Virunga and Academic Masochism

A revealing commentary on the documentary film Virunga was published about a week ago in the magazine Foreign Affairs. The key lesson one gains when reading the article is the importance of avoiding a dynamic of representation wherein white people advocate on behalf of non-white people for a good, noble, or important cause, but – in so doing – radically simplify the complexities of social situations and, more importantly, deny or silence local voices. The authors are to be particularly commended for making this lesson in autological form. Realizing, one would assume, that the few nuanced postcolonial (theory) discussions of the “white savior complex” in the literature have made precisely zero impact in combatting this phenomenon, the authors have taken the bold step of rhetorically articulating their point within their own text (Derrida would be proud). Thus, in the first paragraph of their editorial, not only are we warned against the dangers of “moral righteousness” obscuring “the violent colonial origins of Virunga” and “marginalizing the voices of the people who live in and around the park” but the piece deftly drives this point home by deliberately failing to mention the especially pertinent colonial origins of Brussels and Ghent universities (from which two of the authors hail) as well as, more broadly, the (neo-)colonial roles of universities in France, the U.S, the United Kingdom, Germany, and other countries from which the remainder of the authors emerge. Originally penned in Flemish, this revised version improves on the former by including several Congolese scholars in its author-list (thus better reflecting ‘marginalization’ rather than total ‘exclusion’ of local voices, pace the postcolonialist literature’s recognition that racial-imperial power inequalities are well served by the inclusion of token representatives of the oppressed). A carefully crafted inversion of the films simplified focus on Virunga as a force for good is also produced through the claim that “the people living near Virunga are ambivalent [about] the park,” the “locals” regard the park rangers “with much suspicion and even animosity,” and anonymous, faceless Congolese voices are said to “repeatedly” rage against its colonial origins. Naturally, we are told about the work of Congolese civil society organizations, but no specifics are given, just as the film gives us glimpses of Congolese agency, but then overshadows them by the white voices of its authors.

Not content with autologically critiquing the film itself, the piece can also be read as a trenchant assault on the academics that are its authors! Only (white, European) academics, of course, can offer the suitably complex vision of “the politically economy of violent conflict in the Congo” that would better Virunga. No matter that the books written by said academics are adorned only with single-authored names with their local research ‘assistants’ relegated to acknowledgements for, it goes without saying, European-university sketched postcolonial theories of what goes on in the Congo are far superior to anything those “locals” could conjure. The attention to detail in their autological conceit is only cemented through their choice of venue. For, just as Virunga is cast in Hollywood-esque form for the sake of activism and distributed through mainstream channels, so their dissection of the film is distributed through Foreign Affairs magazine, mouthpiece for Washington D.C. and cheerleader for many an imperial adventure. Of course, this choice of venue is also a deliciously ironically self-aware one given its paid-subscription model, English language use, and general parochialism means that it is very unlikely to be read by any Congolese audience and, “consequently, the very people whose lives are affected by what happens in Virunga are left out” yet again. In short, this painfully self-aware commentary is one of the most succinct renditions yet of the point that:

To insist that behind all the various issues there exists the overarching presence of the same system, the same empire, the same totality, has always struck me as an extreme case of masochism, a perverted way to look for a sure defeat while enjoying the bittersweet feeling of superior political correctness. (Latour, 2005: 252)

Why I am proud my Congolese friends have called me ‘Congolaise’ too.

I remember a professor at the University of Lubumbashi who, after a long conversation on the Congolese ‘state’, shared his thought on Burkina Faso and the end of Blaise Compaoré’s regime. It was November 2014 and the political atmosphere in the African Great Lakes Region had been palpably tense for a few weeks, as if the good old ‘winds of change’ were returning from a long and regrettable break. The events in Burkina Faso, combined with the various presidential elections scheduled between 2015 to 2017 across the region, gave the trip a sense of occurring during the “quiet before the storm”. As Burkinabe former President Compaoré fled his country to Côte d’Ivoire and Morocco, I thought, with a hidden but delightful interior smile, ‘could this happen to Kabila’? The Political Science professor looked at me, burst into a loud laugh and after a short pause said: “I am not exactly sure why Kabila would have to go…. It took him so many years to start building everything he’s done, if he leaves now, who will continue his work? Here in the Congo you know very well political leaders when they get a grip on power, [they] just destroy everything their predecessors have done so they can start anew and leave their own mark on the political landscape”.

I paused too, thinking he might have a point but, then, I replied in asking if it would always be possible in the Congo to bypass, ignore or brutally shut down the people’s wishes? Well, I suppose the past two days have brought me an answer, and thankfully for this world’s sad state of affairs, the answer is a loud no.

It is also, sadly, a bloody and messy no. Despite EUPOL having spent millions in reforming the national police through a complex Security Sector Reform programme in the Congo, it seems that money did not produce the expected respect for ‘due process’ and the ‘rule of law,’ given the PNC’s use of live ammunition against demonstrators (who were not all peaceful, but most certainly unarmed), killing about 40 in the skirmishes in Goma and Kinshasa. The Mayor of Goma himself, whom I met and seemed deceptively modern and open-minded, called the demonstrators ‘criminals’ and let his police clash with rioting students. The government swiftly ordered a communication ‘black out’ and ordered all companies to block Internet access and SMS signal, most likely in an attempt to prevent the documentation of police violence and impede demonstrations whose organizers have used social  networks to gather support under the #Telema (‘raise up’ in Lingala) rallying cry.


Through a mix of personal memories and information from the media, I recall the widespread looting of 1991 and 1993 when the cities of Kinshasa, Lubumbashi and Kisangani among others, suddenly turned into deserted, desolated, ghostly places where revolt gave way to fear and ultimately left Mobutu in power. I think about the so hopeful Congolese people who gathered and waited patiently for the 1991 Conference Nationale Souveraine to deliver on its promises of a multi-party system and democracy, only to see, again, a triumphant Mobutu, using the opportunity to his own private advantage. I remembered the fear of the Spring of 1997 as the AFDL walked towards Kinshasa in a military move no one could believe was really happening. I remember the assassinations, the swirling inflation, the fear, and the end of an era as all the 30 year-old green symbols of Zaïre and its ‘Leopard’ vanished in the blink of an eye. I remember a Tutsi friend of my parents arriving at our home in Kinshasa, traumatized from the Rwandan genocide, and I still feel the creepy echo of war along my spine. I remember the numerous failed attempts at bringing peace and quiet in the Kivus, Ituri, and Katanga. We went from one monarch to another, from one bloodshed to another, from scandal to scandal, from deaths to more deaths. As Jason Stearns pointed out, this time it’s different: the students have taken the lead, Kabila’s PPRD is internally weakened and the Senate stepped up in amending the controversial article 8.

Oh! How many times have I heard how the Congolese don’t rise up and shine because they are too scared, have I endlessly witnessed cynical people who claim democracy isn’t for Africans, and criticized the Congo’s apathetic people and their love for nothing more than beer and lutuku. Apparently, despite bullets and brutality, they also would love to see change happen. No one can predict if this new upsurge of pro-change movement will last long enough for the country to get a chance to witness the beginning of genuine democratic turnaround and to recover from a century and a half of exploitation and war, but this past week will be remembered as those days the state listened to the people and today I am particularly proud. I am proud to be a Congolaise too.

The ‘gri-gri’ in the insanity: The police, the mentally ill, and the bullets

These lines are drawn from field encounters at a police station in DR Congo in November 2014

I entered the Captain’s office at 9:30-ish am for an interview on the relationships of Congolese public servants with the urban population and to collect contact information for local authorities. As he handed over a small piece of paper containing the names and number of four neighborhood chiefs, he said “do not tell them you got their numbers from the police or they will become suspicious”. I nodded and hastily put the note in my pocket.

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Demolition man

Growing cities in post-colonial Africa are often said to display highly disorganized urbanization schemes. As hundred of thousands newcomers flock to important commercial urban centres such as Lubumbashi and Kinshasa in the DRC, urban planning is nonetheless shrinking dramatically within wider municipal and provincial political agendas. While all levels of the Congolese state host various administrative departments dedicated to legally controlling and implementing urban planning, housing and land and property arrangements, very little ‘official’ public work seems to be carried out. At the same time, the state has recently sought to reinforce its grip over an expanding urban population through other means. This occurs through the sale of massive chunks of public land and demolition policies, rather than prioritizing the production of coherent urban planning schemes. Indeed, private companies and wealthy politico-businessmen buy out properties at the cities’ outskirt and sometimes right within existing urbanised neighbourhoods. While visiting Kinshasa and Lubumbashi, communes after communes, and talking with locals, it becomes quite clear that the future urban organisation of African cities will be quite a tough one.

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