Tag Archives: Africa

Review: Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo by Anjan Sundaram


StringerStringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo by Anjan Sundaram (2014, Doubleday)

Anjan Sundaram, a twenty-two-year-old graduate student at Yale, turned down a good, safe job offer and instead decided to spend a year in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as a reporter, focusing on the 2006 presidential elections. An Indian national who grew up in Dubai, Sundaram has experience with being an outsider; even when he finds Indian enclaves in the Congo, he’s never quite able to fit in. But being an outsider—in particular, not being a white Westerner—serves Sundaram well in many ways, as he’s able to make connections and gain access that many others wouldn’t have. He’s also used to byzantine bureaucracy (meaning he knows what’s being said behind the words that are actually spoken) and analyzing situations from the outside, which makes him extremely effective as a reporter.

That being said, this is not a book about the Congo or the war or even the elections; it is a book about the development of a journalist in perhaps the largest war zone since World War II—which many would argue has gone largely unnmentioned in the mainstream Western media. The big-picture events are very much in the background—the focus is on daily life, both urban and rural, and on the people Sundaram encounters during his stay; and also on his transition from naïve cub reporter to cynical journalist who realizes that long after he’s gone, life in Congo will stay the same—the difference being nobody will be there to report it.

The quality of the writing is what sets this book apart. When I first saw the comparisons to Naipaul I was skeptical, but Sundaram has earned them. He’s able to convey so much emotion in his writing, and honesty: he’s writing about the real Congo, the struggles of everyday Congolese with whom he’s lived and worked. This is a story about humanity. Yes, Sundaram is still an outsider—he makes no claims to the contrary—but I was fascinated by his account. While I wish there had been more completeness to the story, I think maybe that was the point: in a society where nothing really changes other than the person in charge, can the big questions (such as how to end these conflicts) really ever be answered?

I definitely recommend this book.

This ARC was provided via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

My rating: 4 stars of 5

Review: No Time to Lose by Peter Piot


No Time to LoseNo Time to Lose: A Life in Pursuit of Deadly Viruses by Peter Piot (W.W. Norton & Company,  2012).

Blurb: When Peter Piot was in medical school, a professor warned, “There’s no future in infectious diseases. They’ve all been solved.” Fortunately, Piot ignored him, and the result has been an exceptional, adventure-filled career. In the 1970s, as a young man, Piot was sent to Central Africa as part of a team tasked with identifying a grisly new virus. Crossing into the quarantine zone on the most dangerous missions, he studied local customs to determine how this disease—the Ebola virus—was spreading. Later, Piot found himself in the field again when another mysterious epidemic broke out: AIDS. He traveled throughout Africa, leading the first international AIDS initiatives there. Then, as founder and director of UNAIDS, he negotiated policies with leaders from Fidel Castro to Thabo Mbeki and helped turn the tide of the epidemic. Candid and engrossing, No Time to Lose captures the urgency and excitement of being on the front lines in the fight against today’s deadliest diseases.


In the middle of the twentieth century, the conventional wisdom held that infectious diseases were a thing of the past: vaccination programs and antibiotics had most of them under control, and there was general optimism that others (such as malaria) would soon be eradicated as well. Very few people imagined the challenges that lay ahead: emerging diseases such as Ebola and SARS; drug-resistant strains of bacteria, which made previously curable diseases untreatable; and a deadly new epidemic: HIV/AIDS.

Peter Piot chose to study infectious diseases, going against the advice of his medical school teachers. In doing so, he set himself up for an amazing life: He was one of the first Westerners to arrive on the scene of the 1976 Ebola outbreak—the first known outbreak—in Yambuku, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). After that experience, Piot decided to continue his study of infectious diseases, with a focus on sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). In the 1980s, as HIV/AIDS emerged in Western nations, Piot was one of the first to grasp the significance of and the impact the virus would have on Africa, in particular sub-Saharan Africa. Piot spent the latter part of his career organizing the world response to HIV/AIDS, taking care to ensure the developing world was both represented and given assistance.

