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Perhaps the most significant national election this year will be held in the Democratic Republic of Congo on Sunday, July 30, the first in that country since independence in 1960. Counteracting 46 years of dictatorships, wars, terrorism, militia violence, and human rights abuses, the United Nations and the government of South Africa have been working for years to establish free and fair elections for a new president and parliament.

During the past decade, fighting has raged with particular intensity in the Ituri Province, the northeastern section of the Congo, where it has severely affected the peaceful Mbuti. Anneke van Woudenbert from the group Human Rights Watch, quoted in the Christian Science Monitor on June 29, said, “This is potentially a turning point for the Congo. If elections go well and are seen as free and transparent, then they are the first step in helping to move Congo onto a more peaceful footing.”

Anticipating a reasonably successful election, optimists might hope for a constructive, post-violence, peace-building future for the nation. It is not an impossible dream. One of the basic needs, once a semblance of peace and stability is established and people resettle into their villages and homes, will be for the Congo, and especially violence-ridden areas like the Ituri, to reinvent their identity. A peaceful, stable identity.

As they seek security after so many decades of deprivation, the people of the Ituri Province will doubtless wrestle with the meaning of—indeed, with the existence of—the concept of national identity. Majority and minority status for different groups, tribal and ethnic identities, and power relationships in a new society will all need to be addressed.

In the run-up to the election, Terese Hart, internationally known biologist and commentator on the Ituri (and author of a recent magazine article reviewed this week), has anticipated these issues. She has written a series of five posts to her website starting on June 1 titled “Who Are the Indigenous People of DR Congo?”

She seeks to explain the nature of indigeneity in the Congo and to try and define the concept within the context of that country and specifically the Ituri Province. She points out that “indigenous” is a popular word, one that can be used to seek funding, divert attention, or confer favors. Poerksen would call it a “plastic word.”

In her first post on the subject, she questions a standard dictionary definition, that “indigenous” means “originating in” or “occurring naturally.” In an area occupied by foreign invaders, indigenous people might be the ones who lived there before the invasion. Indigenous people have lived in the Americas for perhaps 10,000 years, while non-indigenous groups have arrived in the last several hundred. It’s an easy situation to define. But in a country such as Congo? Peoples have moved about, from one area to another in the country, for centuries—for millennia, in fact.

“Are the Pygmy Mbuti and the Pygmy Efe more indigenous than the Bantu Bila and the Bantu Ndaka and Sudanic Lese? These peoples have shared land (forest) and languages … for centuries,” she writes. So she proposes her first alternative definition, that an “indigenous” society might be considered the one that is the more impoverished, while the “non-indigenous” society is the one that is richer.

In her second post on the subject, Hart reviews Mbuti history and their relationships with outside groups who settled in the Ituri about 125 years ago. She observes that the Mbuti adopted their famed nkumbi circumcision ritual from the Mungwana, settlers in the Ituri in the 19th century. She suggests that indigenous and non-indigenous may be distinctions that are more important to outsiders than to local people.

So she proposes a second, alternative definition: that indigenous people are those who accept the mores of local residents who are already established in an area, while non-indigenous people are those who stubbornly refuse to adopt local identities.

In her third post, she turns from murky historical evidence to examine, instead, a geographical perspective on “indigenous.” She says that the Pygmy groups do not have distinct languages—they share the languages of neighboring agriculturalists with whom they live in close association. Furthermore, some of the agricultural peoples of the Congo live in close association with non-Pygmy forest peoples. The lessons of her geographical analysis are no more clearcut than her historical examination.

She argues, therefore, that indigenous—in the context of the Ituri—can be best understood as including all the peoples of the area encountered by the first Western explorers. Therefore, she proposes her third alternative definition. Indigenous people are those with a long-term relationship to the land, while non-indigenous are recent immigrants who lack such a long-term understanding: traditional users and recent exploiters, in the Ituri context.

Hart’s fourth post discusses the economic exploitation of the Ituri forest by outsiders, especially people from the neighboring North Kivu Province. She decries the desecration of the Ituri and blames it more on the get-rich interests of those from the neighboring province than on international forces such as the World Bank. She has a very different emphasis from Keith Harmon Snow and David Barnouski who, in a current Z Magazine article, associate corporate, governmental, and international interests with the tragic recent history of the country.

Her final post of July 24 further describes the ways the Congolese exploit the people of the Ituri. Politically savvy outsiders are overrunning the unsophisticated peoples in the Province and substituting mineral and timber extraction for the traditional hunting and agricultural practices of the residents. Outside merchants charge exorbitant prices for their goods, and they carry off their profits, with the backing of military authorities, to their homes in other areas. The corruption is leading to the cultural impoverishment of the Ituri.

The solutions she proposes are controlling and protecting the land for traditional uses, controlling the movements of people into the Ituri, and controlling the resources—animals, timber, and minerals. In other words, managing—so that the various indigenous peoples can survive. She concludes that the Okapi Fauna Reserve, which she and her husband John Hart established in the Ituri decades ago under the aegis of the Wildlife Conservation Society, is a viable experiment that is reaching toward those goals.