Anjan Sundaram turned down finance job to become journalist in Congo

The Yale graduate's passionate new book about his time in the desperately troubled Democratic Republic of Congo focuses on the human story behind the headlines.

Abject poverty in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, has spawned gangs of homeless young people who routinely rob shoppers and street vendors. Those who resist are often attacked with weapons. Above, a gang member flees from a rival group. Junior D Kannah / AFP
Powered by automated translation

Last year, James Robinson and Daron Acemoglu published Why Nations Fail. Widely praised for its alternative take on global poverty, the book presented multiple examples of "extractive" economies (where the ruling elite exploits the nation under its control) and explained why some countries were predetermined to fail.

Spread over more than 400 pages, the authors, one a political scientist and economist at Harvard, the other a professor of economics at MIT, delivered an entertaining if occasionally repetitive patchwork of institutional and international mismanagement.

In among its serial offenders (step forward Zimbabwe, Chile, et al), one nation emerged as a kind of inverse poster boy of extractive behaviour. The worst of the worst, the most undemocratic, the poorest of the poor. That nation was, and is, the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Formerly known as Zaire, the central African state could and should be doing so much better. Roughly the size of Western Europe, DR Congo has vast mineral resources (diamonds, gold, copper, coltan, cobalt and zinc), but has historically struggled to use those riches for its own benefit.

Once a Belgian colony, its mineral wealth was first exploited by its European ruler before gaining its independence in 1965, when Joseph-Désiré Mobutu took control. Tragically, he eventually repeated the same "extractive" behaviour.

Mobotu embezzled billions of dollars from his nation's economy before his death from prostate cancer in 1997, and is the recipient of that unfortunate badge of dishonour of being the most corrupt African leader of his generation. He was replaced by Laurent Kabila's Rwandan-backed AFDL.

The country and its capital Kinshasa, which famously captured the world's attention in October 1974 as the host of the infamous "Rumble in the Jungle" world title heavyweight boxing bout between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, later fell into the bloodiest of conflicts with Rwanda, its neighbour on its eastern border, when the genocide began to bleed mercilessly between the two nations in 1994. Sometimes described as "Africa's First World War", an estimated five million people perished in that most harrowing of conflicts. Even today, 10 years after hostilities officially ended in 2003, the feud continues to pulse erratically.

All of this might not make DR Congo your dream destination if you were contemplating what to do with your life. But for Anjan Sundaram, an Indian expatriate who was raised in Dubai before completing his education in the country of his birth and the US, that was exactly what happened.

A decade ago, Sundaram had the world at his feet. After studying mathematics at Yale, he was about to graduate as one of the legion of bright young things the Ivy League routinely floods the job market with, and was considering his options. The investment bank Goldman Sachs had come knocking and had offered him a well-paid position. Something, however, didn't sit right.

Sundaram, speaking on a short visit to the UAE before returning to Africa, takes up the story.

"I went up to their Manhattan skyscraper and I looked down from this cubicle and I thought 'you've got to pay me a lot of money to work here'."

Still unsure of what to do, except perhaps of his gut instinct that he wanted to "throw myself into the world", Sundaram went to settle his final account at Yale. "The cashier was African. I asked her where she was from and she said 'Zaire'. So I said I might go there and she said: 'You stupid Yale kids think you can go and do anything'."

The pair eventually struck up an unlikely friendship and Sundaram, with a pioneering spirit flickering in his heart and, perhaps, a romantic notion of what might await in Africa, later decided to decamp to DR Congo and become a journalist, where he would lodge with the cashier's in-laws. Goldman Sachs would have to wait (they still are).

He travelled, he says, with "very small ideas. I didn't go with grand ambitions. I had heard that four million people had died there, now it is five million, and I had also read that there weren't many reporters there." When he arrived, he swelled the press pack to a grand total of four foreign journalists in what is the largest country in sub-Saharan Africa, and the 11th biggest in the world.

Sundaram's reporting has since been published in The New York Times, Washington Post and Foreign Policy, and his memoir of life as a "rookie reporter" in the heart of Africa was published yesterday by Penguin India. The rights to release his book in the lucrative US and UK markets have also recently been secured. A decade after his skyscraper moment, Sundaram might well have the world at his feet again.

Entitled Stringer: A Reporter's Journey in the Congo, Sundaram's book has been attracting warm notices in the build up to its release. The novelist and essayist Pico Iyer calls him "a commanding new writer who comes to us with the honesty, the intensity and the discerning curiosity of the young Naipaul" on the book's jacket. Iyer, Sundaram says, doesn't normally do "blurbs", but was sufficiently moved by his memoir to break his own rule.

The book records, Sundaram says, the "struggle of being a stringer [freelance journalist]. The broader story is of going to a place without a plan but with just a little bit of passion and ... going out there and making something of yourself.

"If you are interested in understanding the circumstances of why those millions died or if you have ever dreamed of giving up your office job and pursuing your passion with very little certainty, then this is that story."

It begins with a bang, with Sundaram running in the night, eager to escape from a thief intent on relieving the writer of his worldly goods. Having grabbed the reader's attention, this episode soon gives way to the author's astute commentary on Kinshasa and DR Congo itself.

"The city grew daily," he writes, "it was a centre of migration for the region, like Sao Paulo or Calcutta, and already black Africa's largest capital - a collapsed metropolis, unable to assure even the survival of its nine million people. But still the dispossessed came in floods." The author says he became "immersed" in society. "I wanted to experience that kind of life that I had been cloistered from in Dubai and then in Yale."

He wanted too to break the one-dimensional narrative of constant crisis that dominates much of the reporting from DR Congo.

"It is how the world knows Congo," he records in the books opening chapter. "Death is as widespread in few places. Children born here have the bleakest of futures. It is the most diseased, the most corrupt, and the least habitable - the country heads nearly every conceivable blacklist. One survey has it that no nation has more citizens who want to leave."

What emerges in Stringer is a very human story. There is energy, life and love amid the bewildering, overwhelming streets of Kinshasa and the country at large.

"When you go [to DR Congo] you think you are going to find hunger, famine, suffering all around you, but you go there and you find these neighbourhoods that are teeming with life."

Sundaram has another book in the works (this time concerning Rwanda) and has recently returned from the Jaipur Literature Festival.

"It was an intense five days," he says, without a hint of weariness. The festival was "another world", occupying that hinterland between wordsmith and publishing executive.

"That was completely new to me, understanding what drives a book's success. What publishers want from writers, how to build relationships, how other writers have gone about it. How writers think about writing their next books and how they structure their personal lives in order to write."

Now though, Africa calls once more. "I feel like Congo is a part of my life. I will never leave," he says, before taking his leave from our Dubai meeting point.

Nick March is editor of The Review.