The Decapitated Priest and the Cook Turned Peacebuilder
By Georgette Mulunda Ledgister
She woke up with a painfully tight knot of anxiety in the pit of her stomach. Truthfully, she hadn’t slept much the night before. She’d spent most of the night tossing to and fro, dreading the journey she and 14 of her colleagues were about to embark upon—a journey that had a definite beginning, but only an approximate end date. She thought back to the meeting her boss—Pastor Daniel Ngoy Mulunda-Nyanga—had with all of the PAREC staff a month prior to this fateful day. He had informed them that he had accepted a request from the transitional government of the Democratic Republic of Congo (Congo, henceforth) to travel to the village of Musao in the southeast region of the country and negotiate the release of a priest’s head. Her heart had pounded—deafeningly—in her ears, and her palms had begun to sweat as she vainly attempted to wring the tremor from them. A head. A head. She had never seen a dead body before, let alone the remains of a decapitated priest. When she had accepted the job as a cook for PAREC (Ecumenical Program for Peace, Reconciliation and Conflict Transformation)—a local ecumenical peacebuilding organization—she had been confident that all of the peace work would be left to the professionals. She just knew how to cook. She loved to cook. Providing hospitality was her gift and her calling. Yet here she was on a hot and muggy February morning in 2005, preparing to embark on a peacebuilding mission from Kinshasa, the capital of Congo.
For what seemed like the hundredth time, Bibiche opened her suitcase with trembling hands, checking that she had everything she would need for a one- to three-month trip. She remembered her boss’s explanation for such an ambiguous range of time. He had told them that he didn’t know what they would encounter once they arrived in the provincial capital of Lubumbashi. He didn’t know whether or not they would receive permission to enter the territory of the Mai-Mai rebels in the Malemba-Nkulu district, let alone the village of Musao. He didn’t want to rush the team’s departure from Lubumbashi. Although the village of Musao was only 780 kilometers away from Lubumbashi by road, these roads were sparsely paved and often abruptly dead-ended at cleared paths of hard-packed soil, with large potholes that turned into small reddish-brown lakes and rivers of mud during rainfall. The plan was simple, but so many unanswered questions made Bibiche question in turn the decision she had made to join the staff at PAREC just three years prior. She smiled ruefully: 2002 seemed like a lifetime ago. She had only been 21 years old when she had gotten the job, with no altruistic commitments to peace, or conflict transformation, as her boss called it. All she had desired at the time was to have stable employment that paid decently—and maybe a chance to travel. She shook her head at the naïveté of her 21-year-old self. Travel, she certainly would.
They would fly to Lubumbashi from Kinshasa, and there they would wait for an invitation from Kalenga Ngwele Makabe, the leader of one of several Mai-Mai factions that claimed Luba ethnicity. Makabe’s headquarters were in the village of Musao. Although the team had been sent on this mission by the government, they would wait in Lubumbashi—at the insistence of her boss—for an invitation from the Mai-Mai in the district of Malemba-Nkulu before going to Musao. When someone at that fateful staff meeting had asked how long they would wait, her boss had smiled and sat silently for several interminable minutes. His response had been simple: for as long as it took. He did not want to endanger the team by rushing headlong and uninvited into Mai-Mai territory. You see, the murdered priest had not received an invitation from the Mai-Mai to enter their land, much less to begin negotiations. In so doing, he had sealed his own fate.
Father Ngoy Nkulu Djakanda was an abbot in the Kinshasa diocese. Bibiche had not heard of him prior to his infamous solo mission into Mai-Mai territory, and didn’t know much about him. Surely, he must have known that there could be no reasoning with the Mai-Mai. She thought of all of the news reports she had seen on the government channel (the RTNC, or Radio-Télévision Nationale Congolaise, network). Even RTNC staff agreed that Mai-Mai rebels were bad people and bandoki who killed people and ate their flesh.1 If the government channel was reporting the same news she heard on Radio Okapi (the preferred broadcast network of the UN and white people), then it had to be true. So, she couldn’t understand why he had taken it upon himself to go there—where they were. Father Nkulu was a priest! A servant of God! He knew better than to interact with kindoki. And maybe this is the reason why he was killed—because he touched their kindoki. Although he also claimed Luba ethnicity, like the Mai-Mai of Malemba-Nkulu, he had no ties to the ancestral land of the Luba Mai-Mai. He was from Kabongo, the southernmost end of what was at that time the Katanga province. Father Nkulu could speak the Kiluba language, but he knew nothing of the Malemba-Nkulu district nor of the village of Musao. And for the Mai-Mai, land was everything. The land shaped the people, and the people revered the land in turn. Father Nkulu had taken his vocation and personal passion for peace, the support of the Kinshasa diocese, and the media uproar that his departure had caused in Kinshasa as endorsement for his dangerous mission. Everyone, it seemed, had applauded his courage and lauded his commitment for peace in Congo—everyone but the Luba Mai-Mai themselves.
Bibiche was startled out of a dreamless sleep by the voice of the pilot on the loudspeaker, announcing their descent into Lubumbashi. The forced humor and mirthless laughter that had characterized much of the conversation amongst the PAREC team during the flight had faded into uneasy silence, punctuated by the steady hum of the airplane engines, and the occasional cry of an infant somewhere on the plane. She looked down at the sprawling city of Lubumbashi through the small, warped airplane window. Lubumbashi was not truly a city. It lacked the tall steel and glass structures of the center of Kinshasa. Instead, the hub of Lubumbashi’s economy resided deep in the bowels of its mines—copper, diamond, cobalt, cassiterite—natural resources that drew miners from as near as Lubumbashi and as far as Australia, Germany, and China. Its residential neighborhoods were separated by large swathes of what looked like red farmlands. Lubumbashi was probably more of a large town, or a town on the verge of becoming a city. This trip was not her first to Lubumbashi, but the unspoken prayer deep in her heart was that it would not be her last.
She shielded her eyes against the glare of the midday sun as she descended the wobbly and steep passenger boarding stairs. An occasional burst of a cool, red-tinged breeze blew against her face. Luano International Airport did not boast the recently modernized terminal of Kinshasa’s N’Djili International Airport. But Luano Airport was also not crammed with people like N’Djili—bleary-eyed passengers waiting for their flights; porters waiting listlessly for someone to hire their services; police officers, airport security, and military officers—too many military officers—glancing furtively at each passing face, looking for signs of malfeasance or an opportunity to collect a bribe. Luano, which means snake in the Kisanga language, moved at a different pace. The squat, three-story terminal sat calmly under the Lubumbashi sky like a coiled garden snake warming itself under the sun’s rays. Bibiche welcomed the relative calm that greeted them on the tarmac as the team made their way off the plane.
They met Natacha, the program officer for the PAREC satellite office in Lubumbashi, at the bottom of the plane. Bibiche had encountered Natacha on several occasions in Kinshasa and in Lubumbashi. Although she was not the director of the Lubumbashi office, everyone knew that the office did not stand a chance without her. She was crafty, focused, and tough. She was savvy enough to negotiate and organize logistics for the wide variety of conflict transformation work that PAREC undertook in churches, political circles and even in academic circles. Natacha adjusted the gold-rimmed, tinted rectangular glasses sliding down her nose, as she reached with her right arm outstretched to greet Bibiche with the customary embrace. The greeting consisted of a hand (in this case the right one) resting lightly on Bibiche’s left shoulder, and three alternating kisses on both of Bibiche’s cheeks. The wiry, just visible facial hair on Natacha’s chin and cheeks bristled against Bibiche’s skin as Natacha lightly brushed her own cheeks against Bibiche’s in the customary greeting. Facial hair on women was considered a gift, a mark of wealth and beauty even, by many in Congo. Bibiche figured that if she had facial hair, she would likely keep it as well. It was not long before the team retrieved their luggage, boarded three SUVs and two vans, and started on the short drive from the suburban airport to the commercial center of the city. The team had officially ventured into uncharted waters. Their adventure had begun.
I first met Bibiche in April 2002 during the inter-Congolese dialogue in Sun City, South Africa. This dialogue would later lead to the signing of the Global and Inclusive Accord, which marked the end of the Congolese Five-Year War (or the War of Aggression, as it is also known). I was spending a week as an intern with the PAREC staff as they worked to facilitate the dialogue between warring Congolese factions and Congolese civil society. My father, Pastor Daniel Mulunda-Nyanga, the founder of PAREC, was one of the key mediators of the dialogue. It was the third quarter of my senior year in high school, and I had made the honor roll. My reward was a trip to South Africa to witness part of the dialogue. I was thrilled at the opportunity to observe a dialogue, given my deep involvement in the Model United Nations program at my high school in Nairobi, Kenya. My first encounter with Bibiche was uneventful. She was part of the hospitality team, and I learned that she attended the church that my father pastored in Kinshasa. She was kind to me and did not mind keeping me company during meetings in which I was not permitted to participate. She was not much for striking up conversations, but she was more than happy to chime in when someone addressed her. Her defining characteristic was her laugh—it was loud, raucous, infectious, and came from an authentic place. Of the staff who worked with my father, she was the one who formed a bond with our family—one that remains strong almost 19 years later.
I was a junior in college in 2005, living in Atlanta, Georgia, when my father led the team—of which Bibiche was a part—to Mai-Mai territory to negotiate the return of the priest’s head, and to invite the Mai-Mai to disarm. My mother had been very apprehensive about the mission, and understandably so. I remember her words to me about the mission: “It’s not his fight,” she had said. But my father had been resolute. He considered peacebuilding to be more than a profession for him—it was a vocation that he took very seriously and pursued reverently. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” he would begin. “For they will be called children of God,”2 we would chime in as children. And so they went.
Twelve years later, in 2017, as I prepared to undertake my own journey to Malemba-Nkulu and Musao, Bibiche agreed to accompany my mother, my then nine-month-old daughter, and me back into the uncertain and even dangerous waters that are the world of the Mai-Mai. In our initial interviews about her experience with the Mai-Mai in 2005, I asked Bibiche whether her opinion of the Mai-Mai had changed after she had spent several weeks with them in the towns of Luena, Ankoro, Kabalo, and the village of Musao.
“No! They are bad people. They have kindoki.”
“What do you mean when you say ‘bad’?”
“They are not good people. There is nothing good about kindoki.”
“So, is it the kindoki that makes them bad?” This last question was met with a sharp retort and warning.
“Stop trying to make me accept kindoki! I will not. Good people do not use kindoki. Pastor [Mulunda] was trying to make them feel like they were people. He would talk to them. He would eat with them. We [the PAREC team] didn’t want to get involved with them. You need to be careful with them.”3 While I did not expect the force of her response, I was not surprised by her construal of my question as an attempt to compel her to change her mind, not only about the Mai-Mai but about her understanding of kindoki. Although a practicing and self-proclaimed staunch Christian, Bibiche nevertheless fully inhabits the Congolese religious imaginary in which the spirit world is immanent, wielding significant influence over the natural world. In keeping with her Christian (and, I would add, colonial) formation, Bibiche considered all spiritual activity that went beyond the bounds of her theology to be evil or harmful kindoki. However, she was not alone in her hyperawareness of psychic power as evil. Most, if not all, Congolese (Christian, Mai-Mai, or otherwise) were raised with the understanding that kindoki existed, with most Christians believing that the intent of practitioners of all kindoki (protective kindoki or harmful kindoki) was to harm people. However, in contrast to Christians like Bibiche who considered all indigenous practice to be evil in nature, Congolese non-Christians only construe harmful kindoki, or kindoki dia kia, as the intentional use of supernatural power for the sake of self-aggrandizement, and at the explicit detriment of others.
Simon Bockie offers a definition of harmful and benevolent kindoki in his ethnographic research with the Manianga people of his home province of Lower Congo (Bas-Congo):
BaManianga [the Manianga people] clearly distinguish between kindoki kia dia (literally, “eating kindoki”) and kindoki kia lunda (“protecting kindoki”). When it is used to do harm, they fear and denounce it. Any ndoki suspected of harming others is disliked or hated at the time he [sic] is harming.4
Bockie goes on to name the associations with day and night that the Manianga people make with protecting kindoki and harmful kindoki, shrouding the latter (which is performed at night while the community sleeps) in secrecy. The secrecy of harmful kindoki, and its association with the night has particular implications on the morality of the person who practices this kindoki:
The adherents of night kindoki, being the failures or upstarts of the community, are viewed as merciless toward their victims, whom, in actuality, they are afraid of. Since they fear them, they are impelled to send them death or incurable disease. At night, ndoki has no heart, that is, he [sic] does not know how to forgive another. The Manianga belief is that this type of kindoki is carried out both by human beings and bad spirits.5
When this indigenous understanding of kindoki is applied to the Mai-Mai, it becomes clear that, contra Congolese Christians’ perception, there is a difference between Mai-Mai identity and the practice of harmful kindoki. Being a Mai-Mai did not automatically make one a practitioner of harmful kindoki. In fact, the supernatural power that the Mai-Mai wielded fits more closely with the indigenous understanding of kindoki kia lunda, or protective kindoki. Still, the distinction between indigenous spiritualities and Christian constructions of evil did not register for Bibiche. She appeared increasingly agitated by my clarifying questions, so I changed my line of questioning altogether. “How did you feel when you first heard that you were going on a peacebuilding mission among the Mai-Mai?”
