Exorcisms and Dashing Expats: Expect the Unexpected in Sundaram’s ‘Stringer’

Stringer - Anjan Sundaram
Democratic Republic of Congo © Robert E. Ford

As he finished his senior year at Yale, Anjan Sundaram had two fabulous options before him: he could continue on at Yale and get his PhD in mathematics, or he could take a job offer from Goldman Sachs and quickly join the one percent. Instead, he decided to follow a whim and try to make a name for himself as a journalist in the Democratic Republic of Congo, known throughout the world for being blighted, dangerous and politically corrupt. He soon found work as a stringer -- a freelancer who feeds stories to one outlet -- for the AP, and in addition to covering stories of massacres, riots, and the poaching of natural resources, he managed to write a memoir.

Stringer is remarkably successful at being many things at once: a journalist’s bildungsroman, a portrait of a vibrant but troubled nation, and a poetic love letter to a population and its lively culture. During his time in the Congo, Sundaram experiences many things that confound his expectations. Below are a few unexpected tidbits about the Congolese people and nation that he reveals in Stringer. (Don’t worry––there are no spoilers, and there are plenty more surprises where these came from.)

1. Exorcisms are not entirely uncommon

Sundaram takes up residence with a family of his friend in a lower class neighborhood of Kinshasa, Congo’s capital and largest city. Even though the matriarch of the house is a nurse, she warns Sundaram to stay away from the local kids, claiming they could "grow large at night, into giants," and cause miscarriages and marital infidelity. The belief in the occult leanings of children is actually pretty widespread in Congo. Children viewed burdensome by dysfunctional families are often taken to "awakening churches" where they are beaten, starved, and emotionally abused by "pastors," then left to fend for themselves on the streets. A 2012 French-Belgian documentary film titled Kinshasa Kids actually follows a group of these homeless children as they attempt to form a musical act.

2. The myth surrounding ex-president Lauren-Desire Kabila’s assassination is pretty juicy

As an ideologue, Kabila was heavily influenced by communism and leftist ideals. He studied philosophy in Belgium and France in his youth, and Sundaram writes that the ex-president then "spent thirty years writing Marxist speeches in the bush."  In his early twenties, Kabila worked to organize a guerrilla-style revolution in rural Eastern Congo, even aided for a brief time by Che Guevara (who wasn’t entirely impressed, calling Kabila "distracted.") By the end of Kabila’s presidency in 2001, inflation was rampant and discontent among citizens had peaked. According to popular Congolese legend, he was assassinated with his hand submerged in a bowl of diamonds. Though it’s pretty unlikely that’s what actually happened, the symbolism is heavy.

3. When it comes to love, women are the real players

While Congolese society used to be wary of marrying off its daughters to foreigners, the lack of suitable marriage candidates has made expats good prospects. Oftentimes young women will announce their love and devotion for a foreign man upon first meeting (this happens to Sundaram twice, with hilarious results.) It’s normal for women to take up to five "offices" -- a euphemism for lover -- and completely drain the besotted’s bank account.