Dr. Piot is an engaging writer, and the book mirrors the diseases he’s dealing with. The first half is fast-paced and adventurous, the story of a virus hunter in the hot zones of Africa. The second half of the book is much slower, as it deals with the slow-to-develop HIV/AIDS epidemic and the glacial pace of the world’s response to it. All in all, this was a fascinating memoir.


My rating: 4 stars

Review: The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe by Peter Godwin


TheFearThe Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe by Peter Godwin (2010, Little, Brown)

Blurb: Journalist Peter Godwin has covered wars. As a soldier, he’s fought them. But nothing prepared him for the surreal mix of desperation and hope he encountered when he returned to Zimbabwe, his broken homeland. 

Godwin arrived as Robert Mugabe, the country’s dictator for 30 years, has finally lost an election. Mugabe’s tenure has left Zimbabwe with the world’s highest rate of inflation and the shortest life span. Instead of conceding power, Mugabe launched a brutal campaign of terror against his own citizens. With foreign correspondents banned, and he himself there illegally, Godwin was one of the few observers to bear witness to this period the locals call The Fear. He saw torture bases and the burning villages but was most awed as an observer of not only simple acts of kindness but also churchmen and diplomats putting their own lives on the line to try to stop the carnage.

THE FEAR is a book about the astonishing courage and resilience of a people, armed with nothing but a desire to be free, who challenged a violent dictatorship. It is also the deeply personal and ultimately uplifting story of a man trying to make sense of the country he can’t recognize as home.

Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) was, for many years, Africa’s success story. After a bloody war of independence, under the new government Zimbabwe’s infrastructure and educational and health-care systems were excellent (the country’s HIV/AIDS prevention and education programs were routinely referred to as models for the rest of Africa), corruption was relatively controlled, and racial tensions seemed to be a thing of the past. But as the new millennium began, this all came apart: race-based “land reform” led to the collapse of the country’s agriculture—no longer a major exporter of grain and other crops, Zimbabwe’s economy foundered. Human rights abuses were common—systemic, even—with journalists and opposition party members being targeted. Inflation skyrocketed, measured in the quintillions by 2008, when Robert Mugabe and his ruling party, ZANU-PF, blatantly manipulated election results in order to maintain power.  Zimbabwe became a failed state.

Peter Godwin grew up in Zimbabwe—then Rhodesia—and was drafted into the army during the civil war. His book Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa tells this story. Godwin left Zimbabwe and became a journalist (he was foreign correspondent for the Sunday Times and has worked with the BBC, the New York Times, and other publications). He returned over the years to visit his aging parents, and he chronicles the nation’s slide into economic and political chaos in When a Crocodile Eats the Sun: A Memoir. Both books are well worth reading, and both are intensely personal. The Fear is political: Godwin describes the events of 2008–2009, known locally as “the Fear,” the presidential elections and the violent aftermath leading up to the formation of the Government of National Unity, or GNU. This is not the story of Godwin or his family, who have all left Zimbabwe; this is the story of the people who remain, and who continue to fight against Mugabe’s dictatorship. As Godwin says: “I am bearing witness to what is happening here—to the sustained cruelty of it all. I have a responsibility to try to amplify this suffering, this sacrifice, so that it will not have happened in vain.”

The Fear is a difficult book to read. It’s full of violence and horror and injustice. As the oldest head of state in Africa, Robert Mugabe continued to maintain a high level of respect for liberating Zimbabwe: African leaders would not censure him. Because the violence was one-sided (i.e., not a civil war), the international community was unwilling to intervene. Godwin doesn’t make any claims of impartiality—he is solidly against Mugabe’s dictatorship, which he describes as a guerilla movement that maintains its military tactics, seemingly unable to make the transition to a system of law and order.

The Fear was published in March 2011. In March 2013, after a delay of almost two years, the voters of Zimbabwe approved a new constitution, one that would allow a president only ten years in office (two five-year terms) and that would eliminate veto powers over the parliament. The country’s courts have mandated that presidential elections be held before 31 July—and Robert Mugabe is a candidate.

