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Documenting Proximity


August 15, 2014

A mathematician destined for a plum job in finance drops everything to become a freelance journalist in war-torn Congo.

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As a student of mathematics at Yale, Anjan Sundaram was happily absorbed in the complex world of numbers. But the romance of the subject began to dwindle when theorems could not explain daily headlines, and further vanished when Sundaram learnt of real world crises as abstract to him as the math he had spent years studying. Eager for something more, Sundaram declined a job at Goldman Sachs and made the surprising choice to become a freelance reporter in Congo, one of the most dangerous countries in Africa.

Sundaram was drawn to Congo because of the lack of news about the country’s civil war, which has claimed the lives of more than five million people since 1996, but receives little mainstream media attention. Armed with a laptop and a cell phone, he bought a one-way ticket to Kinshasa and rented a room from a poor family, eating his one meal a day alongside them. Painstakingly acquiring contacts and securing interviews for articles he hoped would find a home, Sundaram was eventually hired by the Associated Press as a stringer, a freelance journalist paid by the word, with no salary or travel budget. Unlike his newfound journalist colleagues, who traveled in luxury throughout Africa, Sundaram was living among locals and encountering Congo’s poverty, corruption, and chaos firsthand. At the time, he was one of only three foreign journalists stationed in the country.

Sundaram spent eighteen months living in Congo, reporting on everything from pygmies and mass graves to an election where he watched ballots get counted (and miscounted) late into the night. He communicated in French, English, Hindi, and Lingala, and his lived experience evolved into a story he did not realize he was writing. Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo, his debut memoir about this time in his life, published in early 2014 by Doubleday, came together without a plan—just as he had arrived in Congo in the first place.

Stringer moves in jerks and starts, the way a documentarian with a handheld camera might traverse a scene. With each chapter, another character is introduced, and the camera lens grows wider to encapsulate more of the country. Sundaram’s expectations mature as he gains experience—at first, he is content to make it to the grocery store without being swindled, but over time, he snags meetings with warlords. Though just as he feels ready to report on a conference about gorilla conservation, he is asked to step aside and serve as a guide for higher-profile journalists who have swooped in. When they leave a week later, so does the media spotlight, and only Sundaram remains to gather the news—about violence and corruption—that the newspapers don’t want to print.

Sundaram relayed his concerns about “parachute reporting” in a recent op-ed for the New York Times, in which he criticized the small number of foreign bureaus run by mainstream US media outlets. Due to the paucity of American reporters in certain corners of the globe, “people and places are reduced to simple narratives—good and evil, victim and killer,” he wrote. “Such narratives can be easy to digest. But they tell us only a portion of the story.” Stringer is Sundaram’s attempt to complicate and magnify the story of a place that, despite its global import, tends to live on the fringes of our imaginations.

Aditi Sriram for Guernica

Guernica: Stringer opens with the line, “I was already feeling perturbed.” Was this a tone you wanted to set for the rest of the book, a sense of unease and anticipation?

Anjan Sundaram: It was a conscious decision to place myself in Congo at the beginning of the book, and not to begin in America. It was important for me to begin with that tone, which places me in Congo and relates the emotions and experience of the place in a very intimate sort of way. A lot of my writing is about proximity, and it’s very important for me to write about things that I’ve felt on my skin.

Guernica: Why did you choose to become a reporter in Congo in the first place?

Anjan Sundaram: I’d heard about this big war, and I hadn’t read much about it. In the papers in America, where I was living at the time, I didn’t find much information about these huge events. When I did find them, they were these small stories describing powerful, large events that affected the lives of many thousands of people in very violent ways.

My intention was to seek and to feel some of those emotions—to bear witness to what was happening. When I spoke to foreign correspondents who reported from Congo, the consistent message I got was, “It’s not easy to report from Congo. There’s a lot of news, but it’s so difficult to live there, so difficult to work there, so difficult to travel around there. It’s dangerous.” I was acutely aware of the kind of place I was going to.

My purpose at that time was to expand my experience of the world and to immerse myself as deeply as I could in powerful events that I thought would begin to help me understand the world, and myself, in larger ways. Looking back, it’s difficult to imagine my life without the Congo now.

