Right in the first chapter of the book, the author writes:"I had left for Congo in a sort of rage, a searing emotion. The feeling was of being abandoned, of acute despair. The world had become too beautiful. The beauty was starting to cave in on itself—revealing a core of crisis. One had nothing to hold on to......Part of my desire was to see a crisis. I had lived in man’s genius for so long, I wanted to know our destructive capacities.”. The author was a young 22- year old Mathematics Graduate in Yale at this time. As I read this, I thought, 'Wow, won't he be chewed out for saying this as one more journalist, gawking at Africa's tragedies?". On reflection, I thought, "After all, the Polish journalist and Yale alumni Ryszard Kapuściński, to whom the author is compared to nowadays, also wandered in Africa in the 1960s and witnessed coups, mass killings and communist revolutions and wrote about them to great acclaim. So, why not Anjan Sundaram?"
Anjan Sundaram grew up in Dubai until the age of ten, completed his schooling in the sheltering environment of Rishi Valley in Bangalore, India and then went to Yale for Graduate studies in Mathematics. Soon, he decides to experience man's destructive capacities by going to the Democratic Republic of Congo where nearly four million people have been killed in the war for its minerals and metals and other wealth. He reaches Kinshasa, stays in the poor neighbourhood of Victoire with a Congolese family, gets robbed at gunpoint soon after and starts experiencing the country up close and personal. He manages to get a job as a stringer, reporting for AP, and travels into the conflict zones in the north of the country, sending dispatches on the killings, kidnappings and on the abject poverty of the country. He meets the warlords, gets to see the mass graves and manages to get embedded with the UN soldiers as they engage the rebels in combat deep in the jungles of Congo. He also finds that there are deeply entrenched international businesses for whom it is advantageous to keep the conflict going. Neighboring countries like Uganda and Rwanda control Congolese mines and profit from the smuggling that thrives on the conflict. Wealthy Indian businessmen, both native and from India, trade as middlemen in these conflict minerals. US based companies like Phelps Dodge which has mining operations here in copper and cobalt, receive backing and support from the US govt. IKEA gets wood from these forests. The author travels up the Congo river by boat with an Indian to find a piece of land he had purchased in the jungles hoping to get rich from it. In Bunia, he stays with a Punjabi Pakistani who traffics in arms to the militias. He tells the author that most UN soldiers in Bunia are from Pakistan and they are all into the illegal business of taking gold from the militias and sending them to Karachi. To the north of Bunia, the militias have killed off all the white rhinoceros, not for its horns but to eat. All in all, it is an adventurous foray into Congo and sensitive and compassionate reporting from a man who came to Yale to seek beauty in Mathematics.
There are also powerful observations on Africa from Sundaram, sprinkled along the way in the book. On the relationship of Congolese with Indians, he says, "The Congolese would complain and complain about the Indian but they would accept that only one race treated them worse; the Congolese (the African more generally)".
The author writes tellingly on dictatorship as follows: " Having grown up in a dictatorship in Dubai, I recognized the same elements in Congolese society - a certain acquiescence, a cloistering within small ambitions, a paucity of confidence in oneself, and the utter belief in the power of one man." He elaborates further that dictators do not invoke God any more to claim their divine right to power. Instead the successful dictator uses the tools of liberty - elections, art, media ....they create at once a terror of his presence and a fear of his loss." This is brilliant prose, reminiscent of V.S. Naipaul in his novel 'A Bend in the River'.
Whenever one reads such books, there is always the troubling question of morality in journalists rushing to conflict zones to witness man's cruelty to man. Anjan Sundaram was mauled this year for this book at the Jaipur Literary festival by the British African writer Kwasi Karteng for being the 'classic African tourist'. However, I feel that such reportage have contributed positively towards betterment across the world. Journalists have come to India and Bangladesh and exposed child labour in the leather industry in India and horrible working conditions in the textile industry in Bangladesh. These exposes have resulted in better working conditions in these countries. It is intrepid journalists like the author who have shown us that all our cell phones and tablets depend on cadmium, tin and tantalum mined in the war torn Congo and transported by vested interests. In the past, it took historians decades to bring to light the atrocities of the Belgians and the French in cultivating rubber and mining copper out of the Congo. Thanks to journalists like the author, we get to know the truth sooner now so that the world can organize and respond more quickly.
The history of Congo is a heart-wrenching tale of power falling from the sky once every twenty to thirty years on yet another dictator and resulting in yet another disappointment in the country not realizing its potential, in spite of the bounty that Nature has bestowed upon it. This book adds one more recent chapter to that history.