My rating: 5 stars

The Origins of AIDS by Jacques Pepin


OriginsAIDSThe Origins of AIDS by Jacques Pepin (Cambridge University Press, 2011)

Blurb: It is now thirty years since the discovery of AIDS but its origins continue to puzzle doctors and scientists. Inspired by his own experiences working as an infectious diseases physician in Africa, Jacques Pepin looks back to the early twentieth-century events in Africa that triggered the emergence of HIV/AIDS and traces its subsequent development into the most dramatic and destructive epidemic of modern times. He shows how the disease was first transmitted from chimpanzees to man and then how urbanization, prostitution, and large-scale colonial medical campaigns intended to eradicate tropical diseases combined to disastrous effect to fuel the spread of the virus from its origins in Leopoldville to the rest of Africa, the Caribbean and ultimately worldwide. This is an essential new perspective on HIV/AIDS and on the lessons that must be learnt if we are to avoid provoking another pandemic in the future.

This was a very well written, very well researched book. In places it was a little bit difficult to understand, but that’s not the author’s fault–he did an excellent job of simplifying complex information. The book isn’t intended for general reading, I don’t think, so it’s not surprising that someone without a medical/scientific background might struggle a bit.

Pepin also does an excellent job of summarizing the effects of colonialism on African nations in the context of a pandemic. I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in where HIV came from.

My rating: 5 stars

Dancing in the Glory of Monsters by Jason Stearns


Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa by Jason StearnsDancingintheGlory (PublicAffairs, 2011)

Blurb: At the heart of Africa is Congo, a country the size of Western Europe, bordering nine other nations, that since 1996 has been wracked by a brutal and unstaunchable war in which millions have died. And yet, despite its epic proportions, it has received little sustained media attention. In this deeply reported book, Jason Stearns vividly tells the story of this misunderstood conflict through the experiences of those who engineered and perpetrated it. He depicts village pastors who survived massacres, the child soldier assassin of President Kabila, a female Hutu activist who relives the hunting and methodical extermination of fellow refugees, and key architects of the war that became as great a disaster as–and was a direct consequence of–the genocide in neighboring Rwanda. Through their stories, he tries to understand why such mass violence made sense, and why stability has been so elusive.

Through their voices, and an astonishing wealth of knowledge and research, Stearns chronicles the political, social, and moral decay of the Congolese State.

The more I read about African history and politics, the more I realize I will probably never understand African history and politics. Africa is such a huge place, with diverse and complex histories (and yes, I meant that in the plural), and all too often, it seems, Westerners tend to view it as a monolithic primitive place with a primitive culture, which is completely wrong.

The author of Dancing in the Glory of Monsters does a very good job of placing the Congo wars into perspective. He refers to them as an African World War, which I think is appropriate; in a nation the size of Western Europe and with the involvement of some nine countries and 20 rebel factions, I think this qualifies. The book is very readable and isn’t overly academic; it’s packed with interviews and statistics, but they are both necessary and well-integrated into the text. Recommended for anyone who wants to learn about this deadly conflict.

My rating: 4 stars

Histories of the Hanged, by David Anderson


Histories of the Hanged

Histories of the Hanged, by David Anderson (WW Norton & Co., 2005)

Blurb: In “a gripping narrative that is all but impossible to put down” (Joseph C. Miller), Histories of the Hanged exposes the long-hidden colonial crimes of the British in Kenya. This groundbreaking work tells how the brutal war between the colonial government and the insurrectionist Mau Mau between 1952 and 1960 dominated the final bloody decade of imperialism in East Africa. Using extraordinary new evidence, David Anderson puts the colonial government on trial with eyewitness testimony from over 800 court cases and previously unseen archives. His research exonerates the Kikuyu rebels; hardly the terrorists they were thought to be; and reveals the British to be brutal aggressors in a “dirty war” that involved leaders at the highest ranks of the British government. This astonishing piece of scholarship portrays a teetering colonial empire in its final phase; employing whatever military and propaganda methods it could to preserve an order that could no longer hold.

Before I read this book, I could fit everything I knew about the Mau Mau uprising into two sentences–and as it turns out, all of it was wrong. This is a very well researched, extremely readable history of Mau Mau in Kenya, from the late 1940s until the early 1960s. Highly recommended for anyone who is interested in the history of East Africa.

My rating: 5 stars