As part of the 2020-21 WSRP Lecture Series, Georgette Ledgister (Agnes Scott College), Visiting Lecturer on Women's Studies and African Religions, gave the lecture, “Gods, Guns, and Girls: Gender, Agency, and Spirituality in a Congolese Rebel Movement.”
While most accounts of war treat women solely as victims of violence, Ledgister's study focuses on a woman who rose to the highest ranks of the Mai-Mai Rebel movement in the Democratic Republic of Congo through a gender-defying engagement with ancestral power. (Read a Q&A with Georgette Ledgister to learn more about her work.)
Good afternoon. It's great to see you all here. I can't actually see you, but I'm very pleased to welcome you on behalf of the Women's Studies and Religion Program at Harvard Divinity School.
Before I introduce today's speaker, Georgette Ledgister, I just want to let you know about our next meeting, which will be on March 11th at noon. When we'll hear from our research associate, Mariam Ayad, who will speak about a gendered analysis of an Egyptian mortuary ritual.
And I'm really happy to announce that Mariam, for her presentation, will be in dialogue with past research associate another Egyptologist, Jackie Williamson, who many of you remember, I'm sure. And we look forward to their discussion.
I wish you could all be here in Cambridge, eating the wonderful lunch that Tracy always prepares for us. But we just want to extend that sense of hospitality and also gratitude that many of you can join us from afar on this Zoom format. And without further ado, I'm going to introduce Dr. Georgette Ledgister, today's speaker.
Georgette Ledgister is a native of the Democratic Republic of Congo, who received her education at Emory University, where she was awarded the master's degree-- excuse me, the Master's of Divinity degree from Candler School of Theology.
And then, her doctorate from the Graduate Division of Religion, where she focused on ethics and society. Dissertation at Emory, based on an extensive ethnographic work on indigenous spirituality and women's leadership [INAUDIBLE] Congolese rebel movement was awarded the John Fenton Prize for the best research in Comparative Religion. This remarkable research, [INAUDIBLE] our [INAUDIBLE] when we read it, and it has become even more relevant and timely since the arrest two weeks ago, of her father, the Reverend Daniel Mulunda, for his peace activism in the Congo.
Doctor Ledgister, who we know as Jojo-- may I call you JoJo [LAUGHTER] today? Thank you. Jojo is going to speak to us today about a portion of her book in progress, based on her dissertation research that relates to her father's pacification work in Congo.
And I'd like to extend a special welcome to any listeners who are joining us from Congo today. We're hoping that Shimba Mulunda will-- Jojo's mother, will be able to join us. I don't see her on the call yet, but if you're there hiding, a special welcome to you, Shimba. Without further ado, I'd like to pass the microphone to Georgette Ledgister.
Thank you so much. And thank you to all of you who've made time to join us today. I'm so busy in the chat thanking people who are family to me, who are here today. I'm just so moved that all of you are here.
For those who-- Professor Jane Okech is here. She was my 8th grade and 9th grade high school history teacher. And so if you want to gauge my intellectual trajectory-- Professor Okech, it's just so sweet that you are here. Professor Okech teaches at University of Vermont.
So I'm just going to get started before I get caught up and I do nothing but thank people for being here. And maybe we can catch up a little bit during the Q&A.
There will be a Q&A following our discussion today. And when we get to that point, I'll ask people to put your questions into the Q&A so that I can read them aloud. Excuse me.
Thank you, Ann. Well, happy Black History Month. I bring you all greetings from the occupied lands of the Muscogee Creek people. And I'm in the city of Atlanta, currently. I'm grateful that you all made time to share this digital space with us this afternoon. And special greetings to my fellow research associates and this class of RAs and the WSRP.
Approaches to the study of conflict-- or even gender-- in Africa often begin with guns, or the sociopolitical context. And typically one that is not conducive to perceive, acknowledge, or elevate the agency of African and African-descended people. As I sit here delivering this lecture and sharing these comments with you all, I'm reminded of a quote from Matthew Williams, the president of the Interdenominational Theological Center, ITC, in Atlanta, Georgia, who posted something on Facebook that's stayed with me. He posted this last week.
And President Williams admonished Black people not to allow the study of Black history to begin with slavery. The way that I interpret this admonishment is also not to allow the study of Black history, of Black peoples, to begin with pain and violence. Similarly, I situate the beginnings of my book project not in the guns-- we'll get to the guns in a moment.
But I situate the beginnings of my project in the Congolese religious imaginary, the Indigenous contours and roots of that religious imaginary, the colonial superimposition of Christianity onto that religious imaginary, and the impact of the Congolese religious imaginary on the lived experiences of women in wartime and peacetime. I begin with gods, so to speak, before turning to violence or guns, and ultimately center the voices and lived experiences and lives of Congolese girls.
Congolese women and girls, given their social, political, and economic vulnerability, seldom grace the pages of ethnographic book projects in their own voices or on their own terms. Given the emphasis of Western scholarship on materiality and a spectrum of choices and resistance as a foundations and measurements of agency, Congolese women's and girls' agency is rarely, if ever, perceived-- or even perceivable.
Gods, Guns, and Girls, my book project, aims to interrogate and ultimately disrupt that narrative. So I'm going to read you all a portion of the second chapter of my book and to tell you a story. And I look forward to hearing what you all have to say about it. This particular section is called, "The Decapitated Priest and the Cook Turned Peace-Builder."
"She woke up with a painfully tight knot of anxiety in the pit of her stomach. Truthfully, she hadn't slept much the night before. She'd spent most of the night tossing to and fro, dreading the journey she and 14 of her colleagues were about to embark upon. A journey that had a definite beginning, but only an approximate ending.
She thought back to the meeting her boss, pastor Daniel Ngoy Mulunda-Nyanga, had with all of the PAREC staff. PAREC stands for the ecumenical program for peace, reconciliation, and conflict transformation. The staff had met a month prior to this fateful day. He had informed them that he had accepted a request from the transitional Congolese government to travel to the village of [? Mousel ?] in Southeastern Congo, to negotiate the release of a priest's head.
Her heart had pounded deafeningly in her ears, and her palms had begun to sweat as she vainly attempted to wring the tremor from them. A head. A head. She had never seen a dead body before, let alone the remains of a decapitated priest.
When she accepted a job as a cook for PAREC, a local ecumenical peacebuilding organization, she was confident that all of the peace work would be left to the professionals. She just knew how to cook. She loved to cook. Providing hospitality was her gift and her calling.
Yet here she was on a hot and muggy February morning in 2005, preparing to embark on a peace-building mission from Kinshasa, the capital of Congo. For what seemed like the hundredth time, Bibish opened her suitcase with trembling hands, checking that she had everything she would need for a one to three-month trip. She remembered her boss's explanation for such an ambiguous range of time.
He had told them that he didn't know what they would encounter once they arrived in the provincial capital of Lubumbashi He didn't know whether or not they would receive permission to enter Mai Mai territory in the Molaim Bengkulu district, let alone the village of [? Mousel, ?] so he did not want to rush the team's departure from Lubumbashi.
Although the village of [? Mousel ?] was only 780 kilometers away from Lubumbashi by road, these roads were sparsely paved and often abruptly dead-ended into cleared paths of hard, packed soil, with large potholes that turned into small, reddish-brown lakes and rivers of mud during rainfall. The plan was simple, but so many unanswered questions made Bibish question, in turn, the decision she made to join the staff at PAREC just three years prior.
She smiled ruefully. 2002 seemed like a lifetime ago. She had only been 21 years old when she had gotten the job, with no altruistic commitments to peace-- or conflict transformation, as her boss called it. All she had desired at the time was to have stable employment that paid decently, and maybe a chance to travel. She shook her head at the naivete of her 21-year-old self. Travel she certainly would.
They would fly to Lubumbashi from Kinshasa, and there they would wait for an invitation from [INAUDIBLE], the leader of the Luba Mai-Mai in [? Mousel, ?] whose headquarters were in that particular village. Although the team had been sent on this mission by the government, they would wait in Lubumbashi, at the insistence of her boss, for an invitation from the Mai-Mai in Malim Bengkulu in [? Mousel. ?]
When someone at that fateful staff meeting had asked how long they would wait, he had smiled and sat silently for several, interminable minutes. His response had been simple. For as long as it took. He did not want to endanger the team by rushing headlong and uninvited into Mai-Mai territory.
You see, the priest had not received an invitation from the Mai-Mai to enter their land, and much less to begin negotiations. In so doing, he had sealed his own fate. Father [INAUDIBLE] was an abbot in the Kinshasa diocese. Bibish had not heard of him prior to his infamous solo mission into Mai-Mai territory, and didn't know much about him.
Surely, he must have known that there could be no reasoning with the Mai-Mai. She thought of all the news reports she had seen on the government channel, as she called the Radio Télévision nationale congolaise network. Even the RTNC staff agreed that the Mai-Mai were bad people and [? banducci, ?] who killed people and ate their flesh.
If the government channel was reporting the same news she heard on the Radio Okapi, the preferred broadcast network of the UN and white people, then it had to be true. So she couldn't understand why he had taken it upon himself to go there, where they were. Father [? N'Kulu ?] was a priest, a servant of God. He knew better than to interact with kindoki. And maybe this is the reason why he was killed because he touched their kindoki.
Although he also claimed Luba ethnicity like the Mai-Mai of Malim Bengkulu, he had no ties to the ancestral lands of Mousel. He was from Gabongo, the southernmost end of what was, at the time, the Katanga province. He could speak the Kiluba language, but he knew nothing of the Malim Bengkulu District, nor of the village of [? Mousel. ?]
And for the Mai-Mai, land was everything. The land shaped the people, and the people revered the land in turn. Father [? N'Kulu ?] had taken his vocation and personal passion for peace, the support of the Kinshasa diocese, and the media uproar that his departure had caused in Kinshasa as endorsement for his dangerous mission. Everyone, it seemed, had applauded his courage and lauded his commitment for peace in Congo. Everyone but the Luba Mai-Mai themselves.
Bibish was startled out of a dreamless sleep by the voice of the pilot on the loudspeaker, announcing their descent towards Lubumbashi. The forced humor and mirthless laughter that had characterized much of the conversation amongst the PAREC team during the flight had faded into uneasy silence, punctuated by the steady hum of the airplane engines and the occasional cry of an infant somewhere on the plane. She looked down at the sprawling city of Lubumbashi, through the small, warped airplane window.
Lubumbashi was not truly a city. It lacked the tall, steel and glass structures of the Kinshasa city center. Instead, the hub of Lubumbashi's economy resided deep in the bowels of its mines. Copper, diamond, cobalt, cassiterite-- natural resources that drew miners from as near as Lubumbashi itself and as far as Australia and Germany. Its residential neighborhoods were separated by large swaths of what looked like red farmlands. Lubumbashi was probably more of a large town, or a town on the verge of becoming a city.
This trip was not her first to Lubumbashi. But the unspoken prayer deep in her heart was that it would not be her last. She shielded her eyes against the glare of the midday sun as she descended the wobbly, steep passenger boarding stairs. And occasional burst of a cool, red-tinged breeze blew against her face.
Luano International Airport did not boast the recently-modernized terminal of Kinshasa's N'Djili International Airport. But Luano Airport was also not crammed with people like N'Djili-- Bleary-eyed passengers waiting for their flights, porters waiting listlessly for someone to hire their services, police officers, airport security, and military officers. Too many military officers, glancing furtively at each passing face, looking for signs of malfeasance or an opportunity to collect a bribe. Luano, which means "snake" in Kisanga, moved at a different pace. The squat, three-story terminal sat calmly under the Lubumbashi sky, like a coiled garden snake warming itself under the sun's rays.
Bibish welcomed the relative calm that greeted them on the tarmac as their team made their way off the plane. They met Natasha, the program officer of the PAREC satellite office in Lubumbashi, at the bottom of the plane. Bibish had encountered Natasha on several occasions in Kinshasa and in Lubumbashi.
Although she was not the director of the Lubumbashi office, everyone knew that the office did not stand a chance without her. She was crafty, focused, and tough. She was savvy enough to negotiate and organize logistics for the wide variety of conflict transformation work that PAREC undertook in churches, political circles, and even academic circles.
Natasha adjusted gold-rimmed, tinted rectangular glasses sliding down her nose as she reached with her right arm outstretched to greet Bibish with the customary embrace. The greeting consisted of a hand-- in this case, the right one-- resting lightly on Bibish's left shoulder and three alternating kisses on both of Bibish's cheeks. The wiry, just-visible facial hair on Natasha's chin and cheeks bristled against Bibish's skin as Natasha lightly brushed her cheeks against hers in the customary greeting. Facial hair on women was considered a gift, and a mark of wealth and beauty even by many in Congo. Bibish figured that if she had facial hair, she would likely keep it as well.
It was not long before the team retrieved their luggage, boarded three SUVs and two vans, and started on the short drive from the suburban airport to the commercial center of the city. The team had officially ventured into uncharted waters. Their adventure had begun.
'Warriors and 'Witchcraft.' I first met Bibish in April 2002 during the inter-Congolese dialogue in Sun City, South Africa. This dialogue would later lead to the signing of a global and inclusive accord, which marked the end of the Congolese five year war, or the War of Aggression, as it is also known. I was spending a week as an intern with the PAREC staff, as they worked to facilitate the dialogue between warring Congolese factions and Congolese civil society. My father, Pastor Daniel Mulunda-Nyanga, the founder of PAREC, was one of the key mediators of the dialogue.
It was the third quarter of my senior year in high school, and I had made the honor roll. My reward was a trip to South Africa to witness part of the dialogue. I was thrilled at the opportunity to observe a dialogue, given my deep involvement in the model United Nations program at my high school in Nairobi, Kenya.
My first encounter with Bibish was uneventful. She was part of the hospitality team, and I learned that she attended the church that my father pastored in Kinshasa. She was kind to me, and did not mind keeping me company during meetings in which I was not permitted to participate. She was not much for striking up conversations, but she was more than happy to chime in when someone addressed her.
Her defining characteristic was her laugh. It was loud and raucous, infectious, and came from an authentic place. Of the staff that worked with my father, she was the one who formed a bond with our family. One that remains strong almost 19 years later.
I was a junior in college in 2005, living in Atlanta, Georgia, when my father led the team, of which Bibish was a part, to Mai-Mai territory to negotiate the return of the priest's head and to invite the Mai-Mai to disarm. My mother had been very apprehensive about the mission, and understandably so. I remember her words to me about the mission. "It's not his fight," she had said.
But my father had been resolute. He considered peacebuilding to be more than a profession for him. It was a vocation that he took very seriously and pursued reverently. As children, he would do a call and response with us. And he would begin by saying, "Blessed are the Peacemakers--" And we would chime in-- exhausted, because it was not fun-- "--for they will be called children of God," we would chime in. And that's quoting Matthew 5:9, his favorite scripture.
12 years later in 2017, as I prepared to undertake my own journey to Malin Bengkulu [? Mousel, ?] Bibish agreed to accompany my mother, my then nine-month-old daughter, and me back into the uncertain and even dangerous waters that comprise the world of the Mai-Mai. In our initial interviews about her experience with the Mai-Mai in 2005, I asked Bibish whether her opinion of the Mai-Mai had changed after she had spent several weeks with them in the towns of [? Luana, ?] [? Oncoho, ?] [? Gabalu, ?] and the village of [? Mousel. ?]
'No. They are bad people,' she said. 'They have kindoki.'
'What do you mean when you say, bad?'
'They are not good people. There's nothing good about kindoki.'
'So is it the kindoki that makes them bad?' I asked.
This last question was met with a sharp retort and warning: "Stop trying to make me accept kindoki. I will not. Good people do not use kindoki.
'Pastor-- Pastor Mulunda-- was trying to make them feel like they were people. He would talk to them. He would eat with them. We, the PAREC team, didn't want to get involved with them. You need to be careful with them.'
Thus went my first interview with Bibish. While I did not expect the force of her response, I was not surprised by her construal of my question as an attempt to compel her to change her mind, not only about the Mai-Mai, but about her understanding of kindoki.
Although a practicing a self-proclaimed staunch Christian, Bibish nevertheless fully inhabits the Congolese religious imaginary in which the spirit world is imminent, wielding significant influence over the natural world. In keeping with her Christian-- and I would add, colonial-- formation, Bibish considered all spiritual activity that went beyond the bounds of her theology to be evil or harmful kindoki.
However, she was not alone in her hyper-awareness of psychic power as evil. Most, if not all Congolese-- Christian, Mai-Mai, or otherwise-- were raised with the understanding that kindoki existed, with most Christians believing that the intent of practitioners of all kindoki being to harm people.
However, in contrast to Christians like Bibish, who considered all Indigenous practice to be evil in nature, Congolese non-Christians only construe harmful kindoki or kindoki [? diyakiya-- ?] kia dia, excuse me-- as intentional use of supernatural power for the sake of self-aggrandizement and at the explicit detriment of others. Simon Bockie offers a definition of harmful and benevolent kindoki in his ethnographic research with the [? Manyanga ?] people of his home province of Lower Congo or Bakongo.