Guernica: In the book, you depict your own evolution, from a sense of naivety to a more sophisticated understanding of who you are and where you are. How do you think the writing of this book will impact your future work?

Anjan Sundaram: I certainly think that many of the themes, and many of the ways that I wrote about Congo, will continue to live on in my work. One of the fundamental aspects of my work is for myself and the reader to see the world that they think they know in a different way.

In Stringer, I approach that from a position of naivety. I tried to report as honestly as I could about how I arrived in Congo and my state of mind at that time. That sense of wonder and curiosity is one way of doing that. But I don’t think it’s the only way to portray the world in surprising ways, and I think I will find other mechanisms and other structures for that. My own chief curiosity is to go into the world and explore as richly as I can, and as deeply as I can, and understand its richness as fully as I can, and that certainly will live on.

The experience of living in a dictatorship whereby you cannot express yourself does very interesting things to the way that you perceive the world.

Guernica: Your next book focuses on Rwanda. How was your approach to that book different?

Anjan Sundaram: It’s a completely different book. The writing is far more clinical and austere. I describe the lives of my students—local journalists in Rwanda whom I taught and who have had difficulties with the government in various ways. There’s a consistent theme and set of characters, and the story necessitates a different kind of voice.

The experience of living in a dictatorship whereby you cannot express yourself does very interesting things to the way that you perceive the world. So in a very different way, the new book is returning to the same exploration of how we see the world and how we see ourselves.

Guernica: As a college student, you had been looking for truth in mathematics. But you write in an early chapter that you rejected mathematics because it was ultimately “man’s brilliance and vanity at play.” The Congolese rulers you describe, with their scheming and repressive behavior, seemed to be demonstrating just that.

Anjan Sundaram: Mobutu [the president of Congo from 1965 to 1997] was incredibly clever and constructed a very sophisticated world around him in order to control such a vast country and a diverse set of political characters. Among dictators, he’s quite unique. He didn’t shy away from journalists—he would always have brilliant answers for them. A journalist once asked him why he didn’t allow opposition parties, and he said, “My party represents all Congolese; why do we need an opposition?” You see in documentaries that he told journalists to bring it on. He did not fear them at all.

But the Congo I arrived in, a remnant of what Mobutu built, was a destroyed place. There was no order. In many of the places to which I traveled, the government did not exercise any control. In all these situations, I discovered people who found surprising ways to survive, to overcome their situation.

In the book I describe a beat-up jeep in which UN soldiers had died. Locals turned it into clothes hangers. Locals are never allowed to build institutions that can sustain everyone, so they find solutions that are inefficient in the long term but help them survive in the short term. It’s a destructive form of survival.

Those lines that I describe with regard to mathematics—“man’s brilliance and vanity at play”—I think it’s something that we see in many other forms in our world today. You see it in art, in mathematics, in literature. There’s been a kind of divorce between the knowledge work that we do and the physical world. It’s really a question of the purpose of the work. In abstract mathematics or abstract art, the purpose is to describe inner states of our mind, and to explore the limits of our own imagination and our capacity for creativity. While this has some applications in the world, I think it leads to a distance from the world.

I chose Congo in order to become close to a place that we had turned away from. It isn’t present in our imaginations, in the stories we tell each other.

Going to Congo was for me an act of seeking proximity, of breaking that distance. With abstraction, which is brilliant and vain, you divorce yourself from any kind of proximity to other people. I chose Congo in order to become close to a place that we had turned away from. It isn’t present in our imaginations, in the stories we tell each other. Yet it’s relevant to our lives and to our worlds, in a practical way. Congo supplies raw materials for the things that we use on a daily basis. We are intimately linked to Congo, economically. We’re linked to it through human events that are occurring there, that affect all of us, and yet you don’t find narratives of Congo present in our lives.

Guernica: How would you characterize the people in Congo you encountered?

Anjan Sundaram: I think the Congolese themselves are very self-sufficient people. But they’re used to being small, to being creative in a chaotic and difficult environment. There’s a strong sense that you are surrendering to what is around you, but still persisting with your own endeavors.

I really enjoyed my comradery with the Congolese: the people on my street, even the people who threatened me and said, “We’re going to burn the city and kill you.” There was a certain openness, and directness, that was very refreshing.

