It is easy in the context of contemporary society to look upon the situation in the Congo as an incomprehensible and inexplicable phenomenon. The atrocities that occur across the country on such a regular and continual basis, once shocking headlines that touched people the world over, have become commonplace. “Another mass rape in the Congo?” we ask ourselves. “So awful. Those poor women.” But what to do in the face of such mindless brutality? Since there’s no explaining such actions, there is no hope of putting a stop to them. One can’t help but feel that amongst those who struggle to understand the conflict in the DRC (nearly all of us, since it is not an easy conflict to comprehend), even the most politically correct reserve some small part of their consciousness in which they dismiss rape survivors as victims, helpless to escape the violations of the actors involved – madmen and savages. However, such a conception of events is a dangerous thing. It is this pervading mentality that allows us to sit back and do nothing. After all, if there is no explanation for the actions of those who violate, there can be no solution to the problem. So we can sit idle, safe in the knowledge that: “There’s-nothing-that-we-can-do-but-anyway-isn’t-it-a-shame-that-those-poor-Congolese-women-are-suffering-at-the-hands-of-those-immoral-savages? Well – they didn’t call it the Heart of Darkness for nothing”.
This is far from the case. Do a little digging, and explanations quickly emerge. Sexual violence in the Congo is a complex and multi-faceted issue, with roots in historical, political, economic, societal, cultural and psychological factors. There is no quick-fix quotation which can hope to explain rape in the Congo. Instead, a more nuanced understanding is necessary. The following blog hopes to contribute to this in providing a concise account of Congo’s recent brutal history – a key factor in the continuing instability and thus persistent sexual violence perpetrated throughout the East.
Pre-Colonial Eastern Congo in a Nutshell
Prior to colonisation in the 19th century, the region which is now the eastern part of Democratic Republic of the Congo was made up of various shifting kingdoms. Most recently, the Luba Kingdom, the Lunda Kingdom and the Kingdom of Garangaze formed the central and eastern-most areas of the DRC. Such kingdoms were extremely sophisticated and well organised, engaging in organised fishing operations, palm oil extraction, metal mining and working, and trade towards the Indian Ocean.
Throughout the 19th century, these kingdoms saw their power gradually eroded by new states cropping up, and most significantly, ever-growing and increasingly brutal slave trade. The brutal slave trade in eastern Congo had been active for centuries prior to the C19th, but was now snatching away the strongest and best and leaving devastation in its wake at an unprecedented rate. The C19th saw Arab-Swahili traders enjoying a monopoly on this brutal and burgeoning enterprise, with them setting up the first slave fort in Nyangwe in 1860. The mercenaries charged gathering slaves partook in notoriously sadistic and violent practices, routinely kidnapping and raping the children and women of whichever area they were targeting, razing entire villages to the ground, and killing indiscriminately (sound familiar, anyone?).
Tippu Tip, an Arab-Swahili businessman employed by the sultans of Zanzibar, was the key figure in the eastern slave trade at this point. He effectively stripped the region of its key human and material resources throughout the latter half of the 19th century, marching westwards with an army of 50,000 men in search of ivory and slaves, and setting up his own state briefly between Lake Tanganyika and the northeast corner of the Congo River. The famous explorer, Henry Morton Stanley, was apparently so horrified by the brutality of his enterprise in the east, that he described it as “bearing fire and spreading carnage with lead and iron […] 118 villages and 43 districts have been devastated […] The outcome from the territory with its millions of souls is 5,000 slaves, obtained at the cruel expense of 33,000 lives!”
This discovery and disgust at the horror of the slave trade in the Congo should have led to a better future for the people of what is now the DRC. On the premise of halting the devastation of the slave trade and improving the lives of the Congolese, King Leopold began to campaign for himself to personally rule over the region, creating a ‘humanitarian’ organisation to develop and civilise the Congo. Instead, he clandestinely created a vicious and repressive system of forced labour which brutalised and exploited the Congolese population, perhaps to an even greater extent than the slave traders who came before him.
Stay tuned for the next edition of A Brief History of Slavery, Colonisation, Conflict and Rape in the DRC for more on the devastating effects of King Leopold’s reign of the DRC.
Posted By Charlie Walker
Posted Oct 17th, 2011