[? 'Bamanyanga, ?] the [? Manyanga ?] people, clearly distinguish between kindoki kia dia-- literally, 'eating kindoki'-- and kindoki kia lunda, 'protecting kindoki.' When it is used to harm, they fear and denounce it. Any ndoki suspected of harming others is disliked or hated at the time he is harming.'
Bockie goes on to name the associations with day and night that the [? Manyanga ?] people make with protecting kindoki and harmful kindoki, shrouding the latter-- which is performed at night while the community sleeps-- in secrecy. The secrecy of harmful kindoki and its association with the night has particular implications on the morality of the person who practices this kindoki. And here I quote Bockie again.
'The adherence of night kindoki being the failures or upstarts of the community are viewed as merciless towards their victims whom, in actuality, they are afraid of. Since they fear them, they're impelled to send them death or incurable disease. At night, ndoki has no heart. That is, he does not know how to forgive another. The Manyanga belief is that this type of kindoki is carried out both by human beings and bad spirits.'
When this Indigenous understanding of kindoki is applied to the Mai-Mai, it becomes clear that contra Congolese Christians' perception, there's a difference between Mai-Mai identity and the practice of harmful kindoki. Being a Mai-Mai did not automatically make one a practitioner of harmful kindoki. In fact, the supernatural power that the Mai-Mai wielded fits more closely with indigenous understandings of kindoki kia lunda, or protecting kindoki.
Still, the distinction between Indigenous spiritualities and Christian constructions of evil did not register for Bibish. She appeared increasingly agitated by my clarifying questions, so I changed my line of questioning altogether.
And I quote from our interview: 'How did you feel when you first heard that you were going on a peacebuilding mission amongst the Mai-Mai?'
'I was very afraid. I knew that the Mai-Mai were violent people. They killed Congolese people. They also ate people.' She opened her eyes wide and they darted from side to side, their movement punctuating her words.
'Do you regret going on the mission?'
'No. I had to go because it was my job. But I was glad that I went.'
'I had seen the Mai-Mai on television and then I saw them in person.' She smiled as her eyes took a faraway cast. It was an experience that I could share. I could say that I had seen them, the Mai-Mai, face to face. That was joyous for me.' End quote.
Bibish went on to share the respect she gained from family and friends upon her return to Kinshasa, for having done what many of them did not even dream of doing-- traveling to engage in work of national political consequence. Although her world sense about the Mai-Mai did not change, a point she insisted upon, she was nevertheless grateful for the exposure to another perspective, and to experience a world that was different from hers. In a single interview with Bibish-- in the first interview with Bibish, she painted a complex picture of the Mai-Mai.
According to her account, the Mai-Mai were at once violent, quote 'bad people,' witch doctors, and ultimately not even people at all. Encountering the Mai-Mai in person was a terrifying ordeal. And yet, meeting the Mai-Mai was a new experience and was therefore a source of joy for her. A joy she shared with others. Her fear of the Mai-Mai never dissipated, despite having encountered them in person. And in spite of Pastor Mulunda's efforts to show his team, and the world, that the Mai-Mai were people too and worthy of being treated with dignity."
At this point, I'm going to share just a few contextualizing slides with you all, to give you a greater sense of context of this work. And then, we can shift to Q&A. So just that a brief recap, and to kind of put us all on the same page, the Mai-Mai are a group of loosely affiliated local defense militias in the Eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
And unlike other groups, the Mai-Mais that operated in the Northeastern provinces, in the [? kivus, ?] and those that operated in the Southeastern provinces, are not affiliated by anything but name, really. So there's no central core to the organization. Even in the same state or the same territories, the Mai-Mai groups are only really loyal to the group to which they belong.
And their name, Mai-Mai, derives from the Lingala or Swahili term, mai or maji, which means water. And so Mai-Mai means water water. And the groups are named after water to signify and symbolize the water rituals that they undergo before going into combat that protects them and renders them impervious to bullets or harm.
Here is a map of the DRC. It is located in Central Africa. I'm actually going to show you maybe a simpler map. So geopolitically speaking, before 2015, the DRC had 11 provinces. And after 2015, it was further divided into smaller provinces. If you see here, the Katanga province has since become four separate provinces.
And my research is concentrated in Katanga, so right here in the Upper Lomami, in Upper Katanga provinces. So the gods portion. As you heard from the excerpts that I read to you, really, that my book focuses on the interplay of Christianity and Indigenous religions in the public sphere. While there's been extensive, excellent historical and social political work done on the conflict in Congo and the conflict in the Great Lakes region, the piece that's been missing has been really attending to the religious dimensions of the conflict.
And what I contend is it's an oversight that will prevent scholars of religion, of conflict, of peace to really truly get to sustainable peacebuilding because players like the Mai-Mai or [? Bundi ?] [? djakongo ?] today really draw from Indigenous religion and practice in ways that are lethal and deadly. And so long as the conversation brackets out religion or precludes religion, we're not going to get to the kind of answers or learning that we need to get to in order for there to be sustainable peace in Congo. And let alone the impact of colonial Christianity and colonialism in Congo that's still making its effects known in the country today.
So just to give you a sense, kindoki, the term that you heard several time, has erroneously been translated to "sorcellerie" in French, or "ulozi" in Swahili. For all of my East African friends and family who are on the air, they like to make fun of Congolese Swahili because it's rather different from East Africans. We would say [? bulozi ?] instead of [? bulozi. ?] Or quote, "witchcraft" in English.
But as you heard, kindoki is the rather better understood as an ambivalent cosmic energy or force that can be manipulated constructively or destructively. And here you have kindoki kia dia, "eating kindoki," that speaks to the manipulation of cosmic power for the sake of consumption. Shameless plug, I've written a chapter that's coming out and an edited volume in the next year or so about the politics of consumption in the Congolese public sphere. And I really pull apart the issues of anthropophagy or cannibalism, human cannibalism, and consumption as a capitalistic process and even as symbolic of one's political power. You'll just have to read my chapter, since we don't have time to go into all of that.
And then you have kindoki kia lunda, which is what the Mai-Mai admittedly-- I spent time with the Mai-Mai general, and the rest of my book focuses on her life and her story, who admittedly says, our call as Mai-Mai is to protect. And so kindoki kia lunda, or "protecting kindoki," would be a more appropriate concept to use in reference to that cosmic power, mystical power that the Mai-Mai use.
So guns. Really quickly, the conflict that I focus on is the Congolese Five-Year War. Specifically, 1997 to 2002. Conflict has been ongoing in the Eastern provinces of the country since. But the period that I'm focusing on is a period before the Accord. The Congolese Five-Year War has been dubbed Africa's World War. It at one point embroiled eight neighboring countries and the entire Great Lakes region. The agreed-upon figure of fatalities directly from the war or as a result of the war is about five million. 5.4 million.
About 10 years ago, 11 years ago, there was an organization in Canada that disputed that number and tried to bring it down to two million. But that dispute has since been overlooked or really dismissed and the agreed upon figure is still that five million. 5.4 million.
Really quickly, the reason for the guns, in a very simplified, maybe even simplistic formulation for the sake of getting to Q&A, is, alongside other political reasons, really the mineral wealth of the nation. So 3T or 3TG minerals-- tin, tungsten, tantalite, and gold, are what the SEC-- the United States SEC has defined as conflict minerals. And these conflict minerals are a hugely-- the illegal extraction and sale of these minerals is a hugely lucrative trade. War literally means business. It makes money.
And just in 2008 alone, $185 million-- an estimated $185 million was made by armed groups in this illegal sale and extraction of conflict minerals that are sold to the West, to Western countries. So just to give you a little bit of context of the guns.
And if you can see here, these are the four provinces-- Tanganyika, Haut-Lomami, Haut-Katanga, and Lualaba-- that were formerly known as the single Katanga Province. And if you see here, these yellow dots show the concentration of these 3T, 3TG minerals. There's a high concentration in the Katanga province, leading to its geopolitical importance to the country and even to the region and to global economies.
The girls. So my book really seeks to interrogate conceptions of agency that focus solely on physical capacity. And typically, in the West, when you think about agency-- particularly in Western feminist literature, agency is really captured by modes and concepts of resistance, of being able to have a spectrum of choices, and to choose what works best for one.
And that mode of agency, while not incorrect, it does not allow one to capture anything that falls outside of that world sense. And for women like Bibish and Natasha and Chatty, the general-- the Mai-Mai general that I worked with, if we are to look at agency as physical capacity, their socioeconomic context, sociopolitical context, precludes agency.
I mean, these are women who, for various reasons, cannot be ethically called agents. Well, if we flip the script, so to speak, if we look at agency as being maybe not powered by individual choice and physical capacity but as access to a source to community that allows one to begin to survive and perhaps even flourish when one's physical capacities are limited, that it opens up a whole new world. And that's what my book does. And my framing of agency-- I really owe a lot of that framing to [? Sabu ?] [? Mahmood's ?] wonderful work that who defines agency as a modality. And that's very, very helpful language in framing the agency of Congolese women during war.
So finally, here's a quick picture of [? Chattyma ?] [? Sanguankulu, ?] who was second in command of her father's forces amongst the Mai-Mai in Southeastern Congo. And she looks like an auntie. She looks like she could be my auntie. And my mom, my daughter, and I spent time with her.
And if you look in the picture on the left, this is a notebook that she started putting together back in 2004 because United Methodist missions and UN peacekeeping folks-- folks were just really interested in the rebuilding post-war Congolese governmental transition period. And they were wanting to have conversations with folks who were implicated in the war. And she started to write down her story.
So in our formal interviews, I saw her breaking out this notebook and reading this really well-rehearsed account and narrative. And she had facts and figures and statistics for me. And I was like, yeah, that's nice. I want to get to your story. How you do life. How you live. I want to hang out with you. And in the living a regular life, learn something. And so I had to just quickly change my approach from the very structured interviews to doing a lot of what Clifford Geertz calls, deep hanging out to get underneath her rehearsed responses and answers.
This is a picture of my father in the disarmament mission. So it's a mission called-- it was a campaign called Guns Against Bikes. They did some community needs assessment. My father was trained by Alan Guyer from Wesley seminary. He was my godfather and one of the progenitors of the just peace movement. And in his theological training at Wesley, one of the very important pieces of training was, hey, get into community and do a needs assessment. And so that's part of the work that my father learned in seminary, brought back to the church, brought back to the field.
And they learned that for communities in remote areas of Katanga and Malim Bengkulu and [? Mousel ?] because there are no paved roads, bicycles were really important. They were the mode of transportation. People could plant their crops and go sell them at a neighboring market, they could transport a sick relative to the nearest clinic. So bicycles were really important.
And so they started this campaign-- PAREC started this campaign. He reached out to his mentors, one of whom is Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and said, hey, listen. Can we raise some money for bikes? Reached out to the Methodist church. And said these armed combatants will put down their guns if we give them bikes. And that's what they did.
And they didn't just collect weapons from combatants and give them a bike in exchange and a bolt of fabric to make clothing. They actually-- if you see on the picture on the right, they sawed, rather, the weapons in half. Literally decommissioning these weapons so that they wouldn't recirculate back on the street and be used to harm people. And that's the work that they did in this disarmament mission.
So I'm going to stop right there because I'd love to hear from you all. You all have heard a lot from me. And yeah. So if there are any questions, I'm ready. Let's talk.
While you guys are thinking about questions and putting them into the Q&A, I'm going to ask a question to get you start-- get the conversation started. And I actually have two questions. And I'm going to give you your choice. You can answer whichever one you prefer.
