Walter James

Walter James (SOS Femme en Danger – SOSFED): Walter graduated in 2006 from the University of Minnesota. Following college, he worked on international development in Haiti and Senegal, and studied human rights and international development in Senegal, Costa Rica, and Morocco. Walter first visited Eastern Congo as a 2009 Peace Fellow for The Advocacy Project, where he documented the work of civil society organizations such as SOS Femmes en Danger, Arche d’Alliance, and Tunza Mazingira. The following year, he graduated from the University of Maryland School of Public Policy with a Master’s degree in Public Policy.

Arche d’Alliance in Makobola: civic education and conflict transformation

22 Jun
Mr. Sangolo teaches civic participation to an eager crowd in Makobola
Mr. Sangolo teaches civic participation to an eager crowd in Makobola

Makobola is a village forming the border between the territories of Uvira and Fizi.  It has often been a hotspot for the war in the Great Lakes Region over the last fifteen years.  On March 15, 1998, the RCD (a group of Banyamulenge rebels) slaughtered over 800 civilians in Makobola as an act of repression and terror.  Today, FARDC soldiers occupy Makobola, but Burundian rebels and Mai-Mai regularly make forays into town to take what they want from the villagers.

In the midst of such an atmosphere and history of fear and violence, Arche d’Alliance is actively working to build civic participation and conflict transformation in the community.  In Makobola and in other towns in South Kivu, Arche d’Alliance has organized a noyaux de  paix (lit. “nut of peace”), a locally-formed group that acts as a medium for providing civic education and peaceful conflict transformation.  In an area that has been torn apart by war, these are very important tools to rebuilding civil society in Eastern Congo.

On the particular day that I visited Makobola, Arche d’Alliance had sent Masumbuko Songolo to give a community seminar on the importance of women’s participation in the electoral process, in pacification, and in development.  Mr. Songolo, the supervisor for the Makobola noyaux de la paix, gave his presentation to a group of 30 people, of which half were women.

Mr. Songolo started out by giving a brief summary of the last election in 2006.  He pointed out that 55% of the people that voted in the last election were women.  He also pointed out that four of the candidates for president were women.  Articles 11-17 of the Congolese Constitution specifically concerned women.  Indeed, the African country of Liberia had elected a woman, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, as their head of state.  However, in Uvira there were no women in provincial leadership, and there was but one woman in provincial leadership in Fizi.  Women did not run for office in these parts, nor did they participate in other forms of community leadership.

Songolo asked why women in Makobola did not participate in local politics. The seminar attendees said that one reason why women did not participate was because they were not educated.  Songolo told them they needed to make it a goal to provide education to women and girls.  Another answer that the participants gave was that it was not part of the local “custom” (la coutume).  Women are expected to work in the fields and fulfill household duties, not participate in community discussion, and certainly not ascend to positions of leadership in the community.  In these parts, women are more often than not intimidated into silence.  However, Songolo explained that enabling women to engage in community leadership and local elections would produce equilibrium and build Makobola’s capacity for development and the promotion of universal human rights.  In other words, Makobola needed to get with the program.  Songolo said that excluding women from the electoral process results in what the DRC suffers from now: bad governance.

If a person is competent enough to hold office, explained Songolo, it should not matter whether the candidate was a man or a woman.  In addition, he encouraged everyone to carefully scrutinize a candidate’s platform, and not give their votes away to empty promises made by pandering politicians.  Perhaps if more women ran for office, the high proportion of women voters could elect a woman that would be able to identify with them and better address their issues.

Because lack of work is a problem all across South Kivu, Songolo suggested that men could volunteer to do housework two days a week; this would allow their wives, daughters, sisters, and mothers time to receive a better education and become more active in elections and in community forums.  This suggestion caused a collective murmur in the room; men do housework?  Women in leadership?  These were concepts that demanded a revision of local customs and norms.  There was quite a bit of discussion, some of the male attendees shaking their heads in disagreement.

In the end, the seminar attendees agreed that women should be given a better education, and that men should give a certain amount of freedom to their wives and daughters to participate in the electoral process.  We all have to start somewhere, I suppose.

Seminars such as this one constitute an important part of Arche d’Alliance’s work in South Kivu.  Since the region has been a battleground for various military forces ever since 1994, the civilian population has had neither the means nor the time to build a good civil society.  Living in constant fear of massacre and banditry has meant continual displacement and a breakdown in trade, healthcare, and agriculture.  Now that the security situation is relatively (albeit tenuously) improved, civic training is necessary to strengthen these communities and give them the means to voice their needs and concerns to Kinshasa, the African community, and the rest of the world.

A group of women from Makobola who came to the Arche d'Alliance seminar
A group of women from Makobola who came to the Arche d’Alliance seminar

Posted By Walter James

Posted Jun 22nd, 2009


  • Helah Robinson

    June 23, 2009


    The importance of political participation (and women’s involvement in particular) is too often forgotten during conflict. It’s so true that “excluding women from the electoral process results in what the DRC suffers from now: bad governance,” and what l’Arche d’Alliance is doing is indispensable.

    Very cool, Walter. 🙂

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