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Sexual Violence in the Congo Free State: Archival Traces and Present Reconfigurations



Western imaginings and colonially scripted images of the Congo as barbaric, savage and the ‘heart of darkness’ have dominated understandings of events in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) since its colonial inception (Dunn, 2003). The contemporary global focus on sexual violence in the armed conflict of eastern DRC has only reinforced such framings (Eriksson Baaz & Stern, 2013; Verweijen, 2015). While sexual violence has captured the social imagination long before the Congo, contemporary international discourse has framed sexual violence as “the major horrendous crime of our time” and “an exceptional form of brutality” (Jolie, 2013). Drawing on largely unused archival material obtained at the Royal Museum of Central Africa and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Belgium, this article sheds light on how sexual violence prefigured our own times in King Leopold II’s Congo Free State (1885–1908). The vivid memories and testimonies of the grotesque and spectacular violence inflicted upon the Congolese outline similar sexual atrocities to those that have taken place in the current conflict in eastern DRC. These memories are, in Mbembe’s (2007) words, “traces and fragments” of colonial violence and excessive abuses. Yet today’s international security discourses occur in the midst of an almost complete absence of such history and its memories. Ultimately it is argued here that the memories and testimonies as traces from a violent past, reshape historical understandings of colonial violence and open new avenues for rethinking past abuses and their endurance into the present.
ARAS Vol.37 No.1 June 2016 1
African challenges and challenges to African Studies
Tanya Lyons and Max Kelly 3
Sexual Violence in the Congo Free State: Archival Traces and
Present Reconfigurations.
Charlotte Mertens
Preventive Arbitration: Towards Strengthening the African Union’s
Mediation Capacity for Human Protection
Obinna Franklin Ifediora
The Power of Non-Governmental Organizations in Sudan:
Do Structural Changes Matter?
Nawal El-Gack
Zimbabwe’s Fast Track Land Reform Programme
Emancipation, Towards Liberation
Tinashe Jakwa
Ethnomusicology, World Music and Analysis in African Music
Tony Lewis 95
Book Reviews
Richard Bourne.
Nigeria: A New History of a Turbulent Century
Matthew Neuhaus 118
ARAS Vol.37 No. 1 June 2016
Andrew Walker.
‘Eat the Heart of the Infidel’ The Harrowing of Nigeria
and the Rise of Boko Haram.
Nikola Pijovic
Chris Vaughan.
Darfur: Colonial violence, Sultanic legacies and local
Wendy Levy
Ali Mumin Ahad.
Somali Poetry and the Failed She-Camel State: A
Critical Discourse Analysis of the Deelley Poetry Debate (1979-1980).
Lidwien Kapteijns
Cherry Leonardi.
Dealing with Government in South Sudan: Histories
of Chiefship, Community and State
Ryan Joseph O’Byrne
D. M. Bondarenko,
The Shades of Black: Cultural Anthropo-logical
Aspects of Mutual Perspectives and relations between African-
Americans and African Migrants in the U.S.A
O. Igho Natufe
AFSAAP 2016 – 39th Annual AFSAAP Conference Call for Papers 134
ARAS Submission Guidelines 136
ARAS Vol.37 No.1 June 2016 3
African challenges and challenges to African Studies
Tanya Lyons
Flinders University
Max Kelly
Deakin University
The articles in this issue of ARAS offer very unique views on a
range of issues that are relevant to the countries of Africa - the legacies
of sexualized violence in conflict; suggestions for preventing conflict;
human development; sovereignty and the role of international political
and economic imperatives; and the way we understand ‘world music’ in
the age of globalization.
In the article Sexual Violence in the Congo Free State: Archival
Traces and Present Reconfigurations, Charlotte Mertens presents her
extensive archival research conducted in Belgium, and ethnographic
research conducted in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of
Congo (DRC). Mertens brings to light the ghosts of the past, still
haunting this central African nation. Her focus on sexual violence
during King Leopold’s Congo Free State, and more recently as a result
of the ongoing conflict in the DRC, draws our attention to the ongoing
legacies of sexualized violence, in particular against women. Mertens
argues that this current violence is intricately connected to the colonial
past, and is unfortunately enduring into the future.
Obinna Franklin Ifediora argues in his article Preventive Arbitration:
Towards Strengthening the African Union’s Mediation Capacity for
Human Protection, that the African Union Commission could strengthen
its conflict resolution and pacifying mechanisms through ‘preventive
arbitration’, thus offering the many stakeholders, minority and
opposition groups access to relevant and timely mediation, creating
enduring peace and human security. Ifediora argues that the African
Peace and Security Architecture (APSA) needs to be restructured to
bring ‘mediation’ into the role of the African Governance Architecture,
ARAS Vol.37 No. 1 June 2016
Sexual Violence in the Congo Free State: Archival Traces and
Present Reconfigurations.
Charlotte Mertens*
University of Melbourne
Western imaginings and colonially scripted images of the Congo as
barbaric, savage and the ‘heart of darkness’ have dominated
understandings of events in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
(DRC) since its colonial inception (Dunn, 2003). The contemporary
global focus on sexual violence in the armed conflict of eastern DRC
has only reinforced such framings (Eriksson Baaz & Stern, 2013;
Verweijen, 2015). While sexual violence has captured the social
imagination long before the Congo, contemporary international
discourse has framed sexual violence as “the major horrendous crime of
our time” and “an exceptional form of brutality” (Jolie, 2013). Drawing
on largely unused archival material obtained at the Royal Museum of
Central Africa and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Belgium, this
article sheds light on how sexual violence prefigured our own times in
King Leopold II’s Congo Free State (1885–1908). The vivid memories
and testimonies of the grotesque and spectacular violence inflicted upon
the Congolese outline similar sexual atrocities to those that have taken
place in the current conflict in eastern DRC. These memories are, in
Mbembe’s (2007) words, “traces and fragments” of colonial violence
and excessive abuses. Yet today’s international security discourses
occur in the midst of an almost complete absence of such history and its
memories. Ultimately it is argued here that the memories and
testimonies as traces from a violent past, reshape historical
understandings of colonial violence and open new avenues for
rethinking past abuses and their endurance into the present.
*This article is based on the author’s winning paper submitted for the 2015 Monash / AFSAAP
Postgraduate Prize.
ARAS Vol.37 No.1 June 2016 7
This article is concerned with two of the most tenacious
representational forms in which sexual violence in the Congo has been
cast: its current ‘oversayability’ in international discourses on sexual
violence with regard to the conflict in eastern Democratic Republic of
Congo and its historical ‘unsayability’ with respect to the Congo Free
State. Archival fieldwork1reveals that Belgian colonial officials and
their sentries employed rape and sexual torture on a massive scale
during the predatory rage that characterised the rubber regime of King
Leopold II in the Congo Free State. Yet contemporary international
discourse on conflict-related sexual violence in eastern DRC is marked
by its complete omission of this history. In recent years, sexual violence
has become the main frame through which the Congo is made knowable
to a global public and through which the roles of humanitarian and
international organisations are made meaningful. The Congo has been
described as the “rape capital of the world” (Kristof, 2008) and the
“cockpit of conflict-related sexual violence” (Kelly, 2013): epithets that
confirm what has long been established within the Western imaginary,
namely, that the Congo is and will always be a land of violence, sexual
license and death.
Colonial rememberings of 1953 mention sentries “amusing
themselves while pounding the insides of women’s vaginas with sticks”
(Boyoto, cited in Boelaert, Vinck & Lonkoma, 1996, pp. 210-211).
These colonial forms of sexual violence are similar to the atrocities that
have taken place in the current conflict in eastern DRC and which have
been reported on by human rights organisations, media and activists.
The horror that is evoked by the nature of the violence establishes in us,
Western audiences, a perception that the violence is essentially different
from and incommensurable with colonial forms of violence. As such,
current representational practices not only dehumanise but also
dehistoricise (see also Malkki, 1995). Indeed, global governing
discourses on gendered violence radically dismiss that it was precisely
imperial actors and their iconic violence which gave birth to the
ubiquitous heart of darkness imagery. It is therefore imperative to
uncover the connective tissue which binds postcolonial gendered
1I conducted archival research at the Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren
and in the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2012 and 2014. I also conducted
ethnographic fieldwork in the eastern provinces of the DRC in 2012 and 2015.
ARAS Vol.37 No. 1 June 2016
violence and the representations and narratives regarding it to its
historical counterpart.
Connecting the dots between past and present is a fraught task, in
particular in a country where history is a “violently contested terrain”
(Lemarchand, 2013, p. 418) and where longstanding heart of darkness
imagery fuels contemporary understandings of violence. Lemarchand
(2013) urges us to draw on a “proper reading of the region’s tormented
past” (p. 437) since so many (mis)representations of the past by local
and international actors have reinforced the Congo as an inherently
savage and violent place. Indeed, when offering explanations for the
Congo’s turbulent present, scholarly as well as policy analyses tend to
refer to Congo’s history of victimisation: the slave trade, colonialism,
Leopold’s cruel red rubber regime, Mobutu’s greed, economic
extraction and foreign interventions. The past becomes a scapegoat for
all the contemporary tragedies that have befallen the Congo. It is thus
easy to read Congo’s history as a seamless continuity of rape, brutality
and toxic violence. This article is not about reproducing a standard
Congo atrocity narrative (see also Hunt, 2008). Nor does it provide a
classical Leopold II-as-villain account, which is common among
conventional state-centred top-down approaches (Roes, 2010). Rather,
through archival research, this article sheds light on the hidden aspects
of colonial violence—the sexual—and highlights how traces of this
violence continue to circulate in contemporary realities and frameworks
of understanding.2
In what follows I will examine what most humanitarians and
missionaries at the time thought “unfit for repetition” (Singleton-Gates
et al., 1959, p. 144) but which is scattered across the archives in the
form of recounted memories and testimonies of experiences of sexual
violence by the Congolese people. In this sense, this article makes plain
the ‘unspeakable’ and mimes the violence contained in the archive
(Hartman, 2008). Yet I aim to do more than simply recount the violence
found in these memories and testimonies. In listening to and recounting
these stories I want to reveal what lies dormant in the archives and what
has been silenced by official historiography; namely, sexual abuse as
constitutive of colonial power. As such, this article provides a counter-
2The discussion in this paper on the hidden, sexual aspects of colonialism is
informed by Nancy Rose Hunt’s excellent anthropological scholarship on violence
in the Congo Free State and its afterlives (2008).
ARAS Vol.37 No.1 June 2016 9
history, or to use Foucault (1980), an “illegitimate” or “subjugated” (pp.
82-83) knowledge, which offers not only a more comprehensive
understanding of how the Congolese experienced the colony but also,
and crucially, provides the basis to perform a critique of contemporary
framings of sexual violence as inherent to the African continent or even
as a function of African culture.
Archival Traces and Memories
One day when my husband was in the forest to gather
rubber, the sentinel Ikelonda found me in my hut where I
stayed and asked me to give myself to him. I rejected this
proposition. Furious, Ikelonda fired a gunshot at me, which
gave me the wound of which you still see the trace. I fell
backwards; Ikelonda thought I was dead, and to retrieve
the copper ring I was wearing on my lower right leg, he cut
off my right foot. This happened in the time of the white
man Ekalakamba (Boali of Ekorongo, 12 December 1904).