My first question is, how you got from the study of ethics to this project? What's the trajectory there? How did you think about that? And the second one is similar, which is, you came from out of the Christian peacemaking community. And how did you get from there to an appreciation of the importance of Indigenous religions? Yeah.
Those are phenomenal questions. And I don't know if Liz Bounds is on this call today, but I was trained by Diane Stewart and Liz Bounds. And Liz Bounds is a social ethicist that really came out of the trajectory of-- in the tradition of Iris Marion Young, second-wave feminism. And it was-- as part of my training as an ethicist, I was really attending to issues of gender and agency. That was just important to me as a woman in the Academy, as a Black woman, it was important for me to identify ways in which I felt like I was an agent in this wild, wild, West called graduate studies.
And Liz Bounds told me, hey, learn about it. Dig into it. Theorize about it. So agency has always been a very important theme not just in my work but in my life.
And I was also really-- while I was inspired by Western feminist literature, I was also struck by the gap between feminist literature and the framings of the experiences of women and gender flexible, gender reimagination. I felt like it was not really speaking to the experience of African and African-descended peoples, which is where womanism really appealed to me. But then even with how helpfully womanism draws from the experiences of African-American women, there was still that gap where the experiences of African women, very specifically, seem to not really have as much of a platform for expression.
And part of it boiled down for me, as an ethicist, to the way that we were defining agency. That issue of physical capacity. How can you claim-- that in a context of war and violence, how can you really claim that there's flourishing there? Is it ethical to even claim that there's flourishing there?
And my question had to be, yes, they're people who are-- they're women who are negotiating their lives. And they may not have a job. They may not have a degree. They may not have financial independence. But they're negotiating a form of existence, which to them is agency. They may still be getting married. But in that, they're expressing a form of agency.
And so really disassociating certain markers of Western life and Western expressions of flourishing from agency, and say there are different ways for people to be agents, for women to be agents. There are different ways for women to flourish. And that's what drew me to, OK, so what are the sources of agency for these women, then?
And strangely enough, Indigenous religion popped up. The colonial impact in Congo is still very much felt. I would love to say that Congo is liberated in terms of gender and all those wonderful things. Ah, no, We're not there yet. But for those who are practicing Indigenous religion, they're navigating their gender and shedding gender restrictions in ways that other women aren't. And that was really fascinating to me.
Chatty, as a Mai-Mai general, was called a warlord because there's no such thing as a war lady. So she was a war lord. She was feared by men, by women. She was not the divorcée who was unable to have children and quit school in high school. No, she was a warlord to be feared. And so that was just really fascinating to me, how Indigenous practice helped her to shed some gender boundaries in ways that are not perceivable if you're only looking at it from the Christian perspective.
We now-- don't answer my second question because we now have a full-- we have nine people waiting in the Q&A. So I'm going to try to get to as many of them as I can. I may group some together. But I will start with-- the first question comes from Professor Jacob [? Lupina, ?] who we're delighted to have with us today. And it's about the phenomenon of kindoki and the use of supernatural power to engage in both positive and negative activities. He observes that anthropologists have failed to understand this phenomenon in the African context.
Southwest Nigeria is facing the menace of Fulani tribesmen-- I'm sorry, Fulani herdsmen from the North, and they are now appealing to Indigenous spiritual devotees to respond. Christians and Muslims are confused about how to respond to this vital force. Can you shed some light on the epistemological basis of this Indigenous power?
Yeah. That's a fascinating question. And I'm glad that you bring this up, prof. And by the way, happy belated 70th birthday, Professor [? Lupina ?] just celebrated his 70th birthday. And it's not just a Congolese phenomenon, which I think is what the utility of this book project is. It really offers language and a way to understand how Indigenous religion is being used in the public sphere in many parts of Africa, in ways that can have serious impact. And I think the difficulty with other traditions, and specifically Christianity and Islam, in really responding to this vital force is that it does not fall within the spiritual grammars of these traditions.
I'll speak more to Christianity. I don't know if Oludamini Ogunnaike, Professor Ogunnaike's on here, whose work is on Islam and Indigenous religion. I'll defer to his knowledge and expertise on that. I know that Professor [? Ayodeji ?] Ogunnaike's on here.
But Christianity, for instance, the way that colonial Christianity was instituted and grew and proliferated in the Congolese context, in the sub-Saharan African context, was really powdering this privatization of spirituality, this high appraisation, this institutionalization. So you have clear leaders who are ordained to perform the sacraments, who are the guardians of the faith and the tradition. You have biblical texts, you have liturgy, you have process.
Anything that's outside of the way that Christianity, colonial Christianity, operates was treated as not just uncivilized, but it was treated as evil and it was dismissed in a bid to quote "civilize" Congolese population as well as colonizing them. So we can't separate Christianity from the colonial project. Christianity in Africa had a very, very specific colonial and political objective.
Now, for these disenfranchised communities, who felt like civilization didn't do anything for me but enslave me, they started to return to their Indigenous traditions for healing and even for interventions. So for the Mai-Mai, and even today, you have movements like Bundu dia Kongo, led by Ne Muanda Nsemi. These are movements that gather people from the margins who feel disenfranchised, who feel overlooked, who don't have access to power, and say, we'll turn to the ancestors. We will turn to use of vital force that helps us to circumvent institutions that are destructive to us.
So for instance, Bundu dia Kongo-- there were countless prison breaks in Kinshasa in the past 10 years. This is a shame to say. The prisons are overloaded. And Bundu dia Kongo, in-- the most notorious prison break was in 2017 in May. And these were ordinary citizens who were armed with sticks-- blunt sticks and objects. And when they wielded these objects, according to eyewitness reports, these objects were able to cut people and even behead people. And they were able to stage a prison break over 4,000 inmates fled to freed their leader, Ne Muanda Nsemi, from prison.
This is an inexplicable and deadly use of force that more and more people are turning to because governing institutions are not offering them protection. The Mai-Mai offered protection for their people. Congo's four times the size of Texas. The Congolese central government was not able to protect all of its people and was also attacking its people.
So they turned to their ancestors. They turned to their indigenous practice to give them the opportunity to get representation and protection. So this is an important piece that, as Christians and Muslims and practitioners of various traditions, that we have to attend to. That when our institutions don't give the marginalized what they need, the marginalized turn to powers and movements that, for better or for worse, will represent them.
Thank you. There are so many questions. I'm going to have to be really selective here. And I think the first question I'll take at this point is a request for you to speak about the image that you showed of the sculpture of the woman made from a gun. Can you tell us more about that image?
Sure. It doesn't have a name. And I thought that it was-- I'm going to turn to it so while I speak about it we can look at it. If you notice here from the shape, can recognize the butt of a rifle here. And the sculpture does not have a name. I think it needs one.
One of my dear friends and colleagues, Professor Kyrah Malika Daniels, is actually on here. And her work is on Indigenous African religions and sacred art. And so I would be interested to hear from Professor Daniels what the carving of this woman evokes in the work that she does on wooden carvings and depictions of women and deities. But it was a local Mai-Mai artist sat down and was just playing around with the wood and whittled this woman from the butt of this rifle.
And I think it's just such a striking image that art, and perhaps something of the sacred, can come out of the ruins of such violence. That an instrument that was once used to proliferate death could proliferate a life and the depiction of a woman. I think it's powerful. The photo was taken by one of the staff members of PAREC, one of the staff photographers. But I really do think it deserves a name. I don't know that I'm the one whose placed to name it, but it certainly does deserve a name. Thank you.
And can you tell us the context? Was the location of the artwork in this pile of-- whatever is there? Was that selected by the artist or by the photographer?
Oh, by the photographer. The artist was just playing around. I mean it's-- you have these local artisans that will create things and carve things. And there are a lot of-- there's a presence of Westerners and outsiders. And they're just trying to make a buck. And so this staff photographer was like, oh, this is so wonderful. I'm going to position this wonderful piece of art in a pile of these rusted, decommissioned weapons, to kind of create that contrast. Yeah, the artist didn't do that. That was definitely the photographer imagining what viewers like us, in the West, would say if we saw that contrast very visually. Yeah.
Thank you. The next question is from Maya James, who asks, could you say more about witchcraft and the different and inaccurate ways that people define it? And I'm going to ask you to give a little more precision to the word people in that question. Whether we could distinguish between what's going on the ground as well as what's going on in scholarship?
Yeah, yeah. So on the ground, the-- well, if you look at data and statistics of religious practice and adherence in Congo, you'll have a really large number of some 90% of Congolese people will self-proclaim Christian. And then the remaining less than 10%, you'll have a smaller Muslim population. And almost no one will officially report to be a practitioner or adherent of an Indigenous religion.
And that's because of very specific, also political reasons. There's this association of civilization to Christianity. I'm educated, I'm civilized, I know better, whatever's Indigenous is backwards, it's uncivilized, I don't associate myself with that. So for them, anything that is Indigenous, anything that is not Christian, is dismissed as evil and witchcraft. Quote, "witchcraft."
And but the challenge with the importation of the language of witchcraft into an African Indigenous context is you're also importing the semantics, the associations of witchcraft from other parts of the world. And you also have to say there's a difference between the way that witchcraft is popularly understood and the tradition of Wicca. So there's a slippage of terms there that really stems from the ways in which colonial education, colonial schools, tried to draw a hard and fast line between what is African, what is not, what is Christian, what is not, and imported terms that were not helpful.
That's why in my own work, I use kindoki instead. The local [AUDIO OUT] what the local term means in that particular context. And I think that that's important for us in scholarship, to use as much-- and I hear Professor Diane Stewart's voice in my head. Use the language in the context. Do the ethnolinguistic work. And my book project is full of that. Using the original language and unpacking the meaning gets you to, I think, a more nuanced understanding, rather than just importing terms and then making scholarly claims on the basis of terms that are imported into a particular culture.
That brings us to a question from Kyrah Malika Daniels about language. She asks, you mention the multiple languages in the Katanga province. Which primary languages do you conduct research in? And which have proven to be most helpful in retheorizing the notion of kindoki?
Yeah. That's an excellent question. Thank you, Professor Daniels.
So my work was done simultaneously in Lingala, in French, and in Swahili. And I speak all three of those languages. Again, don't put me next to soon-to-be Dr. [? Shilo ?] [? Tieno ?] or Professor Okech. Congolese Swahili is laughed at in the continent as being very ungraceful and very unsophisticated compared to East African Swahili. But also because of the Katanga region, I had to have my mom help me to translate Kiluba as well.
Now, as your own research, Professor Daniels, is more in the Congo provinces, I would imagine your research has more to do with French, Lingala and Kikongo. So again, just the sheer size of Congo and the richness of the languages in just this single country, really compels scholars to be contextually aware of the language. And to not just do all of your research in French and have it translated for you. There's really a gift and being able to speak the primary language with your interlocutor. And as in any language, folks borrow terms from all the languages that they speak. And it offers different types of responses.
So for instance, with Bibish, she would go in and out of Lingala and French all the time. And that, to me, was very significant. And I used it and I reflected it in my work. So she used kindoki.
For someone in Katanga, they would have used [? Ulosi ?] instead because Swahili's spoken more frequently in Katanga than Lingala is. And Bibish is from the [? Tetela ?] people group. So she used-- and she lives in Kinshasa. So she uses Lingala more. So just an awareness of all the languages and being able to code-switch myself between languages, and to understand when my informants are code switching, was so, so enriching for my own work. And helps us to have-- to bring into the English language terms and concepts that just don't exist outside of the Western context.