“I was very afraid. I knew that the Mai-Mai were violent people. They killed Congolese [people]. They also . . . ate people.” She opened her eyes wide, and they darted from side to side, their movement punctuating her words.
“Do you regret going on the mission?”
“No! I had to go because it was my job. But I was glad that I went.”
“I had seen the Mai-Mai on television, and then I saw them in person.” She smiled as her eyes took on a faraway cast. “It was an experience that I could share. I could say that I had seen them [the Mai-Mai] face to face. That was joy[ous] for me.”
Bibiche went on to share the respect she gained from family and friends upon her return to Kinshasa, for having done what many of them did not even dream of doing—traveling to engage in work of national political consequence. Although her world-sense about the Mai-Mai did not change (a point she insisted upon), she was nevertheless grateful for the exposure to another perspective and to experience a world that was different from hers.
Bibiche’s vivid account of her experience with the Mai-Mai prompted me to research the history of the Luba Mai-Mai, and particularly their involvement in the Congolese Five-Year War; the reception of the Mai-Mai among local communities, and in national and international political spheres; and the role of religion in shaping the Congolese social imaginary. Of the most recent in-depth analyses of ongoing conflict in Congo, few methodically engage the Mai-Mai movement in the eastern provinces of the country (let alone the Luba Mai-Mai), and of these sources, almost none have engaged Mai-Mai oral history or religious practice.6 To access Mai-Mai oral history, my research taps into the richest and most readily available source of Mai-Mai knowledge—the Mai-Mai themselves—as well as Congolese persons such as Bibiche and my father, who are among the few people to date to have spent extensive time in the villages of several Mai-Mai groups operating in the former Katanga province (now Upper Lomami, Upper Katanga, and Tanganyika provinces).
For most Congolese, particularly those who profess Christianity like Bibiche, the Mai-Mai are evil people who consume human flesh to access malefic powers that they then use to kill and terrorize their communities.7 Yet, the Mai-Mai are neither a political party, nor an ethnic group, nor an army, nor even a religious institution. The Mai-Mai are first and foremost persons who live in intimate connection with the divine, as a result of their ritualized and sustained contact with their ancestors. It is this communion with the ancestors that Congolese Christians often cite as the source of Mai-Mai evil—a narrative that dominates popular opinion of the Mai-Mai in most sectors of Congolese public life, and one that my research explores through the lived experiences of women like Bibiche Ngandu.
Still, in my interviews with Bibiche, she painted a complex picture of the Mai-Mai. According to her account, the Mai-Mai were at once violent, “bad” people, witch doctors, and, ultimately, not even people at all. Encountering the Mai-Mai in person was a terrifying ordeal, and yet meeting the Mai-Mai was a new experience, and therefore a source of joy for her—a joy that she shared with others. Her fear of the Mai-Mai never dissipated, despite having encountered them in person, and in spite of Pastor Mulunda’s efforts to show his team and the world that the Mai-Mai were people too, and worthy of being treated with dignity.
Accounts like Bibiche’s experience with the Mai-Mai serve as a counterpoint to dominant and oversimplified narratives of the vulnerability of African women during war—narratives that focus almost exclusively on gender-based violence in war and preclude the existence of their agency during armed conflict. My field research has culminated in a book project, “Gods, Guns, and Girls: Gender, Agency and Spirituality in a Congolese Rebel Movement,” an exploration and intimate recounting of the life of Chatty (Charlotte) Masangu wa Nkulu, a young woman who enlists in the Mai-Mai insurgency hoping to die and ultimately shed the stigma of infertility and divorce. Not only does Chatty survive her initiation into the Mai-Mai insurgency, she also ascends through the ranks of the Mai-Mai and becomes a warlord and a general. Against insurmountable sociopolitical and cultural odds, Chatty wields an agency and occupies a leadership role during the Congolese Five-Year War that is neither determined nor circumscribed by the limitations of her gender. Rather, Chatty’s prominence and elevation stems from her use of indigenous practice and ritual in the public sphere.
Given the reclusive and violent nature of the Mai-Mai, research on the movement’s political motivations, the nature of the mystical warfare deployed by its fighters, and the movement’s treatment of women remains limited at best. I was granted exclusive and extended access to Chatty, during which she invited me into the Mai-Mai lifeworld—a world that plunged women into the violence of war, while paradoxically protecting and equipping them to be warriors and leaders during the war. “Gods, Guns, and Girls” invites readers to do the same—to wade into the mysterious and terrifying waters of the Mai-Mai, and to emerge with an expanded and nuanced understanding of religion, gender, and conflict in Africa.