Boali’s testimony, together with her photograph, can be found in the
archives of the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Her testimony is but
one of 258 statements from Congolese people, fifteen of whom were
women, who were gathered by the Commission of Inquiry in 1904-1905
which was set up “to investigate the specific charges of atrocities and
gross abuses” (Congo Reform Association [CRA], 1905, p. 5)
committed by colonial agents and their sentries3and alleged to be
prevalent in certain districts of the Congo Free State.4The charges of
atrocities were based on missionaries’ reports and extensive
3The exploitation of rubber and cobalt was assured by State officials and through
the use of sentries. Sentries, also known as sentinels or auxiliaires, were black, often
native but sometimes foreign, overseers armed with a percussion gun who were put
into a certain area or village by the State or one of the concession companies
(Boelaert, 1996). Their task was to supervise the work of the natives in the forest,
mainly in rubber production. The capitas were chosen by the white man from the
village itself to represent the State
4The Commission was instituted by decree on 23 July 1904 by King Leopold II
himself. As King of the Belgians and proprietor of the Congo Free State, he ruled
this private domain from 1885 until he was forced to sell it to the Belgian
government in 1908. The Commission of Inquiry came into being after the Congo
Reform Association requested an impartial investigation into conditions in the
Congo Free State (see Stengers, 1951).
ARAS Vol.37 No. 1 June 2016
campaigning by the Congo Reform Association (CRA), one of the first
and largest human rights movements of the early 20th century and
founded by Edmond Morel with the aid of British consul Roger
Casement. Western criticism of Leopold’s colonial regime did not
receive significant attention until Morel, from his office on the quay in
Antwerp, realised that Leopold II’s ‘civilising mission’ was a mere
façade5and that the entire colony was based on slave labour, extraction
and brutal oppression (Hochschild, 1998).
When British Consul Roger Casement, based in Boma, Congo Free
State, was instructed to investigate the atrocities that had come to light,
he travelled for weeks in the Upper Congo Basin to interview
eyewitnesses. In his renowned The Congo Report (1903) and his 1903
Diary he spoke of the “infamous, shameful system … a horrid business
… terrible oppression of these poor people” (Singleton-Gates et al.,
1959, pp. 153-163) and exposed the cruel rubber system of incentives
and the immense suffering it caused amongst the local population. The
system ensured that colonial agents received a percentage of the market
value of ivory and rubber produced in the Congo State, but on a sliding
scale (Hochschild, 1998; Vangroenweghe, 1986). The more produced,
the higher the commission. Colonial agents thus had a powerful
incentive to force Congolese – “if necessary at gunpoint – to accept
extremely low prices” (Hochschild, 1998, p. 118). When the rubber
quota was not reached, the villagers were killed and hands or feet were
cut off. Congolese memory accounts give examples of the colonial
practice of detaching human hands and feet.
While the white man killed people, he made others
prisoner, and cut off hands and feet. He pillaged and burnt
down houses. He killed those who did not collect enough
rubber (cited in Boelaert, Vinck & Lonkoma, 1995, p. 75)
State officials demanded proof for each cartridge the sentries were
given that the bullet had been used to kill someone. In this way the
severed hands and feet served as “ghastly vouchers with which the
native soldier attests the fact that his cartridges have not been ‘wasted’”
5Morel worked for the company Elder Dempster, a Liverpool-based shipping line
that had the contract for carrying all cargo to and from Congo. In the course of his
work he noticed ships were arriving in the Antwerp harbour full of ivory, rubber and
other goods and departing carrying only arms and military personnel.
ARAS Vol.37 No.1 June 2016 11
(CRA, 1904b, p. 23). The State left clear instructions for the sentries: “If
they do not want to make rubber, you have to bring me the hands of
those you have killed” (Boongo in Boelaert, Vinck & Lonkoma, 1995,
p. 36). Many testimonies speak of baskets filled with severed hands and
feet positioned at the door of the white man’s house. Often hands and
feet were cut off to retrieve the copper rings or anklets that women
wore, further underscoring the economic substructure of such colonial
exploitation (see Boali, 1904; Ambo, 1904; Boelaert, Vinck &
Lonkoma, 1995).
Mounting evidence of atrocities provided by missionaries and
Casement’s Report fuelled Morel’s campaign. In particular, the
photographs taken by Alice Harris of mutilated Congolese with severed
hands or feet were displayed in publications, pamphlets and magic
lantern shows in the UK and even the United States.6Their effective use
meant Harris’s atrocity photographs reached vast audiences, grabbed the
public European and North American conscience, and garnered support
for reform in the Congo. Like the raped women in the current conflict in
eastern DRC, the severed hands and feet served as a powerful metaphor
to advance the international humanitarian campaign (see also Brystrom,
2013). Interestingly, however, the cruel and exorbitant acts of sexual
violence committed by sentries and colonial officials did not feature in
the reports and pamphlets of the Congo Reform Association.
Even though the testimonies laid before the Commission of Inquiry
provided distinct examples of sexual torture and rape, Morel’s
campaign, as well as Belgium’s state-managed historiography on the
colony, are marked by their sexual amnesia.7As Grant (2015)
demonstrates, the representation of atrocity must be framed “in
accordance with the culturally specific and historically contingent mores
of strangers, if one is to enlist those strangers in bringing atrocities to an
end” (p. 64). It is thus quite likely that certain testimonies, such as the
one of Mingo, below, would not have resonated with Victorian moral
attitudes towards sexuality at the time. Mingo narrated:
6Alice Harris was the wife of John Harris and founder of the Congo Balolo Mission
in Baringa, an area in the Congo Free State. It was controlled by ABIR, one of
Leopold’s concessionary companies and responsible for most of the atrocities
committed at the time (see Vangroenweghe, 1986).
7On whether missionaries/humanitarians considered rape “unfit for repetition”, see
Grant, 2015. On whether mutilated limbs are more sayable and photographable as a
visual ruin, see Hunt, 2008.
ARAS Vol.37 No. 1 June 2016
While I was working on making bricks at Mampoko, on
two different occasions did the sentries N’Kusu, Lomboto
and Itoku, to punish me, make me lift my pagne
[Congolese dress] and put clay in my sexual parts, which
made me suffer greatly […] (Mingo of Ilua, 2 January
Historian Vangroenweghe (1986), for example, mentions that when
Boali testified in front of the Commission of Inquiry and described how
she had refused the passions of a sentry, great unease could be felt
among the commissioners. It is likely that Boali exposed something that
was well known at the time—the rape of native women by colonial
agents or the claim that agents and sentries lay on native women—but
that this claim unsettled Victorian social mores (see Grant, 2015). In his
diary, Morel also makes clear that some atrocities should not be
published, such as forced incest (Vangroenweghe, 1986, p.134).
Yet details of grotesque sexual abuse and excess inundate the
archives and are framed as significant by the Congolese as well as some
missionaries. Indeed, missionaries often referred to forced incest and
raped hostages. Charles William Padfield, who was a missionary at the
Congo Balolo Mission in Bonginda, recounted on 31 December 1904:
Once forty women had been working at the station of
Boyeka. At night the white man made them stand in line
and ordered them to take off their clothes. When they were
completely naked, he would choose one to spend the night
with. He chose Ewawa, wife of Mbwbenga.
The practice of taking women hostage was also a common tactic
amongst the colonial officials as a way to force the native men into the
forests to collect rubber.8To gather rubber, one had to go into the forest
and cut and tap the vine. However, once the forests surrounding the
villages were drained dry, the natives had to go deeper into almost
impenetrable rainforest and climb higher to reach the sap. State officials
did not supervise this arduous and painful work as this would have
required the officials to travel with the men and to stay for days on end
8See also Casement’s Congo Report (1903); see testimony of Rev. Somerville
Gilchrist of the Congo Balolo Mission in CRA, 1904a; see deposition of Harris of
Congo Balolo Mission, 15 Dec 1904.
ARAS Vol.37 No.1 June 2016 13
in the rainforest. Instead, to force them into the forests, state officials
would keep their women as hostages until the men produced the
required amount of rubber. The women were held at the station where
they were forced to work and, on some occasions, divided among the
sentries who would “unchain the prettiest ones and rape them
(Bricusse, cited in Hochschild, 1998, p. 162).
It must be acknowledged that state officials often expressed their
dissent with certain colonial practices, such as the illegal detainment of
women and children, and often pointed to the sentries and capitas
(overseers) who abused the power given to them to commit all sorts of
brutalities (Grenade, 1904). In a series of circulars, Albert Longtain,
Director of ABIR (1904), admonishes sentries and forest guards to
reduce this abuse. He expresses his disappointment at the minimal
surveillance of forest guards and the excessive trust in unworthy capitas.
George Washington Williams, who travelled to the Congo in 1890,
wrote an Open Letter to the King in which he summed up his main
These black soldiers, many of whom are slaves, exercise
the power of life and death. They are ignorant and cruel,
because they do not comprehend the natives; they are
imposed upon them by the State […] They are the greatest
curse the country suffers now (Williams, 1985, p.243).
Yet white colonial agents equally committed violence and often
watched, laughed and condoned. For example, Mongondo’s testimony
confirms Mingo’s story as narrated above, and adds: “The white man
Longwango was present. He saw it all and he laughed” (Mongondo, 2
January 1905). On the atrocities and their causes Casement makes very
clear: “It was the deliberate act of the soldiers of a European
administration, and these men themselves never made any concealment
that in committing these acts they were but obeying the positive orders
of their superiors” (cited in Singleton-Gates et al., 1959, p. 166). On
how the violence was condoned by white superiors, listen to
Lontombu’s story:
One day, sentry Djoko who was put in our village by the
white man Nina, asked my brother Bonkeji to give his wife
to him. My brother refused. Two days later, there was a
rubber market in our village. Djoko took my brother, tied
ARAS Vol.37 No. 1 June 2016
him to a pole and killed him with an Albini gunshot. I was
there and I saw it. Three days later, the same sentry Djoko
came to the village with the white man Nina and in the
presence of the latter, took the wife of my little brother
N’Sala. He is still living with her and is sentry in Ilangi (29
December 1904).
The kidnapping (also referred to as rapt) of women, especially the
beautiful ones, is a recurring theme in the archives. At least two of the
fifteen testimonies by women made before the Commission complained
about how they were taken from their homes and made mistress to the
white man or one or other sentry (Jema of Lokoka, 1904; Bonyonoto of
Waka, 1904). But, even more vivid in the testimonies were the
depictions of grotesque sexual violence, such as incidents of forced
sexual intercourse or enforced public incest. Boyau tells us the “white
men installed transparent mosquito nets in the open and made a brother
and a sister or a mother and her son enter and force them to have sex”
(cited in Boelaert, Vinck & Lonkoma, 1995, p. 308).
These passages clearly illustrate that the rape, sexual exploitation
and torture of native women and men were often used as a punishment
or as extortion, but also more broadly as a display of colonial power.
However, the memories also reveal the intensely brutal and intimate
nature of the colonial encounter. As Mbembe (2001) argues, colonial
violence is not only built into structures and institutions, it also
insinuates itself into the economy, domestic life, language,
consciousness, even in sleep and dreams. The colonial regime, based on
power, coercion and submission, requires direct, intimate contact with
its subjects to maintain a bond of subjection. According to Mbembe
(2001), violence in the colony is non-existent unless there is a sense of
proximity and being in contact: “To colonize is then to accomplish a
sort of sparkly clean coitus, with the characteristic feature of making
horror and pleasure coincide” (p. 175). The violence and abuse of which
these memories speak illustrate that brutality and intimacy were basic to,
indeed constitutive of, not only Leopold’s rubber regime but colonialism
Present Reconfigurations
Essentially these testimonies uncover how the Congolese
experienced the colony as a place where brutality and intimacy coincide.