That's so fascinating. And it moves us to a question from Jane Okech about the culturally embeddedness of the concept of agency and [INAUDIBLE] themselves. She asks, I'm curious about your perspectives about the persistence of mystical Indigenous African beliefs and practices and their intersections with the Eurocentric Christian world. And the negotiation of women's agency and peace in communities, given that conversations about women's agency and peacemaking processes are typically grounded in Eurocentric principles and processes, even when held in African nations.
Absolutely. So it makes me think about the difference between what we profess and what we practice. And so you have that statistic-- in almost every African country, you'll have upwards of 70% plus people will self-report, according to this data, to be Christian.
But if you pick apart even, what it means to practice Christianity, self-professed Christians, like Bibish for example, in Congo still undergo traditional wedding ceremonies. These traditional weddings, no matter how much you have a pastor there to pray for you and to bless it, they are literally what they are. Traditional weddings. They involve dowries, there's an exchange of gifts, there's an exchange of vows. There's a coming together, a joining of families. After the church wedding or the so-called white wedding, the religious wedding, there's still the practice of collecting the sheets from the bridal bed to verify whether or not there was virginity. That is not a Christian practice.
So there are all of these elements that are embedded and infused into even the way that Congolese Christians live, that no one's willing to pick apart and say, that's not Christian. It's widely accepted, and we've Christianized it. And we've made it OK because there's a pastor present. But it's not Christian.
So part of what my work is doing is pulling those two pieces apart. What are people professing, and then what are they practicing? And how many of their practices are Christian? And how many of their practices are not? And that makes Christians deeply uncomfortable.
And then there's the issue of peace. I think you're so right. Peace is a virtue and a value that is absolutely Western. Western in construction, Western and understanding. I think the [? Corolat ?] I would contend, that exist in the Indigenous African life world maybe might be reciprocity and harmony.
It makes me think of the moral philosophical world of Ubuntu. I am because we are. That issue of reciprocity. If I suffer, then the community suffers. If the community suffer, then I, in turn, suffer. So reciprocity is elevated, as a virtue and as a concept, more than peace itself would be.
And many times, if you think about peace or peacebuilding, usually what organizations and missions that the United Nations work towards is a cessation of violence. And we know that a cessation of violence is nowhere near the peace that, theologically, the Christian tradition and the Jewish tradition, the Islamic tradition works towards, even in the Western context. These politicized concepts of peace fall woefully short of theological understandings of peace or shalom. So there are problems all over with this concept of peace, and how do we actually get to it. And in the world of peacebuilding, the best that we can aim at is cessation of violence, and hopefully, over a sustainable period of time.
But I think what the gift that Indigenous African religions give us is a turn to reciprocity. I think that's a more concrete, livable concept and virtue that comes with practices. How do we create communities of reciprocity? Which also involves no violence. But it's a lot richer and deeper than just the cessation of violence or flat notions of peace.
That's such a profound outcome of your research. And I'm really appreciative of hearing you articulate that so clearly. I almost don't want to change the subject now that you've made that observation. And I so wish that we could hear all of the voices. We have such a remarkable international group on the call today. And I just wish we could see all of the faces and hear every single one of these voices.
We have about another five minutes for discussion. So there are other questions that I can certainly throw on the table. But Jojo, before I do that, I just want to ask if there's any other topic that you wish you had gotten to today, or wish had come out in the discussion, that you want to reflect on a bit more or ask our listeners to reflect on?
Yeah. And I just want to quickly thank Sheila [? Otieno ?] and Dr. Meredith Doster, Elia Collins. I'm so glad you made it. Professor [? Larte ?] [? Nahitsiamdust ?] Lori. Dan.
Those folks whose questions we didn't get to. And to say thank you. And I'd love to chat selfishly and engage in more conversations with you and dig into your questions.
Professor [? Larte ?] is one of my mentors as well, and was really responsible for helping me to make that connection between Christianity theology and African religions because I was raised a Congolese-Christian. Those two worlds were separate. And Professor [? Larte ?] really helped me to make those connections. So thank you for being here and thank you all for your questions.
I think maybe the last thing that I'll say is religion and-- religion is still, I think, a salient issue in the Congolese public sphere right now. This work that began many, many years ago, in this peacebuilding mission that included ordinary people who truly believed-- to varying degrees, who believed that Congo could be better if there was less war. And that included wonderful humans like Bibish.
The impact is still being felt today. And my family is holding on to hope, to faith, to light, to prayers. My father is still incarcerated. He was sentenced without a trial. And we are fighting to appeal it. And he's in good spirits. My mother visits him. And the presentation was after prison-visiting hours. And so otherwise she would have held up a phone for him during this time.
So I guess my final comments would be to keep my family in the light and in your prayers, and my father. War is moneymaking business and peace is not. So for all those who are working towards-- in all parts of the continent and all over the world, who are working towards a better world, better communities, for the least of ease, celebrate them and keep them in your prayers. And thank you all for just taking time to be here and to engage in this work that has so much significance, not just in my scholarship, but personally. Thank you for engaging it with such heart and warmth.
And thank you, Jojo, for bringing us a really unique and so meaningful and enlightening presentation today. I don't think I've ever seen the chat light up with appreciation like it has today. And I hope, Tracy, it's all recorded so she can read all of it and keep it at home.
We can't thank you enough for what you've been able to share with us at what is such a difficult time for you and your family. Our prayers are with your entire family and your father, especially. So glad to have so many of your family members on the call today. I know that
I-- My mom's here, Ann. She's here.
Yes. Greetings, to you.
Hello, Momma! [LAUGHTER]
Warm, warm greetings. So glad you made it. And I hope that it brings you some comfort to have Jojo working with us at Harvard this year. It definitely brings a huge enrichment to our intellectual life and to the Women's Studies program.
So thank you all for joining us today. And join me in a warm round of applause. That can't really be heard, but I'm sure you're all participating in it.