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Essay | The bends in the river

A young writer unexpectedly finds a community of Indians in the midst of Congo’s conflict
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First Published: Fri, Nov 09 2012. 04 39 PM IST
An Indian UN peacekeeper in Goma, Congo. Photo: John Moore/Getty Images
An Indian UN peacekeeper in Goma, Congo. Photo: John Moore/Getty Images
Updated: Fri, Nov 09 2012. 05 02 PM IST
India is booming, they say. The diaspora is coming home. But certain alienated classes of Indians are seeking their fortunes abroad. And improbably, some are going to war-torn Congo.
This is astonishing when one considers Congo’s wretchedness. Killing and rape are such daily affairs that they are only sporadically reported in the international press. Disease and death are rampant. The government is broken, unable to provide even basic services. There is perhaps less hope in this country than in any other place.
Europe, the US—these are the places Indians dream of. I went to Congo expecting myself to be the only Indian in sight.
But I found myself in the company of hundreds of my countrymen. To my surprise they had arrived recently, during India’s rise. Like me, they had no connection to Congo. They had no reason—family or roots—to choose this place over any other. But they too had sensed the possibilities in this country’s chaos.
Unpaved roads. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
They were mostly poor, uneducated, and they sometimes spoke bitterly of India. They had felt excluded from India’s boom and the new money. They had come to Congo but discovered the big businesses monopolized by the Lebanese and others. So they started off as small traders—selling biscuits, soap and peanuts in roadside shops. It was hardly the expatriate’s dream.
One of these men, Bobby Singh, became my friend. He ran a small electronics shop in Kinshasa, Congo’s capital. We first met at India’s Independence Day flag-hoisting ceremony, and for some reason he latched on to me. Bobby hoped to make his fortune in Congo, and with some hope he had bought a piece of land, deep in the jungle.
Bobby was spectacularly lucky, even if the odds were in his favour. Congo’s land is so rich with gold, diamonds, copper, tin, tantalum, cobalt and minerals unheard of, waiting to be exploited, that the country is considered a geological aberration—unusual on our planet, for so much wealth to be concentrated on so little territory. Bobby discovered that his land contained uranium.
One of my first big breaks as a journalist came on a journey with Bobby, up the mighty Congo River, to his piece of land. It was a fantastical journey, into the world’s second largest rainforest, to areas few outsiders ever see. There I met a primitive pygmy tribe, and it was a story about their way of life that earned me the funds to travel into Congo’s war.
Former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Photo: Giammi Ferrari/Cover/Getty Images
I journeyed with surprising ease in these isolated places. Many Congolese thought I was a half-caste. The brown-skinned métis—with one parent Congolese and the other white—were powerful politicians. And those who recognized me as an Indian either thought I was there for business, or feared my black magic—my fétiche. One of Congo’s longest-ruling dictators, Mobutu Sese Seko, was believed to have owed his power to the magic he had acquired on a visit to Delhi, when he had met Indira Gandhi.
A family brought their mute girl to me one night in the jungle, and asked me to make her speak. When I told them I could not, they thought I did not want to help them and grew angry. Magic was everywhere when discussing India. Even in questions of football.
A group of young men, fans of the game, once said to me: “India has one billion people. Why does it fail to produce 11 good football players?”
“We are a nation that plays cricket,” I replied.
“You are wrong,” I was informed by these Congolese. “It is impossible that you can’t produce 11 good players. We think Fifa has banned India because its black magic makes it too good.”
Someone should inform India’s sporting authorities.
Within the war I found Indians reinventing themselves. The Indian government had sent more than 3,000 soldiers as part of a UN mission to bring Congo peace. The soldiers were mostly young jawans, restrained to remote camps in the forests. But a few officers in cities at the heart of the war found themselves in a place of new liberty—with no family or society keeping watch, and with unprecedented power, they exploded in late-night orgies with girls from the local universities.
The girls needed money to pay their fees; and the officers, I sensed, were desperate to escape India’s suffocating social mores. Congo offered such liberty.
Gold produced in Congo. Photo: Anjan Sundaram
A local Indian man I knew served as the officers’ pimp, procuring the prettiest Congolese girls. And, as it happened, he too had escaped from India: He was homosexual, and his family did not tolerate it. He showed me, with some horror, a photo album of girls his parents had sent him. And, as if proving the reach and power of Indian society, a year later he told me that he had married a girl, and that she was already pregnant.
These immigrants, living their complicated lives, became a source of invaluable friendship and support. I was at one point in a city in the war threatened by a militiaman. I got it into my head to go and meet this man, but could not find a driver willing to take the risk. It was a Pakistani trader who took me to see him, blasting Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s songs from his speakers. The Pakistani was from Punjab, and had once been an arms dealer. He knew the militiaman personally from his dealings. It was at the time perhaps the biggest story I had reported.
The Pakistani said he had a criminal record in his home country; he had chosen Congo as a place to give himself a new life.
Success in Congo, for me and for these immigrants, did not come easy. I struggled to earn a living. My life was in danger at least twice; once with a gun to my head. The Congolese family I was living with nearly threw me out of the house because I did not understand their customs. I had not understood that I had to allow family members to steal from me, and that I should never accuse them of theft.
Bobby’s land was caught up in opaque deals, and I never found out if he was able to profit from his luck with the uranium. More likely he was locked up in years of endless negotiations and didn’t make a cent. And, shortly after I met the militiaman with the Pakistani, intense street-fighting broke out in Congo’s capital, and businesses in the city, many owned by Indians, were looted, and suffered for many months.
But it was during that battle that I began to write for The New York Times. Congo, remote, disregarded by the world, had become the place where I discovered an essential piece of my vocation.
I felt free in this land. I could turn myself into anything I wanted—reporter, pimp, businessman. I could pursue any dream. There were no established rules, no constraining society, no lines that I could not cross. It was a terre-neuve. In my travels I discovered mass graves. I saw starvation, death. I met people who had committed murderous atrocities. This was the world that had eluded me; it was a world I had wanted to see.
I arrived in Congo having never written a news story, and within a year was offered jobs with the Associated Press. Such opportunities would have been difficult to come by in India’s big cities, or for that matter anywhere else.
Like the Indians and Pakistanis I met and befriended, in Congo’s chaos I found something of my fortune. Like them, I had run against the Indian tradition of moving to the West. And I felt I had found my place.
Anjan Sundaram’s first book, Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo, will be published by Penguin India in February.
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First Published: Fri, Nov 09 2012. 04 39 PM IST
More Topics: Congo | War | Books | Gold | immigrants |