It is paradoxical, given the historical lack of attention to the sexual
ARAS Vol.37 No.1 June 2016 15
aspect of colonial violence, that a century later in the DRC the “more
hidden and tactile” (Hunt, 2008, p. 223) forms of violence—the
sexual—have become the fixation of international security discourses
and humanitarianism. As discussed earlier, the DRC has become
renowned for its exceptionally brutal wartime rape. And while
memories of past abuses linger among the Congolese today, current
international discourse occurs in the midst of an almost complete
absence of such history and its memories. Whilst conducting
ethnographic fieldwork, I met Espoir during a focus group discussion
with community members in the Moyens Plateaux around Minova in
South Kivu. Espoir spoke of the war and how she lives in and with
violence on a daily basis. She talked about sexual violence and how it
has destroyed her community. However, against the “urgency” of her
predicament she also pointed to the ignorance of her ancestors and to the
history of colonisation to explain harmful gender practices and the
erosion of traditional gender relations. Espoir spoke of the “trace” of
violence which runs through her life, hopes and dreams. Yet
international discursive practices continually focus on the singular
events of brutal militarised rapes, a focus which tends to preclude any
historical analysis.
However, traces of colonial violence are not only present in the lives
and bodies of Congolese today, they are also visible in contemporary
representations of sexual violence in the DRC as the “monstrosity of the
century” (Stop Rape Now). These representations draw on “hundred-
year old racial stereotypes” (Dunn, 2003, p. 5) of African primitivism
and barbarity. They further suggest that the colony as a space of terror
(see also Fanon, 1965) still defines the Congo today. During an
interview with the country director of Women for Women International
I asked if she could explain why some rapes in eastern DRC are
executed with such brutality. Her reply reflected the perceptions of
many other humanitarian workers and international actors that I
interviewed during fieldwork: “In the forest, the soldiers are there. They
have no family, no wives; they have become almost savages” (Bukavu,
2012). Perceptions of the violence as barbaric, and descriptions of the
perpetrators as savage and inhuman, are ingrained in contemporary
discourse on African conflicts in general (see Richards, 2005) and the
Democratic Republic of the Congo in particular (see Dunn, 2003;
Eriksson Baaz & Stern, 2013). Indeed, the West seems to believe that
the horrific and unique forms of sexual violence perpetrated in the DRC
can only be African in origin. It seems that in the course of history,
ARAS Vol.37 No. 1 June 2016
violence in the colony has been imputed to the colony itself. This
naturalisation of colonial violence as a native phenomenon through
historical and political frames has actualised the contemporary DRC as a
space of terror, while the violence committed by colonial powers has
been lost.
The testimonies narrated above, which can be found in the archives
today, are thus crucial as they form a connective tissue between the past
and the present. Through the tradition of oral storytelling, the
experiences of violence are passed on from one generation to the next
and into the present moment, as demonstrated by Espoir’s story. Fassin
(2007), in his work on the experiences and politics of AIDS in South
Africa, outlines how memories are not only present in the mind but also
in the materiality of the body (p. 29). He speaks of how the embodiment
of memory has two dimensions. First, past events are embodied in the
objective realities of the present. This partly explains, for example, why
the majority of rape victims in the conflict today do not have access to
healthcare. Second, past events are inscribed in the subjective
experience of the present. This might explain why Congolese refer to
sexual violence in their country as an imported crime, as something that
has come in with the Rwandan genocide, or it might explain why many
rape victims experience the violence as a profound injustice. Indeed, a
history of colonisation, foreign intervention and predatory state politics
is expressed through “collectively created narratives about trauma”
(Wilson & Mitchell, cited in Pottier, 2007, p. 840) such as the common
perception amongst Congolese today that sexual violence has been
imported from abroad. Through these two dimensions “memory
becomes actualized” (Fassin, 2007, p. 29) and is further naturalised by
historical and political representations and practices.
In this article I have attempted to shed light on how sexual violence
prefigures the present in the Congo Free State. Most of the testimonies
and memories discussed here were only made public more than eighty
years after Leopold II was forced to sell his colony. In this way, these
memories expose us to a series of ‘delayed’ experiences of sexual and
non-sexual colonial violence. These memories are what Stoler (2008)
calls “ruins” or, in Mbembe’s words, “traces and fragments” of colonial
violence, sadistic pleasure and excessive abuses. The historic
‘unsayability’ and the contemporary ‘oversayability’ regarding the
violence that I have identified in this article can be considered as two
ARAS Vol.37 No.1 June 2016 17
forms of grappling with it. Yet neither do justice to the suffering. While
one deems sexual violence “unfit for [verbal] repetition”, the other
moves toward another extreme, a “pornography of pain” (Halttunen,
1995, p. 303), in which testimonies of rape victims are used to fit the
postcolonial humanitarian narrative (see also Razack, 2007).
When the Commission of Inquiry heard the testimonies in the
Baringa area, the big chief of all Bolima stood boldly before the
Commissioners, “pointed to his twenty witnesses, [and] placed on the
table his one hundred and ten twigs, each twig representing a life for
rubber” (Harris, 1904, p. 22-23). The large twigs symbolised the chiefs
who had been killed, the shorter ones represented the murdered women
and the small twigs stood for the lives of children lost. Like the twigs as
metaphors for lives lost and thus for the cruelties suffered by the
Congolese under the rubber regime, the testimonies and memories
narrated here serve as witnesses to cruel colonial violence. Boali’s
picture and testimony featured as an important symbol for Morel’s
humanitarian campaign. Boali appears in the archive as a victim of the
red rubber regime, who was shot and mutilated because she refused to
have sexual intercourse with the sentry Ikelonda. Yet Boali could as
easily have appeared as one of the many women who were held hostage
and systematically raped in order to force the men to go into the forest
and gather rubber or she could have figured as the ménagère or
housekeeper/sexual slave of a white colonial official in the Belgian
Regardless of the form of her incarnation, Boali’s testimony matters.
It matters because it gives us access to one of the few Congolese voices
available of that time. It matters because it gives us insight into how the
Congolese experienced the colony as “a place where an experience of
violence and upheaval is lived” (Mbembe, 2001, p. 174). And finally it
matters because her testimony, together with all the others, provides an
important counter history to the sexual amnesia that marks both the
official historiography and Morel’s humanitarian narrative, and which
stands in sharp contrast to the dehistoricising contemporary narrative on
sexual violence. In this way, the testimonies and memories that I have
narrated here form the connective tissue between the ‘unsayable’ and
‘oversayable’ and the past and the present. As subcutaneous traces from
a violent past, they reshape historical understandings of colonial
violence and open new avenues for rethinking past abuses and their
endurance into the present.
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... Nancy Hunt and Charlotte Mertens have detailed the harms women were subjected to as CFS Force Publique militia raided villages, committed multiple perpetrator rape, forced people to commit incest, and used objects to sexually assault and destroy women's reproductive organs. 11 William J. Samarin has shown how women were also incorporated into the militia as porters, spies, slaves and 'wives' of soldiers. 12 The violent use and exploitation of women under the CFS played an important part in asserting colonial power. ...
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This article focuses on the sexual abuse and enslavement of African women in the Belgian Congo. Gender violence directed and committed by local officials against specific communities served important purposes: to assert colonial authority and dominance, demoralize and subdue Congolese resistance to colonial power, and reward colonial soldiers. The experiences of women under the ‘reforming’ Belgian colony are explored by examining the consequences of a punitive expedition in Kasai. Missionary discourses and the role of the Belgian administration are also analysed. The Belgian administration was anxious to present itself as a reformed and more humane regime than its predecessor, King Leopold II’s Congo Free State. In its efforts to avoid public exposure of any abuses that could delegitimise its claims to colonial control, the new administration fostered a culture of impunity where forms of colonial gender violence and exploitation were rarely legally penalized. Despite their efforts to draw a line under the past, these Belgian narratives of reform were undercut by the continuation of colonial abuses.
... Analyses of sex and violence are intimately linked with ideas about race, an interrelation that has haunted feminist discussions at least since the controversy between Susan Brownmiller (1975) and Angela Davis (1983, Cohen 2015. The ascription of a menacing, violent sexuality to non-western men has a long historical tradition (Mertens 2016). Accordingly, it has been difficult for post-colonial analysts of war-related SGBV to deal with orientalist baggage while remaining 'a good global feminist' (Eriksson Baaz and Stern 2013, 88-106). ...
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The prevention and mitigation of sexual and gender-based violence in (post-) conflict societies has become an important humanitarian activity. This introductory article examines the analytical discourses on these interventions, the institutionalization of SGBV expertise in international politics, and the emancipatory potential of anti-SGBV practices. It argues that the confluence of feminist professional activism and militarized humanitarian interventionism produced specific international activities against SGBV. As part of the institutionalization of gender themes in international politics, feminist emancipatory claims have been taken up by humanitarian organizations. The normal operating state of the humanitarian machine, however, undercuts its potential contribution to social transformation towards larger gender equality in (post-) conflict societies.
... 38 African Archives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Belgium reveal brutal violence per petrated by colonial officials and sentries during King Leopold II's bloody rule of the Con go Free State (1885-1908). 40 The testimonies reveal sexual torture and rape committed by and under the command of Belgian colonial officials. 41 In many communities, sexual violence was perceived as a gross violation and brought shame to the victim and her family. ...
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Violence, in all of its forms, touches girls and women's lives in Africa. While there is evi­ dence that girls and women do participate in violence, research has shown that a signifi­ cant proportion of them have also been victims. Violence against women describes vio­ lence inflicted on girls and women because of their gender and includes femicide, rape, intimate partner violence, and human trafficking. It also includes harmful practices such as female genital mutilation and early marriage. While it is a global problem, the levels of some forms of violence against women are particularly high in Africa. The problem is caused by a complex interaction of factors operating at multiple levels, including at the global level. Historical records show that acts of violence against women, including inti­ mate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence, were perpetrated during the colo­ nial era. During this period, perpetrators of non-partner sexual violence included colonial officers and troops under their command. Cases brought before colonial courts some­ times resulted in the conviction of the offender, but sentences were generally light. How­ ever, incidents of violence against women were mostly resolved within the family or com­ munity, with relatives and traditional leaders playing a central role. The post-independence period has seen increased attention to violence against women. Activism by women's movements contributed to placing the issue on the agenda of states and of international organizations such as the United Nations. Sexual violence perpetrat­ ed by armed actors during wars in the 1990s also served to draw attention to violence against women. Consequently, most African countries have amended colonial-era rape laws and have adopted new legislation to address acts such as intimate partner violence, early marriage, and female genital mutilation. Many of them have also created special­ ized criminal-justice-sector institutions to address various forms of violence against women. These actions on the part of states have been influenced by women's movements and by pressure from international organizations such as the United Nations. While this demonstrates progress on the part of African states, there is a large implementation gap in most countries. Thus, girls and women rarely benefit from the progressive laws on the books. This demonstrates that there is much work that needs to be done to address vio­ lence against women in Africa.
... I can not help but think that the next generation of women academics involved in African studies, who are following behind me through the university sector in Australia and elsewhere, whether focusing on feminist concerns or not, are the embodiment of the successes of global feminism and will indeed make ongoing and valuable contributions to global social justice and peace, through their contributions to knowledge and understanding of African issues. Academics such as Balaton-Chrimes (2008, 2011a, b, 2013, Balaton-Chrimes and Haines (2015), Burke (2012Burke ( , 2013, El-Gack (2016), Jakwa (2016), Meger (2010Meger ( , 2011Meger ( , 2014Meger ( , 2015, Mertens (2016), and Mertens and Pardee (2016) to name but a few. These women researchers involved with African Studies have also demonstrated their emancipatory potential to challenge the dominant colonial and postcolonial discourses that have determined historical texts, through their 'gutsy' fieldwork, research and publications. ...
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Positionality and intersectional gender identities are critical to the experience and outcomes of research. Van den Boogaard argues for a more reflexive and self-critical approach to research design and fieldwork, drawing on her research experiences in Ghana and Sierra Leone. She describes how gender identity may be both a limiting factor and an opportunity for female researchers, and addresses two ethical considerations that are insufficiently addressed by the current methodological literature. First, what are the implications of remaining passive in the face of dynamics between a researcher and research participant that reinforce inequality and a conventional gender hierarchy? Second, can a research participant give informed consent while at the same time believing that the researcher is powerless on account of their position and/or gender identity? She further argues for more reflexive research methods as a manner to improve research outcomes and the personal safety of researchers in the field.
... When there is brutality in the exemplary phase, he justifies this by invoking a crude doctrine of necessity, made so by the savagery of revolting Kikuyu Africans. No mention here of imperial Belgium's rule in the Congo Free State (Mertens, 2016) or of the behaviour of the European settlers displacing indigenous populations during the 19th and early-20th centuries in other colonies. ...
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This essay examines the proposition that development, which has stalled since Independence in many African countries, can be restarted by the restoration of colonial governance. This form of rule, in place from the end of the 19th until the middle of the last century, was supposedly responsible for major improvements in a range of living conditions for colonial populations. The end of colonial governance, it is alleged, led to corruption and impoverishment for many people. Here it is argued that, as offensive as many may find the claim that colonial rule was beneficial for subject peoples, the purpose of the proposition should receive attention. The call for the return of colonial governance is placed within a wider, more influential series of proposals for how to bring development at a moment of uncertainty through a range of governance reforms. These proposals struggle with the politics of capitalist development, particularly the fraught relationship between development and democracy. The virtue of the call for the return of colonial governance is that it at least makes clear the increasingly prevalent assertion that democracy should be a lower priority than development.
... Relating an exploration of ruins to violence against women, on which I focus in this chapter, such violence can be understood as ruining 'unsayability' (Mertens 2016). Metaphorically, as Esther Terry (2016, 166) argues, rape and other forms of sexual violence perpetrated against the female body, such as in the Democratic Republic of Congo, becomes a raping of the land itself; "an act of defiance waged not just over women's bodies, but over the ruined body of the Congo herself" (Gener 2010, 122). ...
The Democratic Republic of Congo hosts the longest-running and largest United Nations peacekeeping mission in history. The United Nations also has reckoned with sexual exploitation and abuse in its own ranks and, in 2003, recognized its importance with a Bulletin which became known as the ‘zero tolerance policy’. Policymakers and researchers have paid little sustained attention, however, to children fathered by peacekeepers. In this article, we share the results of our mixed-methods SenseMaker® research with community members who interact with peacekeeping personnel and interviews with 58 women who are raising children fathered by peacekeepers. Despite the United Nations policies in place, most women did not report children fathered by peacekeepers and did not receive systematic support. The analysis reveals a large gap between the aspirations of the ‘zero tolerance policy’ and its operationalization in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We uncovered deep poverty and insecurity as both driving and resulting from women’s sexual encounters with peacekeepers, with support needs largely unmet. We argue that there is a lack of enforcement of the United Nations policies, jurisdictional complexity and inaccessible justice, as well as significant gaps between the United Nations’ approach to investigating and supporting children fathered by peacekeepers and the expectations of mothers, resulting in worsened life conditions for mothers and their children.
This article examines the production of knowledge about sexual violence in the postcolonial warscape of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), with a particular eye on the politics of statistics. Over the last decade, ‘hard numbers’ have become central to ‘knowing’ sexual violence in conflict, including in DRC. Statistics depicting the exceptional scale of sexual violence in DRC were core to its making as the ‘rape capital of the world’. Given the challenges of quantifying this sensitive issue, sexual violence statistics are nevertheless imbued with striking, if misleading, reliability. In this piece, I explore how sexual violence statistics in DRC are produced and consider what they can and cannot convey. Subsequently placing DRC in historical context, I highlight eerie resonances of this contemporary emphasis on sexual violence with the country’s colonial past. Doing so, I join postcolonial scholars in calling attention to colonial durabilities that shape the knowledges that are not only accepted, but perhaps expected, in a region long cast under a deeply and intimately sexuo-racialised gaze. Notably, this gaze is one that depicts the ‘Congolese woman’ as always-already a victim, and the ‘Congolese man’ as always-already defined by presumed ‘perpetratorhood’. Affirming the importance of such analytical vigilance vis-à-vis sexual violence statistics in particular, this article concludes by calling for concurrent authorial vigilance on the part of critical scholars. Indeed, we must ensure that efforts to complicate dominant narratives of sexual violence in DRC do not undermine, silence, or deny the experiential realities encoded in the knowledges we critique.
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The feminist dilemmas of fieldwork in Africa are explored in this personal retrospective reflection on fieldwork conducted in Zimbabwe in the mid-1990s on the role of women in its anti-colonial liberation struggle. Lyons examines the challenges faced by the researcher in grappling the identity politics of ‘who can speak for whom’; the political issues of being a white, Western, middle-class, educated, female researcher examining women’s issues in Africa; and dealing with the basic logistics and travel requirements. By listening to the voices of women and enabling them to be heard within history, this chapter asks if any ‘woman’ researching in/on Africa has the emancipatory potential to challenge the dominant colonial and postcolonial discourses that have determined historical texts.
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In this article, I look at "imperial formations" rather than at empire per se to register the ongoing quality of processes of decimation, displacement, and reclamation. Imperial formations are relations of force, harboring political forms that endure beyond the formal exclusions that legislate against equal opportunity, commensurate dignities, and equal rights. Working with the concept of imperial formation, rather than empire per se, the emphasis shifts from fixed forms of sovereignty and its denials to gradated forms of sovereignty and what has long marked the technologies of imperial rule-sliding and contested scales of differential rights. Imperial formations are defined by racialized relations of allocations and appropriations. Unlike empires, they are processes of becoming, not fixed things. Not least they are states of deferral that mete out promissory notes that are not exceptions to their operation but constitutive of them: imperial guardianship, trusteeships, delayed autonomy, temporary intervention, conditional tutelage, military takeover in the name of humanitarian works, violent intervention in the name of human rights, and security measures in the name of peace.
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This chapter investigates how dominant framings of the African armed actor as barbaric shaped ethnographic research on the everyday interaction between the military and civilians in the eastern DR Congo’s Kivu provinces. It also explores the role of the new media in the researcher’s efforts to cope with this discursive baggage.
There is extraordinary diversity, depth, and complexity in the encounter between theatre, performance, and human rights. Through an examination of a rich repertoire of plays and performance practices from and about countries across six continents, the contributors open the way toward understanding the character and significance of this encounter. © Florian N. Becker, Paola S. Hernández, and Brenda Werth 2013. All rights reserved.
This essay examines the ubiquitous presence of Venus in the archive of Atlantic slavery and wrestles with the impossibility of discovering anything about her that hasn't already been stated. As an emblematic figure of the enslaved woman in the Atlantic world, Venus makes plain the convergence of terror and pleasure in the libidinal economy of slavery and, as well, the intimacy of history with the scandal and excess of literature. In writing at the limit of the unspeakable and the unknown, the essay mimes the violence of the archive and attempts to redress it by describing as fully as possible the conditions that determine the appearance of Venus and that dictate her silence.
Understanding the current civil war in the Congo requires an examination of how the Congo's identity has been imagined over time. Imagining the Congo historicizes and contextualizes the constructions of the Congo's identity in order to analyze the political implications of that identity, looking in detail at four historical periods in which the identity of the Congo was contested, with numerous forces attempting to produce and attach meanings to its territory and people. Dunn looks specifically at how what he calls 'imaginings' of the Congo have allowed the current state of affairs there to develop, but he also looks at the broader conceptual question of how the concept of identity has developed and become important in recent international relations scholarship.
On May 13, 2009, a select group of human rights activists spoke before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee at a special hearing concerning violence against women in conflict zones, particularly in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Sudan.1 The guest speakers were Niemat Ahmadi, a women’s rights activist and Save Darfur liaison from Sudan; Chouchou Namegabe Nabintu, a Congolese journalist who runs the South Kivu Women’s Media Association; Robert Warwick, Executive Director of the Baltimore Office of the International Rescue Committee; John Prendergast, former member of Clinton’s National Security Council and co-founder of the Enough Project; and feminist performance artist Eve Ensler. Ensler in fact set the stage for the other witnesses by opening the “outside expert” portion of the hearing with a graphic testimony of the atrocities inflicted on women in the DRC: “What I have witnessed in the DRC, frankly, has shattered and changed me forever. I will never be the same. I hope none of us will ever be the same. I think of Beatrice, who was shot in the vagina and now has tubes instead of organs; Honorata, who was raped by gangs as she was tied upside down on a wheel; Sowadi, who was raped and raped, and forced to eat dead babies.”2 The playwright here uses her voice to force participants and spectators to call to mind the absent bodies whose experiences are, presumably, the raison d’être of the hearing.
“Admission Free. Adults Only.” So stated the advertisement for a lantern-slide lecture to be given by the humanitarian activist, E. D. Morel, in Hawarden, England, in April 1907 on the subject of the Congo atrocities. “Adults only” was not, and is not, a phrase commonly associated with atrocity. However, this peculiar combination is telling of a broader, moral danger. Humanitarians have long run the risk that their narration and display of photographs of atrocity, such as those featured in Morel’s lantern slides, might bring public condemnation upon not only the alleged perpetrators but also those showing the photographs. It is not just a question of whether photographs are authentic, doctored, or falsely staged. A more subtle problem is that the humanitarian can tell the truth, offer photographic evidence of atrocity, and thus overstep the bounds of propriety and lose his or her moral authority in the public eye. The representation of atrocity must be tolerably shocking. The desired visceral effect must be balanced with an analytical, even clinical explanation that affords the audience safe emotional distance from an image of chaos brought to life. Atrocity must also be framed in accordance with the culturally specific and historically contingent mores of strangers, if one is to enlist those strangers in bringing atrocities to an end. In Hawarden in 1907, Morel was especially concerned about observing sexual mores in his allegation that Congolese women had been raped by soldiers and employees of the Congo Free State and its concessionaire companies. This essay examines how participants in the Congo reform campaign in the early twentieth century negotiated social mores in order to present atrocity to different audiences in Britain and the United States in ways that were variously appropriate. It specifically examines the narration and display of atrocity photographs, in conjunction with accounts of sexual violence, in the literature and lantern-slide lectures of this campaign, the first nongovernmental, humanitarian campaign to use atrocity photographs to mobilize sustained, international protest.
In this book, France's leading medical anthropologist takes on one of the most tragic stories of the global AIDS crisis-the failure of the ANC government to stem the tide of the AIDS epidemic in South Africa. Didier Fassin traces the deep roots of the AIDS crisis to apartheid and, before that, to the colonial period. One person in ten is infected with HIV in South Africa, and President Thabo Mbeki has initiated a global controversy by funding questionable medical research, casting doubt on the benefits of preventing mother-to-child transmission, and embracing dissidents who challenge the viral theory of AIDS. Fassin contextualizes Mbeki's position by sensitively exploring issues of race and genocide that surround this controversy. Basing his discussion on vivid ethnographical data collected in the townships of Johannesburg, he passionately demonstrates that the unprecedented epidemiological crisis in South Africa is a demographic catastrophe as well as a human tragedy, one that cannot be understood without reference to the social history of the country, in particular to institutionalized racial inequality as the fundamental principle of government during the past century.