Anjan Sundaram on Life as a Stringer in the Congo

In 2005, Anjan Sundaram was a recent graduate in mathematics with an Ivy League education and cushy investment bank offer when he began to think that mathematics was about the beauty and not its usefulness, and said he needed something more real. So he traded it all in to be a stringer for the AP and New York Times in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), among the most dangerous war zones in the world.

Soon after arriving in the DRC with barely the clothes on your back, you found yourself getting robbed in broad daylight. How did you not just decide to throw in the towel and say, You know, its just not worth risking my life to tell this story? I guess, describe a bit your goals going in and how you got off the ground running, as it were. 

I was in a constrained environment. There was all this stuff happening, conflict all over and its associated effects. It just wasnt even getting reported. I was just scrambling to try to get to these places, so that it went into the public record. Thats the kind of situation I was operating in. I didnt have a huge budget. Sometimes I was funded but often I would go on my own, hitching rides or getting free flights. I didnt go in with grand ideas to get people to care about the Congo. My goal, ambition, and means were more limited.

How did you avoid being used as a journalist? Did you ever worry that people telling you stories might be lying?

I think a healthy skepticism is helpful, as you point out. In humanitarian circles, a whole lot of propaganda is given out. Aid agencies have strong PR branches that say theyre doing good which may not always be the case. Are people using us to help them? After all, we are making a living off these stories, so it goes both ways. Trust or a reason not to trust exists on both sides. Did people make up things? Perhaps, and this is where reporting makes a difference. When you can ask peopledirectly to their faceand can see for yourself the conditions they are living in, whereas on the phone its far more complicated.

It was my personal idea to see and understand the larger reality behind these storiesThe attraction of war was the other thing about itI was interested in seeing something major. I did not understand the dynamics of violence and the DRC was a place to do that.

You have this very unlikable character Bentley, who seems to sum up everything wrong with foreign journalism  pompous, wowed by power, yet holed up in a Four Seasons-like hotel, far from the action and the violence. You lived in a dangerous part of DRC. How were your experiences at reporting different? Do you think foreign journalism today is a bit too risk-averse? Do you need to be out of the capital to be a stringer?

Its essential. If you want to get at the realities and describe it with accuracy, you need to live among them. Every day Id come back and wed eat and around table I would mention some story I was working on and have these conversations with my Congolese family or hang out with people in the dark when the electricity was out and theyd ask what I was writing about it. It would come back to me that actually theres a twist or theyd say hes not what he says he is. So I would have more context and accountability. I could not get away with just preconceived ideas and simple narratives. They gave me leads to pursue to understand better what was happening.

For political reporting it may have been better to be at fancy hotel because thats where the elites hang out. I had their phone numbers and called them for comment but those werent the people I was interested in portraying the lives of. There were few people in that elite class that were interesting to me.

Do you ever worry about trafficking in cliches about the Congo with your reporting? It felt like every story I read a few years back was about the conflict minerals that make up our iPhones. 

In my case there were relatively few moments where it was just a cliche. Once, they had me fly with Kofi Annan to Kigali and I flew with a hoard of journalists. It was the most meaningless and boring journey. He said little, and I didnt feel like we were reporting anything that hadnt been said. Naturally Kofi Annan and big public figures generally resort to the global narrative about Congo, which is replete with cliches. For the most part, I was defining my own agenda. Sometimes they got published and sometimes they wouldnt.

What is a popular myth or misconception about the Congo that bothers you?

Mine is that all of Congo is at war, and that this war is intensely chaotic and the country is full of victims. Its much more complex than that. War is only in the east, though there are some outbreaks of violence in the west, but nothing sustained. Even in the east, once you go there, the experience of war is a lot of waiting and a lot of fear. You come to town and see a camp of displaced people. The frontlines shift. Its low intensity war. Theres not very much industrial equipment, no signs of heavy warfare.

Rape is often used as a weapon of war. On a human scale, the violence is very hand-to-hand. The reality of that kind of war is something very few people often report on. Often reports from Congo are five people died in this town by this militia. Which comes back to your earlier question. One of the reasons I went to Congo was I was reading these small stories, which created a dissonance in my mind. It was my personal idea to see and understand the larger reality behind these stories that was driving my curiosity. The attraction of war was the other thing about it. I think the place I was in at that time, I was interested in seeing something major. I did not understand the dynamics of violence and the DRC was a place to do that. The world was kept away from me. I was 22. It was a way to understand the world more fully. I remember we had two flat tires and I was waiting for my driver, we were in a very dangerous part of country. In these places, contrary to what you might think, theres no feeling of thrill or excitement or adrenaline. All Im thinking is: Why did I come here?

What was it like trying to get your editors attention with Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Arab Spring going on?

It was really difficult. I was complaining to a U.S. diplomat that it feels like a  black hole, my stories go into an ether and nobody reads them. He said to me that policymakers read them. When you are out in Congo, I often didnt have access to internet. In Kinshasa I could go to cafes more easily but there is this frustration  there when faced with everything in front of you. I was driven into a desperation for stories that might connect. I did a story about second-hand broken-down American school buses being used and running people over. That was one of the stories that made it to some front pages. People could relate to a yellow school bus and the concept of safety. I think when you see that, you are pleased something about Congo is getting through to American readers.

