In journalism, a stringer is a writer/correspondent who isn’t formally employed by any one news organization, but rather produces articles that may be shopped around to many would be publishers, and more often than not, may actually end up being bought by none. Stringers usually cover their own expenses, provide their own support and go to places where established, affiliated reporters do not. The term itself is of unsure origin. Some say that it was coined because these writers are paid by the word and therefore would tend to “string” together words to increase their payout. Others believe that it refers to these journalists’ potential employers who would “string them along” into believing that a permanent contractual relationship was to be had just around the corner from the next article that they wrote.
Making a living by writing anything professionally is tough enough. Deciding to do it by becoming a stringer takes a certain character; one that is determined to succeed and driven by a thirst for adventure and non-stop action. It is also useful to have a very high tolerance level for repeatedly risking everything in search of that exceptional, preferably exclusive, story. All of these traits are displayed in abundance by Anjan Sundaram in his wonderful first book, Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo.
In the summer of 2005, Sunderam decides to leave behind his postgraduate studies in mathematics at Yale, as well as a lucrative job offer from Goldman Sachs, and instead to travel to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Why such an extreme exercise in life re-orientation? Although an explanation is provided, it is not very convincing. Rather it seems to be as much due to whimsy and a bad case of ants-in-the-pants as anything else. And why the Congo? Simply due to the shear coincidence that his bank teller tells him that her brother-in-law and family, whom he has never met, live there and would agree to put him up in their home during his stay.
Using his one-way ticket, he arrives and his previously calm predictable world completely disintegrates into the uncertainties of day-to-day Congolese existence; the latter occurring with the chaotic and frequently violent state of Congolese politics and social problems as a backdrop. After many mishaps and struggles along the way to becoming the journalist he sees himself as being, he lucks out by landing a position as a stringer with the Associated Press reporting on the never ending merry-go-round of political corruption and exploitation that are the trademarks of the country’s history.
Success begins to shine upon his efforts, and helps seal his commitment to his new life on the African continent. His story about the Pygmy tribes in Congo’s rain forest wins a Reuters journalism award. His Associated Press editor acknowledges that he himself also began his career as a stringer in Congo. Editor and writer form a bond. Other opportunities present themselves, and Sundaram’s writings have since appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times as well as the Chicago Tribune.
I first heard about “Stringer” when the author was interviewed by Jon Stewart on Comedy Central’s Daily Show in early January of this year. However, be assured: This work is no light-hearted, comedic romp. Sundaram’s writing is crisp, searing, and bursting with visual details that make it unforgettable for the reader. (One reviewer used the word “luscious” to describe it, and I could not agree more.)
It is very rare to find a truly engrossing page-turner, much less one that is a work of quality non-fiction. This is just such a rarity.
Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo