“I’d Rather Die than Wrestle”: Gender, Spirituality, and Agency Amongst the Luba Mai-Mai

  • Georgette I. Mulunda Ledgister


This chapter explores the complex imbrications of gender, spirituality, and agency amongst the Luba Mai-Mai before and after the Congolese Five-Year War (1997–2002), in search of practices of hope in a context otherwise characterized by sociopolitical instability and precarity. The story of Chatty Masangu wa Nkulu, a female Mai-Mai fighter, provides an intimate and multilayered ethnographic account of the constraints that normative understandings of gender (based on western feminist scholarship) place on African women, particularly in contexts of conflict. Rather than providing a pathway for increasing the capacity of Mai-Mai women and girl fighters, applying western liberal feminist constructions of agency uncritically in the southeastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (Congo hereafter) paradoxically highlights their vulnerability. However, Chatty’s lived experience as a woman and a warrior in the Upper Lomami province of Congo calls for a reimagining of gender, and a turn toward Luba epistemologies that celebrate personhood, locating agency and hope in the interplay of the material and immaterial worlds.

She could have passed for my aunt. She wore her hair parted down the middle, with each side braided in fine cornrows from her forehead to the nape of her neck, the ends of which were gathered into a small bun. Her hair was quite thick; and here and there, grey strands peppered the deep black of her hair. She had a few fine wrinkles around small black eyes that seemed to glitter with intensity. I couldn’t tell whether the wrinkles were due to age, or whether they were laugh lines. She could have been in her 40s or her 50s. I later found out that she was 52 years old. She wore an oversized black and cream pencil dress, with a matching cream jacket, detailed in black threading. The dress suit would have been at home in any office in the 1980s, but the rhinestones that bedazzled the detailing on the wide black lapels of her jacket placed the ensemble closer to the fashion of the late 1990s and early 2000s (Ledgister 2018).

She was far from the gruesome and unflattering image that many before and after the Congolese Five-Year War of 1997–2002 had painted of her. Indeed, as she remarked, “Governor Buta1 did not recognize me the first time we met.” She was referring to a former governor of the Banque Centrale du Congo (Central Bank of Congo) who had been sent to her home district to assess the financial feasibility of a pacification mission. “He was looking for Chatty, the Mai-Mai girl who wore red tights and a red bandana, and hung the remains of the severed sex organs of the victims of her father’s fighters attached to her thighs. He could not believe that I—” she pointed to herself with both hands, “—was the Chatty he had heard so much about and had come to fear.”

Chatty (Charlotte) Masangu wa Nkulu is the daughter of the infamous Wilson Vwende wa Mutompa Kalunga, simply known as Vwende, leader of the Luba Mai-Mai in Mulongo, a small town in the mineral-rich2 southeastern district of Malemba-Nkulu in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Congo henceforth). According to the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in Congo (MONUSCO), the Luba Mai-Mai were one of several ill-equipped, independent local self-defense militias operating under the name Mai-Mai (mai or maji in Lingala or Swahili means water) across four provinces in Congo. Whether these militias were based in the provinces of North and South Kivu, Ituri or Upper Lomami, they were uniformly cast as bands of violent men who raped and pillaged the very communities they were unable to protect from neither the ongoing conflict within Congo, nor the conflict between Congo and neighboring Rwanda and Uganda (Ledgister 2018, 7). Chatty was an anomaly. She was a Mai-Mai fighter and leader during the Congolese Five-Year War, second only to her father, who was chief commander of Mai-Mai forces in Mulongo. A divorced mother of adopted children—all orphans of the war—she introduced herself to me as a mother and a father. Hers was a firsthand account of resilience and agency that resisted easy assimilation into narratives of victimhood and acute vulnerability, common in scholarship at the intersection of gender and war in Africa.

Focusing on Chatty’s rich and moving account of joining and fighting in the Congolese Five-Year War, this chapter interrogates scholarship on gender and war that portrays African women and girls almost exclusively as victims of war, due to uncritical applications of western feminist conceptions of gender in the African context. Chatty’s lived experience of the war invites the deconstruction of gender as framed in the West and applied in Africa, while simultaneously inviting the construction of an ontology that can carry the weight and complexity of being a young divorcée turned soldier and warrior, who comes into her own as a mother after the war. Curiously, though Chatty’s story reveals the epistemological blind spots of western framings of gender, her lived experience demonstrates the ways in which members of her community paradoxically continue to espouse and cling to western feminist3 framings of gender that fit their world-sense4 as poorly as a borrowed, ill-fitting undergarment. This chapter proposes that far from emphasizing the precarity of poor communities such as Chatty’s hometown of Mulongo, war compelled Chatty and her people to turn to indigenous epistemologies, and to tap into a mystical power that transcended their material conditions, and—in Chatty’s case—her gender. For the Mai-Mai, the context of war invites the decoupling of agency and the body, locating the hope, strength, and survival of women and girls like Chatty in the fullness of personhood—an African indigenous moral ontology rooted in and sustained by the community of the living and the ancestors.

Searching for Agency in the Midst of Contingency

When I met Chatty for the first time, I had predetermined that her role in my research would be peripheral. I was wrong. In the summer of 2017, I traveled to Kinshasa, the capital of Congo, with my then nine-month-old daughter, Zuri, to meet with my mother who would accompany us to Lubumbashi, the provincial capital of Upper Katanga. From there we would travel by road for nearly three days to reach Malemba-Nkulu where my father—a pastor and chief mediator of the Global and Inclusive Accord that officially ended the Congolese Five-Year War in 2002—had arranged for us to stay and interview wives of Mai-Mai warlords. However, before leaving for Malemba-Nkulu, I scheduled a single interview with Chatty, who had agreed to travel to Lubumbashi to ease my transition to fieldwork, and my trip to the less forgiving rural environment of Malemba-Nkulu. My graduate research on agency, gender, and war had brought my mother, my daughter, and myself—three generations of women—together on a journey of academic and self-discovery. Chatty was supposed to serve a peripheral role in the process. As it turned out, she became the center of my research, and continued to have a profound impact on my sense of being long after I returned to the United States.

My choice to conduct fieldwork in Congo was strategic. First, as a Congolese Luba woman, my social location allowed me access to places, persons, and knowledge restricted to outsiders. Second, I was a mom, and I needed all the support I could get to raise my daughter, while researching and writing my dissertation. Third, I was pregnant. A month before our scheduled departure from Atlanta, Georgia, my husband and I learned that I was expecting our second child. Rather than postpone my fieldwork, we thought it best to cut the trip back from 12 months to 6 months, and for me to return with Zuri to Atlanta in time for me to deliver our second child. As fate would have it, I lost the baby days after arriving in Kinshasa, just shy of the second trimester. A fourth and final reason for conducting research in Congo quickly became apparent, and that was to be with my mother, and to heal.

As soon as I was cleared for travel by doctors in Kinshasa, Zuri, my mother, and I traveled to Lubumbashi to await clearance for travel in-country to Malemba-Nkulu. In yet another twist of fate, violent riots broke out in almost all major city and town centers across Congo, as Congolese citizens protested ongoing delays to presidential elections that had been scheduled for December 2016—eight months earlier. Although Zuri and I were Congolese by origin, we were American by nationality and were confined to Lubumbashi by an orange-level warning from the American embassy. There would be no travel to Malemba-Nkulu in the foreseeable weeks or months, as the embassy could not guarantee the safety of “non-essential personnel” traveling outside of major towns and cities. I was stuck in Lubumbashi. Unwilling to return to Atlanta too early, I embraced the contingent nature of fieldwork, and shifted the focus of my research from studying the agency of women who chose to marry Mai-Mai warlords, to learning from a woman who chose to leave her marriage and to fight as a warrior herself.

Chatty’s story upended my theoretical assumptions at the outset. As in much of the scholarship on the role of gender in war in Africa, I assumed that most women and girls involved in armed conflicts such as the Congolese Five-Year War, were the victims of sexual and gender-based violence, and had been coerced into becoming the “bush wives ” of Mai-Mai fighters, to use Chris Coulter’s (2009) term.5 While I was curious to discover whether any of these “bush wives ” had voluntarily and proactively chosen to marry into the Mai-Mai movement and to remain in the movement after the war, I had not considered that there could be women or girls who were involved in the Mai-Mai movement as a result of choices that did not associate them sexually to male fighters. I had narrowed the range of choices available to women and girls in Malemba-Nkulu to the opportunities that their bodies could purchase them, reducing them to sexual beasts of burdens in service to a war they did not begin.

Yet, western feminist literature on the role of women in war contends that women comprise a highly diverse and differentiated complex social category in wartime as well as in peacetime, and are not faceless objects of war. Rather, women have their own agenda when it comes to war. Carol Cohn (2013) develops a conceptual framework through which she interrogates the seeming immutability of social structures, mores, and institutions that emphasize the biological difference between men and women, and subsequently unequally distribute power and authority between the two, in favor of men. She argues that by locating difference within individuals and not identifying the role that social structures play in constructing difference, the temptation arises to also locate capability (for leadership, management of resources, etc.) within individuals, painting the devastating image of men as biologically more capable, and women as ontologically inferior to men. Cohn affirms Cynthia Cockburn’s (2007) stance that war is not an event, and that violence against women should not be viewed as merely a weapon or a result of war, but should instead be framed as an unavoidable product of a society that devalues women on the basis of gender; associates subjectivity and agency to maleness, and reduces women to sexual objects or prey through narratives of so-called masculinity and femininity. Cohn makes the fascinating observation that because wars are primarily fought by male combatants, the tasks of cooking, cleaning, and washing—otherwise feminine tasks—are also undertaken by men. Yet, because men engage in these tasks in the hypermasculinized world of war, and in the service of said war, these men are lauded as “real men,” who couple the “feminine” tasks of cleaning and cooking, with the “masculine” task of sexual domination over women (and other men).

The sexual domination and aggression of women are key to the work of Meredeth Turshen and Clotilde Twagiramariya (1998), who specifically research gender and conflict in Africa. Turshen and Twagiramariya identify and emphasize the participation of women in armed conflict to counter the masculinized discourse and culture of war, which often portray women as passive victims, denied of their agency. They share accounts of women who are survivors of rape, and particularly accounts of women who exist in the ambiguous and ambivalent world between consent and coercion, and continue to do so in the reconstruction period after the war (particularly when their survival is at stake). For many women in post-war contexts, their community’s moral constructions of sexuality often determine whether one should consider a woman a rape survivor, a sex slave, or a colluder. Yet, all of these identity categories are accompanied by the moral burden of guilt, humiliation, and shame, and none offer women moral deniability or the option to claim ignorance of the moral consequences of their actions. Subsequently, many women choose not to report the sexual violence committed against them, and continue to live side by side with the perpetrators of said violence. While Turshen and Twagiramariya make a compelling argument about the role of sexual morality as it is constructed, taught, and enforced by society, their findings reiterate the belief that women’s primary modes of being in war are determined by the use of their bodies in conflict.

Mats Utas’ (2005) concept of “victimcy” expands feminist discourse on war and gender to allow for another mode of action. Occupying the murky middle ground between victimhood and agency, Utas defines “victimcy” as the tactical agency deployed by young women and girls during the Liberian civil wars of 1990s and early 2000s, who fully embrace the role of the victim to earn particular gains from various stakeholders during the war and the post-war reconstruction period. To an aid worker, Utas’ informants report themselves as rape survivors and sex slaves, while to local Liberian politicians, the same informants present themselves as the “girlfriends” of powerful men, to obtain favors from the friends and colleagues of said men. Although “victimcy” does indeed offer a different mode of action in war for women and girls, and one should certainly applaud the courage of Utas’ informants to shape social realities to their benefit, the moral ambivalence of the options and choices available to Utas’ informants makes it difficult to distance them from charges of manipulation, trickery, and self-debasement for the sake of survival. Still, whether a child soldier is a sex slave, a “bush wife ,” or uses her victimcy for her own ends, the use of her body is the primary determinant for evaluating her experience of war. Chatty’s story paints a startling different picture. She wrestles with the vulnerability and contingency that Luba women and girls experience during war as a result of their gender, and embraces war as the means of transcending the limitations of her gender. Chatty’s experience of the Congolese Five-Year war not only resists flat and essentialist narratives of African women and girls’ experience of war, but also invites the reader to reconsider constructions of gender that are grounded in the biological and physical. In working with Chatty in Congo, I not only had to contend with the contingency of conducting fieldwork in a post-conflict context, but I had to grapple with the contingency of gender as a research concept in African contexts.

“I’d Rather Die than Wrestle”: The Woman Becomes the Warrior

For most of the months that Chatty and I spent together, I was under the impression that she, her mother, and her siblings had joined the Mai-Mai movement because of her father. It was 1998, and Ugandan and Rwandan rebels had crossed the border into the now province of Upper Lomami in search of natural resources to financially sustain their military assaults in Congo, and were making their way through Chatty’s home district of Malemba-Nkulu, via the territory of Mulongo. Her home village of Kabumbulu was on their path. The great Luba chiefs of surrounding villages—Great Chiefs Kibenze, Kiyombo, and Mukabo began a campaign in Malemba-Nkulu, visiting each village in the district to recruit young men to join the Mai-Mai movement. Her father, who was a farmer and cattle herder, heeded the call of the great chiefs, and plunged into the mai—the ritual waters that transformed one into a Mai-Mai fighter—and completely upended Chatty’s life as she knew it at the dawn of her 30s.

Chatty’s use of the verb “to plunge” to describe the process of becoming a Mai-Mai was misleading. Given the secretive nature of the ritual, she resisted answering a number of my questions regarding the ritual. However, she did share that contrary to my belief that her father had been immersed in the Congo River, which flowed through her district and skirted around her village, her father had been doused with water prepared and carried in basins from a source known only to the great chiefs. She described the outcome of the ritual as plunging her father into a supernatural realm in which he was in direct contact with the ancestors, who then imbued him with the power to bend and stretch the material world to his will.6 Although the “plunging” did not physically remove him from the world of the embodied living, the ritual thinned the boundary between the material and immaterial worlds, allowing her father to straddle both. As a consequence, her father was bound by a moral code that forbade physical contact with anyone who had not also “plunged” into the mai—including his family, lest he break his connection with the ancestors, and weaken the potency and efficacy of his newfound supernatural capacities. When Chatty’s father shared with his family what he had done and who he had become, they were faced with the decision of refusing to join the Mai-Mai—a movement that was derided amongst Christians in Congo as kindoki7 (or ulozi in Swahili)—and subsequently losing all physical contact with Vwende, or embracing supernatural powers and facing the atrocity of war. Chatty and her sisters were quick to make their decision. Apparently, the mystical power that the Mai-Mai wielded made Mai-Mai women and girls particularly fearsome, and soldiers were loath to rape a Mai-Mai woman or girl. The decision was therefore simple for Chatty and her sisters. They took the plunge and also became Mai-Mai to protect themselves from the risks associated with their gender (Ledgister 2018, 104). However, it wasn’t until my final conversation with Chatty that I discovered a deeper—and more painful—justification for her choice to join the Mai-Mai and to fight in the war. Chatty joined the Mai-Mai hoping to die in the war, thus liberating herself from the burden of being a woman who could not bear children.

Chatty left high school in the late 1980s at the tenth-grade level—a decade before the war—to marry. She had begun her secondary education later than most, given the availability of schooling for girls in her village. She was in her early 20s when she got married, and described her spouse at the time—who she never named—as wanting the things that most Luba men wanted out of marriage, namely, children. Unfortunately, Chatty could not conceive.

I got married and the marriage was not going well. He wanted children. I [did] too. But I wasn’t getting pregnant. I don’t know why…I wondered why God would let me suffer without children. Every time, he [her husband] would ask me for children, but I couldn’t give him any. (Ledgister 2018, 127)

Chatty attributed her pain and her distress not just to her inability to conceive, but to a lack of divine intervention to remedy her situation. When Chatty’s husband opted to have children with another woman a decade later, she chose to leave him—and to die. Much of her identity was inextricably linked to the social roles assigned to her gender and dictated by her anatomy. She was a young wife, and therefore expected to fulfill her womanhood (and her husband’s desires) by bearing and raising children. Curiously, Chatty did not question her gender, her anatomy, or her reproductive health. In fact, Chatty did not question her husband’s reproductive health either. I heard in Chatty’s words a theodical response to her pain—a questioning of God who possessed the power to ease her suffering, and chose not to do so.
As a result of her lack of agency—an inability to voluntarily determine outcomes in her life—Chatty decided to choose the one option within her reach. The war had almost reached her village, and news of atrocities perpetrated by Rwandan and Ugandan troops had traveled throughout the region. While others in her village had already begun joining the Mai-Mai movement, her initial decision to join the Mai-Mai had nothing to do with the defense of her people. She rushed headlong into the war hoping to die.

The war came to Malemba-Nkulu. I was tired of wrestling […] I was wrestling with God. With myself. With the suffering of my body […] knowing that I was not even able to give life […] This [conception] was up to God—Leza […] I decided to fight. I was hoping that in the war, I would get killed. I said to myself that I’d rather die than wrestle (emphasis added). I knew I didn’t have much chance to survive [the war]. We [the people of Kabumbulu village] heard that many people were killed by the [Rwandan and Ugandan] rebels. So, I decided to become Mai-Mai and to fight in the war. (Ledgister 2018, 129)

To escape the social and psychological constraints under which she was living—constraints imposed upon her as a result of her gender and the supposed roles her gender demanded that she serve—Chatty chose to end her life which she perceived as an inevitable outcome of infertility. However, Chatty did not experience her intended outcomes when she plunged into the mai to become a Mai-Mai fighter. Chatty the woman indeed died—a metaphysical death—transcending the constraints of the life she lived as a result of her gender, and accessing membership into a community of the embodied and disembodied living, bonded together by their mission to fight for their land and their people. Consequently, Chatty the warrior was born. She shared her interpretation of her survival during the war in her characteristically direct manner:

I guess God had more life for me. It was a sign that there was something I was supposed to do with my life. I decided to become a mother. And a father. I decided to take the children that had been abandoned during the war when their parents were killed. I took them and brought them home with me. (Ledgister 2018, 129)

Contra dominant narratives of the destructive impact of war on women and girls—narratives that are indeed well founded—in Chatty’s case, the context of war offered an unlikely invitation to life and agency, through her access to the mystical power of the ancestors. Yet, Chatty was clear to distinguish God and the ancestors. Both existed in the same immaterial and metaphysical plane, but the presence of one did not subsume the presence of the other as Congolese Christians vehemently argued. Chatty defined the ancestors as intermediaries between God and the embodied living. The ancestors were the powerful and immaterial presences of women and men who had crossed from the material to the immaterial world, and intervened in her community in times of trouble.
The mai ritual that Chatty and other fighters underwent symbolized an ethos of continuity extant in African modes of being and knowing. Death and life existed on the same continuum, as did God, the ancestors, and the living. According to Munyaradzi Felix Murove, one of the most destructive vestiges of colonialism in Africa was the disruption of the African ethos of continuity not just between persons, but the disruption of continuity within African persons:

The Westernisation or modernisation of African societies implied an onslaught on African culture and values. This onslaught was done under the guise that Africans were not fully human and the mission of colonialism and the Christian religion was to turn these Africans into human beings by bequeathing to them Western moral values and culture. Up to this day there is an expectation that the African must have completely abandoned his or her traditional values. (2016, 142)

Colonizing missions not only created arbitrary boundaries of difference between communities, dividing one to conquer the other, but it infected the consciousness of African persons to embrace the dualism of colonial Christianity, and to denigrate and subdue the material in favor of the immaterial. The Christianity of colonizing missions that required African converts to prove the so-called authenticity of their conversion, fragilized the continuity of the African world-sense—an ethic of “holding together” from the Latin prefix con- and root tenere. Colonial Christianity unraveled the fabric that wove the colonized, converted, and therefore “civilized” African into the community of the living and the ancestors, barely holding her together with a theology that put into question the worth and humanity of her culture, values, and even her very person. The resulting outcome for many colonized Africans was a somatophobia , to use M. Shawn Copeland’s (2009) term, stoked by a hyperawareness and policing of the physical and the material.8
Western feminist scholarship has provided a critical corrective of the somatophobia and accompanying patriarchy of Christianity and its detrimental impact to women, girls, and non-gender-conforming persons inside and outside of the Church. However, the very tool that western feminism has used in its attempts to liberate persons from the bondage of somatophobia and patriarchy is the tool that white male power used to subjugate persons in the first place: a hyperawareness of the body, or what Oyèrónke´̣ Oyěwùmí calls somatocentricity.

In pointing out the centrality of the body in the construction of difference in Western culture, one does not necessarily deny that there have been certain traditions in the West that have attempted to explain differences according to criteria other than the presence or absence of certain organs: the possession of a penis, the size of the brain, the shape of a cranium, or the color of the skin…. [T]he establishment of disciplines such as sociology and anthropology, which purport to explain society on the bases of human interactions, seems to suggest the relegation of biological determinism in social thought. On closer examination, however, one finds that the body has hardly been banished from social thought, not to mention its role in the constitution of social status…. [T]o say that bodies have been absent from sociological theories is to discount the fact that the social groups that are the subject matter of the discipline are essentially understood as rooted in biology. (1997, 3)

Oyěwùmí’s critique of the somatocentricity of western scholarship points to the detrimental impact of uncritically applying western feminist—body centered—frameworks to the African cultural context, particularly given the problematic history of colonialism on the continent. Rather than liberating African women and girls like Chatty, somatocentric scholarship not only inadvertently emphasizes the physical difference between African women and girls, and their Eurocentric counterparts, but denigrates African women and girls for remaining under the so-called bondage of their post-colonial communities, which continue to embrace the very somatophobic culture that the West bequeathed to them during colonialism. While it is an impossible—and futile—feat to attempt a return to precolonial Africa, Chatty’s experience of power and agency as a result of becoming a Mai-Mai warrior invites a reclamation of indigenous epistemologies that transcend the dualist paradigm that haunts western feminist scholarship.

As an individual, Chatty wrestled with the identifiers of a divorcée and infertility—identifiers that were imposed on her and which she internalized in turn. However, as a Mai-Mai warrior, Chatty was no longer a woman, but a person who joined a community that reestablished and embodied the continuity between the material and immaterial world. Yet Chatty’s recounting of her initiation into the Mai-Mai movement begs the question of what exactly held together, or restored a sense of continuity between her and the new community she joined, and within herself. What mystical element did the ancestors place in the hands of Mai-Mai warriors to defend civilians during the Congolese Five-Year War, and effectively reverse the invasion of Malemba-Nkulu by Rwandan and Ugandan troops? What exactly was the nature of Mai-Mai power?

The Power of the Water

As I reflect on my fieldwork in Congo, the question of the nature of the Mai-Mai’s mystical power features prominently in my interviews with Chatty. Notably, Chatty evaded all the questions pertaining to Mai-Mai power, and revealed very little about the mechanism operating behind the extraordinary feats she performed during the war. For instance, when she recounted an occasion during which she disarmed national army soldiers (Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo or FARDC) sent to kill her father and to neutralize the Mai-Mai of Mulongo who refused to answer to the distant government in Kinshasa, Chatty spoke of using a fistful of sand, uttering the words “This is the soil of our ancestors,” and throwing the sand in the faces of armed soldiers to immobilize them. The ritual was simple—she declined to offer any details beyond sharing the words she spoke—and murderously effective. Upon contact with the sand, the soldiers were purportedly frozen in space and time, allowing Chatty to single-handedly relieve each of them of their weapons. Chatty did share that not a single shot was fired during the stand-off as a result of the ritual, and that she had performed that particular ritual only three times during the war. She ended the story there, not sharing with me whether or not the FARDC soldiers were allowed to live after regaining their mobility.

When my wonderment at her story faded, I began studying the connection between the ancestors, nature, and community. I researched accounts of supernatural feats performed by mystico-political movements like the Mai-Mai, and discovered that the use of objects existing in nature featured prominently in movements similar to the Mai-Mai.9 According to Catholic moral theologian, Laurenti Magesa (1997), the African lifeworld is formed by and flourishes in the interconnectedness between the Divine (the immaterial), creation (the material), and community. He asserts that there is a spark of the Divine, which he calls vital force, emanating from the Divine and present in all of creation—animate and inanimate.10 The highest concentrations of vital force reside in animate objects and the immaterial world—the world of the ancestors and the Divine—and is the source of vital force. The interconnectedness of the African lifeworld to which Magesa refers echoes the ethos of continuity that informed much of the African world-sense in precolonial times, and, I argue, informs the indigenous ontology of the Mai-Mai.

Chatty and other Mai-Mai warriors, through their reintegration into the continuum of life according to the African world-sense—a continuum that begins with the Divine includes animate and inanimate creation, and returns to the Divine in the form of ancestors—activate the vital force present in them and in nature as embodied living beings, to protect and restore wholeness to their communities during the war. As a safeguard against the misuse of vital force, the Mai-Mai are bound by a moral code intended to check against the propensity of humans to forget and to upset the web of interconnectedness that delicately holds life together in the African lifeworld. Unfortunately, numerous documented accounts of atrocities carried out by the Mai-Mai during and after the war reveal that the movement is far from saintly, and is at its core a movement of fighters engaged in a war (Amnesty International 2003; Autesserre 2010). Nevertheless, the context of war paradoxically presents an invitation to life, community, and agency—a story that remains largely absent or untold in current scholarship on gender and war in Africa.


In my search for alternate modes of being that celebrate the agency of African women and girls in war, I happened upon an unexpected narrative of mystical power, community, and personhood that challenged western conceptions of gender, but also revealed the ongoing embrace of such conceptions—despite their destructive effects. As a Mai-Mai warrior, it no longer mattered to the village of Kabumbulu that Chatty had been a divorcée or that she was unable to conceive. As soon as Chatty was initiated into the mystico-political movement that is the Mai-Mai, all that mattered was the strength of her connection to the community of the disembodied living—the ancestors—and the feats that she performed to protect her people. Indeed, her prowess soon gained her renown in the district of Malemba-Nkulu, earning her the title of seigneur de guerre or warlord, due to her rank as second in command of her father’s fighters. The community of the disembodied living became a source of power for Chatty—a power that transcended her physical circumstances of poverty, precarity, and vulnerability, which were common to most Luba in rural areas, but particularly acute for women and children who were often victims of sexual violence, and conscripted into warring factions against their will. During the war, Chatty was a warrior, not a woman. However, the end of the war obviated the need for ordinary women and men to access supernatural power. According to Chatty, the Mai-Mai were at their core a self-defense militia, and they not only had to disarm at the end of the Congolese Five-Year War, but they were no longer to be considered Mai-Mai. With the end of the war came the unwelcome return to Chatty’s positionality as a woman, the loss of the reverence she earned as a fighter, and a resurgence of social limitations on the basis of her gender. Her story resists overgeneralizations of African women and girls’ victimhood and precarity in war, as a result of their gender. Inasmuch as western feminist movements have been liberative for some women in the West, they have not been liberative for other women—namely women of color, and African women—given some western feminists’ co-optation of patriarchal themes and lenses when it pertains to women who are not white. Chatty’s story disabuses one of the temptations to frame African communities as bastions of gender freedom, yet clearly demonstrates the other-worldly power of African women and girls who embrace their own indigenous spiritual practices and sources of knowledge. Chatty transcends patriarchal limitations imposed on her as a poor Luba woman when she becomes a warrior, and simultaneously rises above feminist gender constructions intended to champion her, but in reality limit her personhood. Chatty’s story is complex, multilayered, and in many ways invites a return to the core of ethical inquiry. The story of Chatty the woman and Chatty the warrior summons one—summons us all—to embrace a world in which simplistic answers are exchanged for probing questions.