Guernica: When they issued such threats, did they see you as an outsider, as a journalist, as an Indian? Who were you to them?

Anjan Sundaram: One of my first battles was to assert myself as not white. They called me mundele, which in Lingala means “white man.” For them, there was a strong sense of the foreigner as a threat, as the person who controlled so much of their lives and who left sweeping changes: violence, corruption, exploitation, and plunder. I was born and raised in India, a country that had been colonized, so I shared a colonial experience with them. It took a long time before they understood that I didn’t see myself as white and therefore they shouldn’t either. Most Indians who are in Congo don’t really mix with Congolese society, and for many of the people I lived with, I was the first Indian whom they got to know.

It’s a very common view that if you’re a foreigner, you must be wealthy. Someone has sent you there, you have an agenda, and you have a budget. I was the opposite. No one had sent me, I had no mission in Congo, I had no budget, and this to them was completely unexpected. They found it quite difficult to understand. Some of them thought I was making this up, that I was being stingy. With the UN Pakistani soldiers, it struck me how political they were; as soon as they saw that I did not wield power, I became completely uninteresting to them.

When I was traveling in Congo and Rwanda and people asked me what I wanted, I would say, “Nothing. I just want to be here.” And that immediately disarmed them.

This is important in my work. Often, I’m going to places that have not been reported on, in the case of Congo and Rwanda. When I go to these places, I try to make sure that I’m not perceived as someone important—because I don’t see myself as important. What I really intend to achieve is to be that fly on the wall, and to try and observe as much as I can without affecting what I’ve seen. I want to get a sense that what I’m seeing in a place would have happened had I not be there. Were I to make myself an important presence, that would be lost.

The danger of a certain other kind of reporting is that people give you what they think you are seeking. People know what you want. When I was traveling in Congo and Rwanda and people asked me what I wanted, I would say, “Nothing. I just want to be here.” And that immediately disarmed them.

When people know what you want, they can then manipulate that to achieve the end that they seek. It’s far more interesting and valuable to bear witness to a scene and make good relationships without explicitly seeking something. You’re more likely to obtain a far richer and honest experience that way.

Guernica: Did your hosts have similar questions of you? Were Jose and Nana, the couple you lived with in Kinshasa, your family, your characters, or both?

Anjan Sundaram: When I arrived in Congo to live with Jose and Nana, I didn’t intend to write a book. Purely by following my own curiosity, stories developed before me. That was what I began to write about.

Were I to go into a situation thinking, “I’m going to write a book about this,” the story would become narrower, and perhaps dishonest in some way, to both the experience that I would then live, the relationships I would then form, and the stories I would then tell. And I’m suspicious of that.

Guernica: The book opens with suspicion about a boy who proceeds to steal your cellphone. He leads you to an abandoned cemetery filled with children. What was that like?

Anjan Sundaram: In the act of writing the book, I realized that children often came up, and I was most curious about the children who’d been abandoned, who’d gone on to live in that cemetery. That was one of my most powerful experiences in Congo.

I guess I saw a small part of myself in them. Those children were seeking pleasure in much the same ways that I did—they spoke about hating school in the way that I had as a young teenager. For me, it was powerful to see the lives that they would construct for themselves from scratch without society, without culture, without civilization around them to tell them what to do. If they were to move purely by their instincts, what would ensue?

I felt that what I saw in that cemetery was what we would do without civilization—and, to an extent, what we do now to places like Congo. We are not held accountable for how the economy ravages the place. Governments aren’t held accountable for foreign policies that they exercise in Congo. There are no institutional structures to render justice. The press is very limited. There’s very little transparency. You find a symmetry in certain basic human tendencies, and these tendencies are not always noble or beautiful. I think we have an instinct to turn away from that, to not acknowledge it, while it is something that’s a part of us.

There’s a certain tragic and sad side to human nature that, in our quest for beauty, we ignore. These children were in a unique place; they’d been subjected to total abandonment and rejection. It was like being in another country, a place invented by children. Those children in that cemetery were having children who were born on the street. Homeless children were giving birth to homeless children, so there were now second and third generations of these homeless children. They lived at night, when the city had gone to sleep.

In that same geographical setting of the city of Kinshasa, you had parallel worlds that existed one after the other, in which people were constructing completely different realities for themselves.

