Kivu’s Troubles: A World Away?
David Eaton of CSU, Chico’s anthropology department reflects on how we might understand what’s happening in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The world’s most lethal conflict since World War II continues in the Congo basin, with more than five million people killed since 1997 in the Democratic Republic of Congo alone. Much of the worst violence now centers in the DRC’s eastern Kivu region. But it was the powers of life and imagination that infuse the country’s arts that first drew me there in the early 1980s, when the country was called “Zaire.” While teachingw high school in Kenya, its scintillating rumba spilled across its borders into east Africa, and I made pilgrimages overland to feel the music live in Kivu and in Kinshasa, the capital. Despite its deep social inequality, with ill health and poverty for many, the country was largely peaceful, and with more than two hundred languages spoken in its vast and nearly roadless interior, it offered endless fascination to the adventurous traveler. I was especially enchanted by Kivu’s magnificent upland landscape, with its Rwenzori “mountains of the moon” that it shares with Uganda and its Virunga volcanoes that extend into Rwanda’s and Burundi’s thousand hills.
How can we in the United States understand this region? Why might its current problems concern us? What can we do? First, perhaps, we can recognize that everything changed in 1994 with the Rwandan genocide, which—committed while the United States, Belgium, France, and the United Nations stood by—led to millions of refugees pouring westward into Kivu, followed by armed forces of many descriptions and nationalities. The humanitarian and security nightmares of this situation led to war that swept westward from Rwanda and Kivu across Zaire in 1997, ousting ailing president Mobutu and renaming the country the Democratic Republic of Congo, and to what then became effectively Africa’s “first world war,” with nine occupying armies and innumerable mercenaries and militias throughout its territory. Today DRC president Joseph Kabila contends with Rwandan president Paul Kagame for influence over the forces that still populate Kivu and its similarly destabilized neighboring provinces.
Secondly, we can note that the current struggles are not primarily ethnic conflicts, but local modern “resource wars” in globalized economies. Like most wars of the past half-century, they’re characterized by the diffusion of small arms, state failure, and mainly civilian casualties, especially from malnutrition and infectious disease. In eastern DRC the prize resources include gold, diamonds, cobalt, titanium, and coltan (crucial in small electronic devices), as well as coffee and timber. The exploitation of these resources concerns all humanity, as these Congo forests are one of the world’s last great reservoirs of biodiversity. If present trends continue, two-thirds of these forests will be degraded within 50 years, intensifying the waves of extinction that will threaten up to half of earth’s living species during this time.
Thirdly, we can recognize that the U.S. government and U.S.-based interests play an enormous, sometimes damaging, and often poorly-understood role in shaping conditions of life for hundreds of millions throughout the underdeveloped world. U.S. influence shaped the “Congo crisis” in the early 1960s and helped to sustain Mobutu’s government for decades. Had the United States or others acted to stop the 1994 Rwandan genocide (inexpedient for a Clinton administration unwilling to see U.S. troops exposed to danger after deaths in the 1993 invasion of Somalia that saved hundreds of thousands) this would have meant a different world not only for Rwandans but for Congolese as well. And today, active military forces in eastern Congo number only a few tens of thousands, yet the twenty thousand UN peacekeepers in the country do not prevent continuing massacres and atrocities.
Fourthly, we can note that the Internet, which continues to revolutionize African studies and civic engagement, makes possible broader informed attention to policy, trade, law, and human rights issues that shape so many lives in this region. The Enough Project (www.enoughproject.org) and the Congo Advocacy Coalition educate and mobilize online through policy briefs and action points, while IRC YouTube videos, ReliefWeb bulletins, and Ushahidi mashup maps report on complex emergencies as they develop. Consumer awareness movements reveal the effects of our own consumption practices for, among other things, fair trade goods, sustainable forest product certification, and conflict-free origins for diamonds and gold. Campaigns for essential medicines are especially urgent in this region where public health spending may be less than $20 per year per person (the U.S. figure is more like $2,500).
Finally, we can aim for a better understanding of African societies, languages, and histories, so weakly developed in the United States despite its African heritages. Recognizing the problems afflicting some regions of Africa—problems which dominate U.S. media coverage—shouldn’t obscure the creative vitality of so many of its communities. Year after year American students find inspiration and challenge in study abroad, internships, and service projects in many welcoming and peaceful countries: from Morocco, Senegal, Mali, Ghana, and Cameroon to Egypt, Uganda, Tanzania, Malawi, Botswana, Namibia. They see first-hand how our lives here are linked with those of people elsewhere, and come back with lifelong insights into our own institutions.
I returned to Zaire in 1990 and 1991—while also working and studying in Rwanda and Tanzania—to consult for anti-AIDS projects and to develop my skills in Lingala and Kiswahili. But multi-party democratization brought riots in this nation already said to be “sliding toward chaos.” After evacuation in September 1991 with most other westerners, I chose instead to do my dissertation research in the other, smaller Congo (the Republic of Congo, capital Brazzaville) across the river to the west. It would soon face its own convulsions in these terrible years for central African politics, during which neighboring Angola was also consumed in civil war.
But I still remember my impressions of Kivu from my first travels in Zaire in the 1980s: the fantastic generosity and welcome of nightclub friends in Beni, the Sputnik hairdos of the ladies in Rutshuru, and the lions roaring in the grass outside the modest hotel room in Ishasha, with its bas-relief woodcarvings of families and chiefs in entourages of ancestral power and continuity. I hope other visitors will have the chance to experience this utterly fascinating and deeply-afflicted part of the world. In the meantime, Congolese music continues to be for me, as for many others, one of the best things about being alive. I can only think that societies that can make such beauty will thrive again.