- When Bibiche spoke of the Mai-Mai, she used the Lingala phrase baza[li] bandoki to refer to the mystical aspect of the Mai-Mai. Bandoki is the plural of ndoki, designating one who wields kindoki, or supernatural power. On the basis of its usage and practice among the Manianga people of the Lower Congo province, Simon Bockie defines kindoki as an ambivalent psychic power, or spells and medicine that either protect (kindoki kia lunda) or psychically consume one’s vitality and fortune (kindoki kia dia, or eating kindoki); Simon Bockie, Death and the Invisible Powers: The World of Kongo Belief (Indiana University Press, 1993), 46–47. The root of kindoki is the verb koloka, to overpower, which Christian missionaries have erroneously translated as “to bewitch,” and kindoki as “witchcraft.” Bibiche’s use of ndoki to refer to the Mai-Mai reflects a conflation of indigenous Congolese understandings of kindoki and Christian misrepresentations and mistranslations of the concept. On the one hand, Bibiche calls the Mai-Mai bandoki because she associates their power with eating or consumption of people. However, Bibiche considers all ndoki to be bad people, and kindoki to be an evil power, reflecting the colonial heritage of her Christian beliefs.
- Matt. 5:9.
- I asked my father why he insisted that his team eat the food prepared for them by the Mai-Mai. Given rumors and accusations of cannibalism, I could relate to their fear of sharing in meals with their hosts. He responded that for most Congolese, and for the Luba, sharing a meal with someone is not only a demonstration of hospitality but is also a declaration of unity and commonality. To refuse to eat with someone intimates deep distrust in that person, even a rejection of any commonalities with that person. At the extreme, to refuse to eat with someone is to refuse to acknowledge their humanity; Pastor Daniel Ngoy Mulunda-Nyanga (founder of PAREC) in discussion with the author, May 2017.
- Bockie, Death and the Invisible Powers, 47.
- The following treat the role of the Mai-Mai in armed conflict in Congo, yet most of these accounts focus almost exclusively on the political dimensions of Mai-Mai warfare: Amnesty International, On the Precipice: The Deepening Human Rights and Humanitarian Crisis in Ituri (2003); Amnesty International, Democratic Republic of Congo: Arming the East (2005); Séverine Autesserre, The Trouble with the Congo: Local Violence and the Failure of International Peacebuilding (Cambridge University Press, 2010); Kitwe Mulunda Guy, “Mai-Mai Militia and Sexual Violence in Democratic Republic of the Congo,” International Journal of Emergency Mental Health and Human Resilience 16, no. 2 (2014): 137–42; Human Rights Watch, World Report 2016: Annual Report (2016); International Crisis Group, Scramble for the Congo: Anatomy of an Ugly War (2000); Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, The Congo from Leopold to Kabila: A People’s History (Zed Books, 2002).
- See Emma Wild, “ ‘Is it Witchcraft? Is it Satan? It is a Miracle’: Mai-Mai Soldiers and Christian Concepts of Evil in North-East Congo,” Journal of Religion in Africa 28, no. 4 (1998): 450–67. “Witchcraft” is a contested term with a long history and a wide semantic range in Western popular and scholarly discourse—a history that originates in the misunderstanding of indigenous European spiritualities; see Stuart Clark, Thinking with Demons: The Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe (Oxford University Press, 1997), and E. E. Evans-Pritchard, “Witchcraft,” Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 8, no. 4 (1935): 417–22. When I use the term I do so to highlight the linguistic, social, and theological tensions between indigenous Congolese spiritualities and Christianity—the central theme of this section, and one that is evident in Bibiche’s encounter with the Mai-Mai, as well the narratives of Emma Wild’s informants. It is also important to note that Western feminists have reclaimed the concepts of “witchcraft,” locating the root of the demonization of the practice in the so-called sexual and social deviance of women who do not conform to male heteronormativity; Kristen J. Sollée, Witches, Sluts, Feminists: Conjuring the Sex Positive (Stone Bridge Press, 2017).
Georgette Mulunda Ledgister is a Congolese American scholar of religion, gender, and ethics, and a 2020–21 WSRP Research Associate and Visiting Lecturer on Women’s Studies and African Religions at Harvard Divinity School. This essay is an excerpt from a book she is currently writing on gender, agency, and mystico-political movements in the Democratic Republic of Congo.