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.

“Morphology and Resentment”

14 Mar

South Kivu is home to quite a few ethnic groups, and with any area with fragmented identities, there are low-level tensions between these groups.  In Uvira and Fizi, there are many different tribal/linguistic groups, such as the Bafulero, Babembe, Bavira, Banyamulenge, Bashi.  Here is a little guide to the prefixes:

One person: Mufulero

Many people: Bafulero

Language: Kifulero

For example:  Josephine is a Mubembe.  She belongs to the Babembe people, and she speaks Kibembe.  There are a couple of exceptions to these grammatical rules; for example, the Banyamulenge speak Kinyarwanda, as their ethnic group came to the Kivus from Rwanda a few hundred years ago.  People from Rwanda are called Banyarwanda, people from Burundi are called Barundi (or, more commonly, burundais) and speak Kirundi.  In the Kivus, most everybody knows Kiswahili, as is the case in Rwanda, Burundi, Kenya, and Tanzania.  Kiswahili has become the lingua franca in areas where people from many different ethnic groups are found, such as Uvira town.  In addition, most people know at least a little bit of the language of other ethnic groups.  Despite slight regional differences in vocabulary, one can get most anywhere in East Africa if one speaks Kiswahili.

One has to be extremely careful when talking about ethnicity, especially when it comes to the various armed groups.  Ethnic issues oftentimes are connected to political and military actions, but no armed group’s motivations can be explained entirely along ethnic guidelines.  Looking for a political motive is more worthwhile.

When the Rwandans invaded the Congo and continued to have a presence in the Kivus, part of their explanation for their invasion was to prevent the “genocide” of their “Tutsi” brothers, the Banyamulenge.  Simmering ethnic tensions already existing between the Banyamulenge and the “autochtone” tribes (Babembe, Bafulero) were one of the reasons why South Kivu was invaded, catalyzed by the genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda and by the fact many of the perpetrators fled into the Congo and were regrouping there.  Depending on whom you talk to here, you will always get a different response as to who is the truly “victimized” ethnic group in South Kivu.  While political and rebel movements may be along “tribal” lines (the FDLR, for example, is a “Hutu” nationalist group), ethnicity may be simply be an excuse to further a selfish agenda. Politicians and military leaders exploit these differences; in South Kivu, the Banyamulenge can be portrayed either as bloodthirsty killers of the “native” tribes or as victims of “genocidal Congolese” and their “Hutu genocidaire allies”.  Neither portrayal is correct. Members of one ethnic group may be quick to recall the massacres of their tribesmen at the hands of another tribe, but won’t be able to recall the massacres committed by their own ethnic group against others; I’ve heard this quite a bit from Bembe people in Fizi Territory, who are quick to point out sites where Babembe were massacred by the predominately Banyamulenge RCD, but would be hard pressed to recount the anti-Banyamulenge pogroms/massacres that have also occurred in the area, before and after the RCD takeover.

Of course, this is not to say that ethnicity/tribal affiliation is something to ignore; one only has to look at the 1994 genocide in Rwanda to see the perils of ignoring ethnic tensions and how they can be exploited for murderous intent.  Ethnic divides can ignite hatred and suspicion, since it is that much easier to hate the “other” who doesn’t speak your language, looks a little differently than you, and practices customs slightly different from yours.

The FARDC in South Kivu consist of many Banyamulenge, including quite of the officers.  The Mai Mai are comprised of members mostly from the “autochtone” tribes, the Babembe, Bafulero, etc.  The fact that the conflict is delineated along ethnic lines is one reason why the Amani Leo troops are implicated in so many rapes in Fizi Territory; there is a lower mental/cultural threshold to cross for a Banyamulenge soldier to rape/assault someone of the “other” ethnic group, especially for someone they see as the “enemy”.  Same thing goes for the FDLR rebels and their general attitude towards the Congolese population.  The Banyamulenge are not inherently evil, and not all members of their ethnic group can be labeled as rapists and murderers, despite what some members of some other ethnic groups may tell you.  It is easy to see how the situation could be reversed if the FARDC ranks were mostly commanded and made up of members of another ethnic group.

This is not to say that all sexual or gender-based violence goes perpendicular to ethnic lines.  The second-class status of women in a patriarchal society make Congolese women all the more vulnerable to the designs of all predators, be they a soldier from a different region, their next-door neighbor, or even a member of their own family.  Taboos on denouncing perpetrators and the lack of a functioning law enforcement/justice system make the situation all the more difficult to gauge and ameliorate.

When I write about the Congo, I mostly try to avoid attaching ethnic labels to political/armed groups, except when necessary to possibly explain the reasons around a group’s actions/platform.  The point is that ethnic/tribal divides often exacerbate conflicts over land, mineral mines, or even cows.  Ignoring them only perpetuates ignorance, but simply attributing all the violence to “ethnic conflict” misses the point.  The war has political, economic, and military implications that extend beyond the region and even beyond the continent.

In the States, I’ve had to endure listening to many an American talking about “crazy uncivilized Africans” killing each other because of “tribal animosity” that existed “long before we [white people] got there”.  I greatly resent this sort of sentiment, mostly because of colonial legacy (remember, it was Europeans who created the whole “Hutu” and “Tutsi” false dichotomy) and the modern problems of Africa that have more to do with economics and politics than tribal affiliation.  Oftentimes these modern problems involve the actions of governments, corporations, and individuals outside of Africa.  I’d say that our culpability as Non-Africans is pretty well established.

It should be noted that the grand majority of Congolese people I know are fairly chilled out when it comes to ethnic differences; people from all different tribes and ethnic groups interact with each other everyday in the Congo without incident.

Many civil society organizations in Eastern Congo work to try and break down these ethnic barriers, reminding everyone that they are Congolese citizens first and foremost, and tribal differences should not be an excuse for violence, mistrust, and marginalization.  SOS FED makes no distinction between beneficiaries in terms of language or tribe, and all are welcome.


Posted Mar 14th, 2011

1 Comment

  • JYJ

    March 14, 2011


    Good info. I was just reading up on various regional details and facts today. Thanks.

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