  1. 1.

    This name was changed for reasons of anonymity.

  2. 2.

    According to a 2013 United Geological Survey report, mining accounts for almost 21% of the Congolese GDP, with total exports in 2013 valued at over $10 billion (Thomas R. Yager. 2013 Minerals Yearbook: Congo (Kinshasa) [Advance Release]. U.S. Geological Survey (U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey Minerals Yearbook, 2016).

  3. 3.

    I use the language of “western feminism” broadly to describe the scholarship of feminist writers from or trained in the western hemisphere. In using the qualifier “western” I am referring to the physical and cultural context in which the scholarship is derived. As Elizabeth Evans points out in The Politics of Third Wave Feminisms: Neoliberalism, Intersectionality, and the State in Britain and the US (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, 53) feminisms are multiple and rich in their particularities (and third-wave feminism in particular).

  4. 4.

    In lieu of employing the term worldview to indicate western conceptions of and apprehension of the world, I am using Oyèrónke´̣ Oyěwùmí’s concept of world-sense. She critiques the western prioritization of sight as the primary sense operating in social interaction that creates a subject that gazes upon an object (Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí, The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 3).

  5. 5.

    Chris Coulter defines bush wives as women and girls who were abducted during the decade-long war in Sierra Leone that began in 1991 and concluded in 2002, and were taken as wives by ranking militia officers. Coulter distinguishes bush wives from sex slaves, the latter who are women available for rape to any member of a militia at any given moment. While sex slaves were often coerced into combat alongside men, bush wives lived in the household of the militia commander, where they performed household functions under the supervision of favored wives.

  6. 6.

    In “Warriors of the Water” (2018), I offer a thick description of the metaphysical and ensuing moral implications of the mai ritual which transformed Chatty, her sister, her father, and numerous other ordinary people in the village of Kabumbulu into redoubtable fighters.

  7. 7.

    Simon Bockie (1993, 46–47) uses the Manianga or Lingala term kindoki to designate 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), The root of kindoki is the verb koloka or to overpower, which Christian missionaries have erroneously translated to “bewitch,” and kindoki to “witchcraft.” Although the syncretism of the Congolese indigenous lifeworld resists the use of static religious identities, Congolese Christians are careful not to associate themselves with the Mai-Mai.

  8. 8.

    M. Shawn Copeland (2009) critiques the dualist heritage of Christianity in the West, which swings from a hyperawareness of the body that uplifts a particular image of God (white, male, and heteronormative), to a complete somatophobia that promotes a theology of immolation and surrogacy—usually to the detriment of non-white and non-gender-conforming people.

  9. 9.

    For example, on May 17, 2017, followers of Bundu Dia Kongo (BDK)—a movement that MONUSCO has labeled a religious sect—staged the largest prison break in Congolese history, freeing thousands of inmates (some local sources say over 4000) from the Makala maximum-security prison in Kinshasa, the nation’s capital, reportedly stabbing and beheading prison guards with the use of blunt sticks (see Wembi and de Freytas-Tamura 2017).

  10. 10.

    See Magesa (1997) and Murove (2009, 163). Murove resists the use of the concept “vital force” to characterize the essence of interconnectedness in African moral consciousness given the aggressive and predatory nature of force, given Belgian missionary Placide Tempels’ essentialist hypothesis that force and violence characterizes African morality.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Georgette I. Mulunda Ledgister
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Religious StudiesAgnes Scott CollegeAtlantaUSA

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