You have this great line: Congo bears these physical scars of its many upheavals, each of which had been seen as a liberation. But, and almost unbelievably, each regime was worse than the previous. Every change worsened life. It created distrust among the people, and a perverse nostalgia, an idealization of past dictatorships and colonial regimes that, as punishment for poor labor, cut off hands and brutally massacred.  How does war shape our conceptions of the past? Is this kind of nostalgia a Congolese thing?

Its not uniquely Congolese. I think ultimately its a human quality. The difficulty is in recognizing that certain strong leaders, while they were able to show a sense of security, went about destroying every institution in the country. While theyre there, it somehow hangs together. Once they are gone there are no institutions to fall back on. Mobutu was more explicit about it. He said, After me there will be deluge of chaos. They use fear to hold people hostage.

So what should our policy toward the Congo be? Do you support greater intervention, like the kind weve seen in Libya, Mali, and other places? 

I think intervention is always risky and we need to proceed with caution. I think we need to create local information networks so people can be informed about what is happening in their country. There is such an information void.

You mean apps like Ushahidi?

Im thinking more low-tech than that. I mean cultivating local journalists, giving them proper pay, having them report on when there are outbreaks of violence. Right now information is very reactive. They dont have resources to inform themselves properly. The example I use is on one of my recent trips to CAR I was driving through a war zone in places that had been attacked and people did not even travel 2 kilometers from home to find out who had been attacked. I remember when a warlord in eastern Congo came into town. The rumor was that he was killing babies. This was only 15  kilometers from where we were. The only way to know was to go out and see. So I went to meet him and he told me he used to work as nurse and his daughter was killed. Thats when he formed a militia. His initial motivations were rational, but the intoxication that comes with power and commanding an army and impunity led him to do some irrational acts. This is the story of many militias in Congo. The initial impetus for starting a militia is often noble but this is often not explained or understood.

But back to my original point: If we didnt know what was happening 15 kilometers away, how are people to have informed policy from 3,000 kilometers away? So we need information networks. Decisions in capitals like Paris do affect places like Congo. My suggestion is we need information networks to allow solid and sustained info to reach the outside world. Tools like Ushahidi are useful and provide interesting results sometimes, but I think the foundation of competent and well-trained local journalists who can earn a living from this line of work is missing.

Scholars do not know what causes wars like the Congos. Some say its natural resources, others point to income inequality, greed, or lack of leadership. Whats the biggest cause, having seen the war up close for so many years?

There is a wide range of factors but one is a lack of institutions a lack of free press, lack of governance, executive justice; and lack of leadership because there are so few leaders who see a viable career in politics. Often they become warlords. This is related to Obamas Africa Summit. There are these military imbalances. America and the West have been financing the armies of Uganda and Rwanda for some time now, which are right on Congos border. So there is this huge imbalance between the DRC, which has a few decent battalions, and the highly organized and well-trained armies on its border. Without institutions to regulate conflicts of interest, it becomes too tempting [for Uganda and Rwanda] to just rely on military power. You just know youll win, so theres no deterrence. They are abusing their military power. They see the DRC as super rich, with so many natural resources. So Uganda and Rwanda have the temptation to just take it all. We need very effective institutions to mediate this kind of conflict. This has led to repeated cycles of violence in eastern Congo. The UNs recent interventionist brigade, mostly South African, restored military balance and  served as a deterrent. But the imbalance is still there.

Not everybody with a Yale degree will give up their Goldman Sachs offer and hop on a plane to the Congo. Are you optimistic about the future of journalism? Do you think the stringer model has legs, or will the future of journalism be mostly citizen journalists, bloggers in bathrobes, and other non-accredited scribes on social media? 

I think there are more and more stringers who are going out and basing themselves in journalism hubs like Senegal and Nairobi, Kenya. There are many people there. My argument is that these people would be a relatively inexpensive way to cover place like the Congo. They are willing to be entrepreneurial about their work. Theyre far cheaper than to fly in correspondents from wherever. In Congo we received no support. The kind of stringer who can cover a country in an exhaustive way that the situation merits, theres not enough support for that. Whenever huge news breaks out, people are using stringers. But we have to rely on these short-term breaking news events. Ultimately, its not good for news, not good for journalism, or good for the stringers.

Your question was about citizen journalists and bloggers. Its hard for me to read where thats going, but its hard to replace people with Journalism 101 skills. That kind of social media might be a useful layer of conversation and analysis that complements journalism but you still need somebody who can translate the news to know whats going on and can verify information on the ground. Its hard to replace that.


Anjan Sundaram has reported from Africa for the New York Times and the Associated Press. Anjan has also worked as a management consultant in San Francisco. He graduated from Yale, and received a Reuters award for his reporting in Congo. He is currently writing a book about Rwanda. 


Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *