Gods, Guns, and Girls: A Q&A with WSRP Research Associate Georgette Ledgister

January 25, 2021
Georgette Ledgister, Visiting Lecturer on Women’s Studies and African Religions, WSRP Research Associate 2020–21
Georgette Ledgister, Visiting Lecturer on Women’s Studies and African Religions, WSRP Research Associate 2020–21

Harvard Divinity School and the Women’s Studies in Religion Program are thrilled to have Georgette Ledgister with us this 2020-21 academic year. Ledgister is a WSRP Research Associate and Visiting Lecturer on Women's Studies and African Religions.

Her WSRP research project is "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, this 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.

Ledgister’s home institution is Agnes Scott College, where she serves as Visiting Professor of Religion. She holds undergraduate and master’s degrees from Emory University, where she also earned a PhD in social ethics and comparative religions. Additionally, Georgette is the former executive director of Fearless Dialogues, an organization that specializes in creating unique spaces in which unlikely partners can gather to have hard and heartfelt dialogue about difficult subjects.

HDS communications caught up with Ledgister ahead of her upcoming lecture, “Gods, Guns, and Girls: Gender, Agency, and Spirituality in a Congolese Rebel Movement.” This event will be held Thursday, February 11, at noon (EST).

Harvard Divinity School: You're originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Could you describe your journey to the U.S. and into higher education? Also, what made you decide to apply for a research associate position at the Women’s Studies in Religion Program, and what do you hope the end result will be of your time here?

Georgette Ledgister: My family first moved to the United States in 1993. I still remember that day in late July as clearly as if it were yesterday. We landed in Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., shortly after 8 pm. By the time we got through customs and retrieved our bags, it was well after 9 pm. We were terrified. My parents had attempted to anticipate the adjustments required by moving to a completely foreign country as best they could. They did not account—nor prepare us—for the fact that the sun would still be out after 9 pm.

It felt like what we imagined the apocalypse would look like (the sun sets on the equator between 6 pm and 6:30 pm). We were moving to D.C. because my father was pursuing a joint Master of Theological Studies degree at Wesley Seminary and a Master of Arts in Peace and Conflict Transformation degree from American University. His program was funded by the General Board of Global Ministries of the United Methodist Church. We became accustomed to the many novelties of living in the United States (daylight saving time, pesto, etc.), and even more specifically to the importance of receiving as much education as one is fortunate to access.

Many years later, following the completion of my PhD from Emory University, I learned of the WSRP and its explicit mission of carving out a space for scholars of religion to elevate the voices, experiences, and knowledge of women in the practice and shaping of religion in the public sphere. WSRP offers scholars working at the intersection of women’s studies and religion rare and unparalleled access to a full academic year devoted to deepening their research, working on a book project, and building connections with leading scholars in a leading global institution.  With a roster of former research associates that include the late Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon (1983-84) and Professor Mercy Amba Oduyoye (1985-86), being selected as a WSRP Research Associate has immeasurably advanced my career—even its early stages.

I’m currently working on a draft of my first book project, “Gods, Guns, and Girls: Gender, Agency and Spirituality in a Congolese Rebel Movement,” and have been in conversations with series editors about what my book could contribute to series on African and African Diaspora Religions, gender studies, and religious studies.

HDS: As part of your academic fieldwork, you were embedded with a female warlord who rose to the rank of general in the Mai-Mai movement in the Congo War. What was that experience like and were you ever afraid for your life? Were there any big surprises you discovered about that experience?

GL: I had arrived in Congo initially wanting to research the experience of women married to Mai-Mai leaders, or even forced into marriage or sexual labor during the war. Charlotte (Chatty) Masangu wa Nkulu, a warlord and second in command of her father’s Mai-Mai forces in southeastern Congo, opened my eyes to a critical lesson that my Western training in religion, conflict, and gender had yet to teach me: sexual relationships (coerced or otherwise) were not and could not be the only way to frame African women’s engagement or agency during conflict. Her positionality demonstrated that there was more to the story of the role of gender in war in Africa, and I wanted to learn and recount that story.

I wish I could say that I lived exploits on a daily basis, and was even trained to perform supernatural feats myself. My doctoral field research experience was much more ordinary, and really true to cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz’ concept of “deep hanging out.” My mother, my daughter (then nine-months old) and me spend our days chatting, picking greens for meals, cooking, setting tables, attending weekly church services (a non-negotiable for my mother), talking, and watching too much wrestling—American and Congolese indigenous wrestling (it’s an odd and wildly popular hobby in Congo).

When I initially met Chatty, I set a formal interview schedule that I quickly abandoned after the third or fourth interview. We simply lived in community, and I kept a phone and a digital journal nearby for notes. Our lives together took some adjustments. My mother and I were admittedly frightened of her, given the horrors she had survived, and the exploits that she and others shared about her.

My mother insisted that she attend church with us, although I’m not quite sure how she drew comfort from that obligation. My informant was quite amused (and cheeky) and did not hide her amusement. She enjoyed listening to the choirs, so she came. My daughter was the bravest of us all. She was learning to walk and would make my informant walk her to any and all desired destinations. My daughter was—in essence—Chatty’s commanding officer.

HDS: Could you speak about the involvement you have with the HDS Religion, Conflict, and Peace Initiative (RCPI) and how this work ties into your research?

GL: The Religion, Conflict, and Peace Initiative at HDS equips students, scholars, practitioners and the general public to recognize the role of religion amid the most complex social challenges and conflicts in the world, as a critical first step towards achieving sustainable peace and justice.

Scholars and analysts of the war in Congo, which unfolded from 1997-2002 and continues to have a deadly impact in the northeastern provinces of the country, do not consider the conflict a “religious” one. However, groups like the Mai-Mai who deploy ritual warfare with lethal efficacy were and continue to be political actors in the public sphere that peace and conflict transformation scholars and practitioners can no longer afford to ignore.

My father, Pastor Daniel Mulunda-Nyanga, abides by this understanding of the imbrication of religion, conflict, and peace, and received his training in ethics and just peace from the late Alan Geyer at Wesley Theological Seminary, and his training in conflict transformation from the late Abdul Aziz-Said at American University.

As a result of his scholarly formation, Pastor Mulunda, in his capacity as executive secretary for International Affairs at the All-Africa Conference of Churches, gathered religious leaders in Congo in 2000 and convened the first interreligious and civil society dialogue in 2001 while the war was raging in the country.

The Inter-Congolese Dialogue, as it was called, provided the relational and policy groundwork for the Sun City dialogues in 2002, of which Pastor Mulunda was a key mediator. The Sun City dialogues would lead to the signing of the Global and Inclusive Accord in 2002, which put an official end to the war in Congo that had been dubbed “Africa’s World War” in the media. In the same year, Pastor Mulunda founded a non-governmental organization called the Ecumenical Program for Peace and Conflict Transformation (PAREC), which spearheaded disarmament missions in the eastern provinces of Congo, and particularly amongst the Mai-Mai insurgencies.

Nearly two decades after the signing of the peace accord that ended the war in Congo, religion and violence have once collided in the Congolese public sphere. Two days after preaching a sermon denouncing violence, human rights abuses, and warning of mounting tension and unrest in the southeastern provinces of Congo, on January 18, 2021, Congolese military police and national intelligence agents broke into Pastor Mulunda’s home in Lubumbashi, forcefully and unlawfully detaining him and his nephew, Pastor Chrispain Kasongo Kalembo.

Pastor Kalembo was violently beaten, stripped, dragged across the concrete pavement in front of Pastor Mulunda’s home, and detained in the nude overnight. While Pastor Kalembo was released the morning of January 19, 2021, Pastor Mulunda remains under unlawful detention, and is now imprisoned at Kasapa Prison in Lubumbashi.

Although he is yet to be officially charged (the prosecution has yet to officially declare a plaintiff), Pastor Mulunda is being tried for “preaching sedition” in a legal process that has been condemned by legal and constitutional experts in Congo and Belgium as flouting the rule of law. 

While the ordeal that my family is facing is unspeakably terrifying, I could not be in a better context to engage these issues that are central to my research and have far-reaching personal implications.

In the words of Sue Houchins, former WSRP Research Associate (2000-01) and Associate Professor of Africana Studies, Religion, and Gender and Sexuality Studies, “theorizing helps us make sense of adversity.” I’m grateful for the opportunity to do just that.