Anjan Sundaram is an award-winning journalist who has reported from Africa for the New York Times and the Associated Press. He is the author of Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo.
In a recent editorial for the New York Times you criticized the scarcity of means by which the American media cover a few hot spots in the world: what are the negative consequences of this?
It means that our understanding of the world today, and also of human history, is based on a narrative with significant holes in it. Great events like the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has killed 5 million people, are reduced to footnotes. Ultimately, this limits our understanding of ourselves.
Your book is a very powerful and moving report of an event that we would have otherwise little understood: When did you decide to write it?
I decided to write the book as I was leaving Congo. The idea was to convey some sense of what the crisis feels like, and how it is lived, rather than to come at it through statistics. I felt I needed to write something to convey the immensity of what I had experienced, and this became the anchor for the book.
You have been changed by the events that you describe in the book?
It is difficult to see the world in the same way after traveling through a place like Congo. You learn a great deal by watching people overcome catastrophic circumstances. Congo also supplies the world with elements used in jewelry, telephones, electric cables and circuit boards. Now when I see those things I’m reminded of their supply chains, of mines in Congo in which children would work. I remember a mass grave of children who had died of exhaustion from hauling minerals.
What are your relations with the Congolese?
I don’t pride myself on any special relationship with the Congolese. I’m an observer. I am always keen to listen to what people have to say about my writing, or about anything else.
What can we learn from what’s going on in the Congo?
There are places in the world we are intimately connected to but know very little about. Our decisions as consumers in the global marketplace have very real effects on the lives of children, women and men. The first step to taking some responsibility for how we affect those people is to learn about them.
International critics have greatly appreciated your talent in describing the places, people and feelings that the Congo has sent you: When you wrote the book were you aware of the power of your words?
I’m grateful when I hear that people were affected by what I’ve written. The world is full of people talking these days: television, radio, books, blogs, social media. My words are but a few in that conversation. More broadly, I was moved by many of the things I experienced in Congo, and I think it’s only natural that the emotion came out when I described those things.
The purpose of our site is to promote a vibrant and active cultural and artistic life of many African countries because we believe that the cultural isolation is one of the main enemies of democracy. What do you think of this?
I absolutely support it. Through such exchange comes understanding of oneself and of ‘the other’. I wish you the best.