Guernica: Though you describe a shared experience with these kids, your own education was very different. You attended Rishi Valley, an Indian boarding school with a pedagogical approach that celebrates youth, curiosity, and compassion.

Anjan Sundaram: One of the distinguishing features of schools like the one I went to is the relationship between adults and children. Teachers whom I knew spoke to me and treated me as though we were at the same intellectual level. You didn’t feel you were in a hierarchical world, you felt you were in a world of peers that included teachers, the principal—everyone.

The experience of reporting that I described throughout the book is trying to establish that peer relationship, trying to overcome and shed the differences between me and the other person—whether that person be a child or a warlord. It may well be something that has been shown to me from a very young age because of the school I went to.

When I went to day school in Chennai, I did not respect my teachers as much as those who were willing to open up and have those kinds of peer-like relationships. My fellow students exposed themselves in conversation and debate and didn’t rely upon societal constructs like adulthood and age, positions, and titles. That comes back to what I was saying about becoming a part of the landscape that I am exploring, establishing a dialogue of equals, and then reporting from there.

Guernica: Knowing that you could leave at any time, that you could have money wired to you in a crisis, did you actually succeed in becoming an equal?

Anjan Sundaram: The endeavor of being a foreign correspondent means that you will never be their equal. And that has its pros and cons. Were you to be an insider in a particular society, then you would be one of them, and the way you would write about that society would be very different. When you’re brought up in a certain way, you have certain blind spots to the things going on in your culture. There is an illumination the outsider brings to a place or a situation that cannot be duplicated.

It did not matter to my life which way the war turned, and I think that gave a certain purity to the endeavor.

Living somewhere permanently, you have a stake in society. I had no stake. It did not matter to my life which way the war turned, and I think that gave a certain purity to the endeavor that I undertook. I see it as something positive, something that helps me conduct the kind of reporting that I wanted to do.

Guernica: Could a female journalist have taken the kinds of risks you did, be taken as seriously, and remained safe?

Anjan Sundaram: A number of female journalists reported from Congo while I was there, but most were attached to large organizations or visiting briefly. The Agence France-Presse correspondent often met with militiamen and reported from the frontlines of the war. Camille Lepage, a young French woman, worked as a stringer in the extremely dangerous Central African Republic, but she was found dead this May in the back of a militia pick-up truck. Sexual violence is a reality, and many soldiers are open about having raped widely during battles.

I remember a female Congolese official in the war-torn northeast, though. Her name was Petronille Vaweka. She would talk to warlords like they were her children, wagging her finger at them, and scolding them for committing war crimes. It seemed somewhat absurd, but she would tell us that only a woman could talk to those warlords in that way.

Guernica: You meet a warlord who quotes Aeschylus to you: “In all wars the first victim is truth.” What is the first victim in good journalism?

Anjan Sundaram: The first victim in journalism today is proximity. I know I’ve used that word a lot. Because of foreign budgets, newspapers have consolidated, and journalists now cover dozens of countries at a time. It is physically not possible for one person to understand and live the unique sets of experiences in all these places in honest and meaningful ways. Outlets used to send journalists to places like Congo for months at a time, and they were stationed there for months or years. There was a sense of immersive reporting, and that has been a casualty of the shift in news over the past years.

Guernica: A conventional thrill of journalism is to see your words in print, to share your words with others, and receive feedback and praise. Did you think about where your articles went after you had filed them from a dingy Internet café?

Anjan Sundaram: When I was working in Congo, I really felt like I was in this black hole. I knew my stories were printed in many newspapers, but when you’re working with the Associated Press, many newspapers that carry your story don’t print your name. Psychologically, it’s very difficult to continue to produce these reports when you’re not even sure anyone’s reading them; you’re not getting any feedback.

One day, I was sitting in this US embassy official’s office, and I was expressing my dismay: I was expending all this energy with nothing to show for it. He told me that the stories were being read and they were informing policy. I don’t know to what extent that was true, but reporting in a place like Congo, you have no idea where your reports are being read and what impact they’re having. The assurance you have is that, in many cases, had you not been there to witness what you had, it may not have been reported at all. It may not have become part of the public record of that country. It may have just faded into oblivion. And that is quite some compensation.

G

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