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Sundaram speaking with Hultman

I recently complained about remarks I heard by former US Ambassador in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, William Garvelink.  He spoke at CSIS yesterday at a book event for Anjan Sundaram, who has recently published a book on his experiences as a journalist in the Congo from 2005 – 2007 (he went there right after graduating from Yale).  I thought that I might be able to get another sourpuss post from yesterday’s event, but that was not particularly the case (at least in regards to Garvelink).  That honor went to Tami Hultman, co-founder of AllAfrica.

In the Q&A, Hultman noted that she thought Sundaram’s book was beautifully written, but her reaction to it was ‘almost entirely negative’ as she felt that it reinforced Western stereotypes of Africa.  She qualified this remark by noting that what she heard from Sundaram during the talk encouraged her to re-evaluate that position.

I actually detected some elements of this in Sundaram’s comments, most notable when he referred to a staff member at a hotel as a ‘boy’, an unfortunate choice of words even if the individual in question was quite youthful.  He later observed that he felt that in ‘every little village’ in the Congo there was someone ‘who can speak intelligently.’  He added that he spoke with pygmies who sold rights to their land for several sacks of salt – I wonder who their intelligent representative was?

Sundaram stated that his book has two themes:

  1. Make sense of the crisis in the Congo
  2. To explore how the West covers the Congo conflict

Sundaram noted that he was one of only 4 foreign journalists in the Congo and the only one who did not live in a posh hotel.  He apparently lived in a slum, which may explain why he did not hesitate to sleep with street children in a cemetery for one of his first stories (oh, the things one can get away with in Africa!).  He also noted that he discovered a mass grave, which intrigued me.  I presume this ‘discovery’ was in the same sense of Livingstone discovering Victoria Falls.

Ambassador Garvelink held the diplomatic line for the most part.  The notable exception was his claim that the Congo’s neighbors need to be held accountable for their actions in the Congo – this came in response to a question from Nii AKuetteh regarding the machination of Paul Kagame and Rwanda in the region.  He also admonished the au dience by telling us that our cell phones were fueling conflict in eastern Congo – the next time I hear someone wax poetic about the power of cell phones to transform Africa, perhaps I will suggest that those Africans are fueling conflict in the Congo!

I enjoyed the event and found it very insightful, but it lacked some of the deep analysis that I’ve heard at other CSIS events that don’t draw the big names. That said, that probably shouldn’t be the expectation for a book event.  It seems like I fell into the sourpuss trap after all.