Celebrating Black History Month

In honor of Black History Month, WRC wrote a 5-part essay with articles to explain the history of the Great Lakes Region and its people. We looked specifically at the history of the conflict in order to provide context to the refugee crisis that is WRC’s focus. Our founders are from the city Bukavu in eastern Congo, and everyone in our community in Rhode Island has their roots in this region and this conflict. We hope it provides some insight into the history of our people and the challenges they have overcome.


The Great Lakes Region is a part of East and Central Africa categorized by the presence of several of the world’s largest fresh-water lakes. The 10 countries include the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, and Burundi– the section of the Great Lakes region which will be the focus of our posts. The main language in the region is Swahili, a Bantu language spoken by an estimated 50 - 150 million people (including most of our community). About half the population identifies as Christians. Although the purpose of this history lesson is to focus mainly on the Great Lakes, we want to briefly touch upon the nature of Belgian colonization of the DR Congo.


The colonial takeover of the Congo was one of the most deplorable examples of global imperialism in modern history. During “the Scramble for Africa,” in 1885, King Leopold II of Belgium declared himself the dictator and sole proprietor of what he called the “Congo Free State”. Citing missionary work, his true intentions were the forced labor of indigenous populations. When the high rubber quotas weren’t met, the King’s army killed the people or severed their limbs. From 1890 to 1910, between 5 and 8 million people died as a result of Leopold’s rubber trade. The exposure and circulation of the atrocities within the region eventually forced Leopold to sell control of his colony to the Belgian state in 1908. It was around this time that Europeans began expanding into the East, on a hunt for lucrative copper, oil, and diamonds.


In this region, a major component of colonial rule was to reshape customary rule and exploit social structures. The Belgians regrouped small chieftaincies into “sectors”, which were often expanded with a single ruler representing an ethnically and linguistically diverse population. For example, they installed a Rwandan Hutu chief loyal to the Belgians in one region, then imported a chief from the far-away Kumu community to rule over a local Hutu population in another region. This new structure destroyed the traditional system of checks and balances and left populations without a means to hold their chiefs accountable.


At the same time, Europeans were moving in and carving out large swaths of land for settler farming (the Congolese could not legally purchase or own their land until 1953). The law was written such that any unclaimed territory was automatically the property of the state, so the Belgians always controlled the best farming land. Moreover, in the years 1928-1956, the Europeans imported over 150,000 Rwandans to work in their mines and farm their land. This importation of labor combined with a reorganization of social structures over several generations sowed the seeds of conflict we see in the region today.


Ruzizi River, which connects Lake Kivu and Lake Tanganyika in Western Burundi.

Map of the Great Lakes region of Africa.

Infamous photograph of a father staring at the hand and foot of his five-year-old daughter, which was severed for not meeting the rubber quota. Circulation of images like these helped expose the atrocities under the Congo Free State. photo : Alice Seeley Harris


Rwandan migrant workers at the Kisanaga mine in Katanga (in the south), 1920. Author unknown.


Female missionary pulled on a rickshaw by Congolese men, 1920-1930. Author unknown.


Belgian colonial rulers and King Yuhi V Musinga, who ruled over Rwanda from 1896 to 1931, when he was deposed by the Belgium administration.


Part 2: Congolese Independence and the Congo Rebellions


Colonization continued to spread and deepen across Africa throughout the 1900s until calls for independence and rising revolutionary fervor came to a head. Fearing a fight for independence similar to that in Algeria, the Belgiums handed control of the Congo to the people on June 30th, 1960. Congolese quickly voted the Parti Solidaire Africain into power with Patrice Lumumba at its head. He quickly renamed the country Republic of the Congo and enjoyed broad popular support for his anti-imperialist policies. At the time, the DRC was the second most industrialized country in Africa but the abrupt transition to independence left only one trained Congolese lawyer, no physicians or officers, and 5 trained administrators in the entire country. This small group was immediately tasked with running the 3rd largest African country.


