Posted by: sean | November 21, 2008

Magic and the Mai Mai

One of the aspects of recent Congo coverage that has been woefully lacking is discussion of the Mai Mai, not to be confused with the Mau Mau of Kenya. Gettleman has a piece in today’s Times about the Mai Mai, which is a blanket term used to describe the local militias of Eastern Congo sometimes referred to as the Forces d’Autodéfense Populaire. This group is described by Congolese researcher Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, in his people’s history of the Congo as such:

Their rise in 1993 was tied to conditions of political turmoil and economic crisis in which the increasingly large number of school drop-outs and other young men with nothing to do and no hope for further education or wage employment found a life of excitement in armed bands. Originally local militias organized to defend encroachment by outsiders, these fighters have grown so much in both organizational and operational capacity that they have become a major social force. Unfortunately, they lack the kind of leadership and training necessary to aquire political discipline and a scientific understanding of reality; to liquidate … “remnants of tribal mentality;” and to abandon “those rites and practices which are incompatible with the rational and national character of the struggle” (pp. 242-3).

The rites and practices mentioned by Nzongola-Ntalaja are the magic that makes up the bulk of the coverage of Mai Mai groups, when they’re mentioned at all in the western media. Just like Hezbollah is the sexy side of Lebanese politics, magical potions make for salacious news coverage. Much of Gettleman’s piece today, for example, focuses on this aspect of the Mai Mai. He doesn’t tell us which Mai Mai group the story is about or which ethnic group it represents, but he does spend the first quarter (or even third) of his article talking about magic.

The Mai Mai are an unorganized collection of local ethnic militias that have fought on many of the sides of the most recent conflicts in Eastern Congo. The catch-all phrase Mai Mai makes them sound much more unified than they actually are. There are a lot of ins and outs to these groups that bring to forefront larger issues in the Congo. For instance, the fact that they are usually called “local” is generally in opposition to Banyamulenge (often a catch-all term for Congolese Tutsi), whose Congolese bonafides are often called into question, implying that they are Rwandan or Burundian interlopers. The question of what it means to be Congolese in Greater Kivu is a complex and interesting question that I won’t get into right now.

What I will say is that the Mai Mai are important actors in the Congolese conflicts in the East, and the media owes us better coverage of their roles in the larger war and the most recent conflagration. This means less magic and more meat in news coverage. I know that the local color of magical potions makes for great copy, but it doesn’t help us understand what’s actually happening in the Congo.


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