn around away from places like Congo like we turn away from our own flaws. We don't want to look at it. And it's very hard to go there and look, as I discovered. I went there to sort of touch these events that I felt were distant from me. What happened was I ended up being touched by them in profound ways. When you see someone enduring such suffering, you think to yourself that could have so easily been me. And I don't know if, given those circumstances, if I would hold up and I would be able to fight in the way that these people do. And I don't know if I would be able to still hold on to certain values, like love and trust and belief in a better future.

MARTIN: The book is called "Stringer: A Reporter's Journey in the Congo." Anjan Sundaram is the author. Thank you so much for talking with us, Anjan.

SUNDARAM: Absolutely. No problem at all.


MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.