Holding elections so soon after independence set the stage for conflict and violence; indigenous peoples feared being outvoted, Hutu and Tutsi feared a challenge to their recently acquired citizenship. The Belgian colonial army mutinied within days of Lumumba’s election, marking the beginning of what’s called the Congo Crisis. Lumumba appealed to America for support, but the US declined knowing that Lumumba would not prioritize their economic interests. Lumumba turned instead to the Soviet Union, which set the stage for a 5-year proxy war in central Africa. The US and Belgium staged a coup against Lumumba, and he was swiftly ousted and executed by firing squad within months of taking office. Belgium didn’t apologize for the role it played in assassinating Lumumba until February 2002.


What had seemed to be a moment of hope for the Congolese people was quickly subverted by the coup, stunting the possibility for progress. Congolese elites and citizens had learned a powerful lesson: there was no point in rising up against a government supported militarily by the West. Meanwhile, The US had prepared army strongman Joseph Mobutu (later Mobutu Sese Seko) for leadership in 1960, which he seized directly in 1965, effectively ending the Crisis.


After seizing power, Mobutu kept it for 23 years, abolishing political parties and parliament and establishing a kleptocracy. He renamed the capital Kinshasa and the country Zaire in 1971 under his “national authenticity” policy. Yet, corruption and embezzlement were rampant. He enslaved his own people, hoarded the country’s wealth, and murdered dissenters. By the time he died in 1997, he amassed a personal fortune of $5 billion. While normal life continued at first, eventually a declining economy, decaying infrastructure, and the deterioration of the armed forces combined to produce a weak state increasingly unable to defend its own territory. The stage was set for outside intervention and increased violence against Mobotu’s government toward the end of his reign. We’ll cover the First and Second Congo Wars tomorrow.

Lumumba and Belgium PM Gaston Eyskens sign the document granting independence to the Congo in Leopoldville (later Kinshasa), June 30 1960.

Chief of Staff Joseph Mobutu, who seized power in a US/Belgium-backed coup on September 14th, 1960. [Babout/AP Photo]

Picketers carrying anti-Belgian and pro-Lumumba placards parade near the Belgian consulate in New York, on February 11, 1961 [AP Photo/Jacob Harris]

April 11, 1989: Mobutu makes a phone call in his Paris office.

Congolese women celebrating independence on June 30th, 2020. Photo: Raissa Karama


Part 3: First and Second Congo War


By the mid 1990s, things were plunging further into turmoil under Mobutu’s regime. Meanwhile, the 1994 genocide against 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu in neighboring Rwanda forced victims to flee to eastern Zaire. When Tutsi rebels retook the country, over a million Hutu also fled to eastern Zaire, using it as a base to launch attacks. The roots of this ethnic conflict date back to an aggressive pro-Tutsi policy of social rule during Rwanda’s colonization by Germany and Belgium. These conditions obviously set the stage for violence—in 1996, the Tutsi Rwandan army along with anti-Mobutu rebels attacked eastern Zaire and marched on the capital, Kinshasa. Mobutu was exiled, and the rebel leader Laurent Kabila was installed as president in May 1997. The country was swiftly renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo. These events culminated into what is called the “First Congo War” or “Africa’s First World War”.


By august 1998, Congolese President Kabila made an attempt to show independence from Rwanda. Not a week later, Rwandan and Ugandan armies invaded Congo and backed a hastily formed Congolese rebel group to oust Kabila. Kabila then received support from other nations (Zimbabwe, Namibia, Angola) and managed to stop attempts to take Kinshasa, but the DRC was essentially divided into 2 regions. Kabila led the “united” Kinshasa controlled area in the West in opposition to the rebel-controlled east, which was subdivided and subject to Rwandan and/or Ugandan influence and occupation over time. President Kabila was assassinated and replaced by his son Joseph in 2001. Eventually, various actors signed a peace agreement in 2002, ultimately marking the end of what is known as the Second Congo War, or the Great African War.

By April of 2001, a UN panel stated the war had devolved into a conflict for access and control over minerals, specifically by Rwanda, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. Eastern Congo is still extremely rich in mineral wealth—an estimated $24 trillion still sits in the ground today. In the end, nine African countries and around twenty-five armed groups became involved. By 2008, the war and its aftermath had caused 5.4 million deaths, principally through disease and starvation. Another 2 million were displaced from their homes or sought asylum in neighboring countries. A majority of the Congolese community now in Providence left the Great Lakes region around this time.


Joseph Kabila retained power until a general election in December of 2018. Opposition candidate Felix Tshisekedi was announced as the winner and sworn in on January 24th, 2019. This marked the first relatively peaceful transition of power in the DR Congo. While suspicions about his connections with former President Kabila arose, Tshisekedi ultimately secured legislative support. However, conflict in the eastern Congo is still ongoing, and the UN claims the situation lately has started looking comparable to the first two wars. Next, we’re going to look at the nature of the conflict and the life and culture of the people still living in or connected to the region.

People in the street after rumors of Mobutu’s ousting spread across Kinshasa, 1997. Photo: Gilles Peress

Soldiers of the rebel movement of Congo’s then-new president, Laurent Kabila, entering Kinshasa, 1997. Photo: Gilles Peress

Joseph Kabila in the garden of his personal ranch, in 2018, right before stepping down as president. Photo: John Wessels/AFP/Getty Images

Congo’s first peaceful transfer of power as Felix Tshisekedi was sworn into office on January 24th, 2019.


Part 4: Nature of conflict, history of resistance


Today, we’re highlighting some of the main aspects of the (ongoing) conflict in the Congo. Since the height of the Great African War, most armed groups have dwindled to numbers in the low thousands, or even hundreds. Yet, the desire to control plunder natural resources keeps the conflict alive. This includes the participation of multiple multinational corporations, who take advantage of the weak body of governance to buy cheap minerals and maximize their profits. The nature of the conflict as being mostly ethnocentric also means civilians are randomly targeted by rebels for being the “wrong” ethnicity. As a result of these factors, the region has devolved into a fully militarized economy with armed groups participating in almost every sector of public life. The government’s inability to maintain the rule of law reinforces the idea that the only way of protecting property and freedoms are through violence.


The weaponization of rape throughout both wars and into today has serious implications for women and girls in the region, something we see in our work at WRC. More than 1 million women and girls have been victimized by rape in the region. A study conducted on 25 women who experienced sexual violence in DRC stated strategic purposes and opportunistic behavior as reasons why they were raped. Displacing communities, instilling fear within them, punishing them, and gaining or destroying magical power could be seen as strategic objectives. As one survivor stated, women themselves have become a lootable resource.


Conflict in the eastern Congo, like most conflicts in Africa, has its roots in the Belgian colonial administration. The colonizers forced the mass immigration of Rwandans and purposefully manipulated ethnic power structures to their advantage. This artificial ethnic competition combined with unparalleled natural resource wealth and a weak government set the stage for decades of ongoing conflict. Over time, the people of the Great Lakes region have formed various armed groups to protect and fight for themselves. They organize under the “Mai Mai'' moniker, a term that signifies the resistance against outside forces and their hindering indigenous communities. During the Second Congo War, the local militias in the east fighting incursions by Ugandan, Burundian, and Rwandan troops all identified themselves as Mai Mai Congolese nationalists. Today, these groups differ in their goals and agendas depending on local and national contexts. While some argue they do more harm than good, these groups remain an example of the peoples’ resistance and pride. Next week, we’ll look at the art and culture coming out of the region today.



Statue of Leopold in Kinshasa, acting as one of the many physical reminders of the legacies of colonialism.

Women and children work in rebel-controlled Gold Mines in the South Kivu Province in eastern Congo. Photo: Moses Sawasawa

Collapsing entrance to a gold mine. Photo: Moses Sawasawa

Women and lawyers protesting in Bukavu, DRC, in 2020 amid calls for action on the murders and rapes being committed in the east. Bukavu hosts a hospital that specializes in treating survivors of sexual violence. Photo: Maud-Salome Ekila

Female fighters from a Mai Mai group in North Kivu, DRC. Photo: Matchbox Media Collective


Part 5: Eastern Congo Today


One of the many challenges in telling stories of Africa is finding images and stories that don’t focus on deprivation. While conflict is ongoing, so is daily life. Today we want to highlight the many ways in which life shines through and people not only survive, but thrive. Therefore, all of the photos featured today were taken by Congolese photographers and stories chosen come directly from the mouths of the people living it.


DRC is also the birthplace of African Rumba music, a fusion of Latin and African music, which now dominates the airwaves across central Africa. It was added to the UNSECO list of intangible cultural heritage in 2021. According to UNESCO, “Congolese rumba is a musical genre and a dance used in formal and informal spaces for celebration and mourning. It is primarily an urban practice danced by a male-female couple. The practice is passed down to younger generations through neighborhood clubs, formal training schools and community organizations.”


Music also acts as a form of resistance, healing, and peacebuilding among people of the Great Lakes Region. In Rwanda, Ingoma Nshya, the country’s first and only women’s drumming troupe, has contributed to heal and empower dozens of Rwandan women from different backgrounds. Both Hutus and Tutsis, as well as orphans, widows, and daughters of the perpetrators of the genocide, collaborate and break down barriers through drumming, a traditionally male-dominated area. “For these women, culture is a driving force that allows them to emerge from the devastation of genocide, and to create a new future.”


In another effort towards peacebuilding, the Amani Music Festival is reuniting African artists in the region. With the slogan “Playing for change, singing for Peace”, about 10,000 people from Goma and the nearby Rwandan city of Gisenyi are packed into the festival that brings together rumba artists and rappers on stage. More than 20 artists even came together to write a “peace anthem”. According to Thomas Lusango, art director of the song, “It is the anthem of brotherhood or peace. These are words that we have found in perfect union and harmony with the artists of several communities in the DRC, Rwanda and Burundi, with whom we have worked hard.” This comes at a time when conflict is still ongoing in the Eastern region.


A major aspect of culture in the Congo is a love for colorful and eccentric fashion. La SAPE (Society of Ambience-Makers and Elegant People) first emerged under colonial rule as a reaction to colonial fashion trends first appearing in the region. They consider themselves symbols of colonial resistance, creating their own self-image of the liberated Black man. As famous Congolese singer Papa Wemba puts it, “White people invented the clothes, but we made an art of it.” Photos are pictures of Sapuers in the Bukuvu region (Aline and Clement’s hometown) during the coronavirus pandemic. Moreover, a Congolese fashion designer made headlines recently when the coronavirus pandemic forced her fashion show online. Using 3D technology, designer Anifa Mvuemba animated the clothes to appear as though they were worn by invisible bodies for her instagram live fashion show “Pink Label Congo”. Our African Manufacturing Project likewise contributes to this tradition by providing sewing classes and traditional fabrics to the women in our community. We understand the importance of culture as a form of resistance and we couldn’t be more thankful to support our beautiful community here in Rhode Island.


Thank you for sticking with us throughout this series. You can support our project and our mission to help refugees become self-sufficient members of society on our website.

Sapuer in Bukavu, DRC, May 2020 (Aline’s hometown region). Photo: Raissa Karama

La SAPE, Société des ambianceurs et personnes élégantes (Society of Ambiance-Makers and Elegant People), emerged under colonial rule and grew as Congolese soldiers returning from Europe after World War Two brought home the latest Parisian fashions.

David Lucien Sumaili, 18, in Bukavu DRC, August 2020. Photo: Raissa Karama

Stills from Hanifa’s 2020 virtual fashion show titled “Pink Label Congo”. The fashion label’s designer is Anifa Mvuemba, who immigrated from the Congo to the US when she was a toddler. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LZ1h0Zj5gAs

Actress Zendaya wearing Hanifa, in a dress in the colors of Congo’s flag.



Ingoma Nshya, https://vimeo.com/mimnagh/review/289097170/35e2f3feac?#




The photographs shown here represent a revival of Congolese culture and illustrate how we use creativity and tradition to showcase natural hair as a symbol of pride and the reclaiming of ownership over our bodies while being comfortable and proud of our appearance without artificial products.

Amani Festival, February 2022. Photo: Raissa Karama


Amani Music Festival 2022


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