Waiting for sunrise in the Congo


The sun determines the pace in Lubumbashi, the second largest city in the Democratic Republic of Congo. I have learned to schedule my days around the sunrise and sunset – 05:30 and 18:00. Electricity has become unreliable as the November presidential election nears. Power outages occur every afternoon and stretch until the next morning, if not for several days at a time, creating general uncertainty in the city. The beginning of night plunges the compound where I live into complete darkness. The air is thick from burning rubbish piles, the scent of broken papayas and mangos, and the dense and overwhelming heat. Sleep does not come easily here; frantic sounds throughout the city plague my sleep. Police and military guards do not work at night in Lubumbashi – everything is unchecked and the darkness hides all secrets.

Tonight, activities are amplified by rumours of tomorrow’s political protest in the city centre. The gathering should be peaceful – they almost always are. However, tensions have been escalating because of the presidential elections and allegations of voter fraud. Right now, the smallest thing can lead to a disturbance. This tension only heightens people’s fears because of last night’s prison riot and jail ambush during which the leaders of the Mai-Mai militia escaped, along with 1,000 other prisoners. These events are uncommon for the region; Katanga is the Congo’s most docile province. While it has a turbulent past – repetitive secession movements, violently suppressed protests against previous leaders, and general distrust by the central government – Katanga is relatively calm now. It keeps itself as a distance from the rest of the nation, geographically, politically and culturally.

The city of Lubumbashi and the province of Katanga originated from a pre-colonial Empire that spans the present-day borders with Zambia and Angola, with which the Katangan people maintain close ties. My research examines the development of a separate Katangan identity at the end of Belgian colonial rule and how the development of such an identity helped to form nationalist sentiment to foster the ideas for the 1960s Katangan secession. I am looking at this through a variety of factors but mainly how the cultural elements within society helped to stimulate a bottom-up approach to secession. The Katangan Secession lasted for three years (1960-1963) and became a focal point of the Cold War and newly-independent African nations. The end of the secession was followed by the African Union’s proclamation that African national borders should remain finite as the political boundaries created by European nations to prevent multiple wars of secession. This, however, is being challenged, as we have seen with the 2011 referendum that created the two states of Sudan and brings into question the plausibility of future secession movements.

The majority of the people I interview here remember the secession. They answer all my questions with vigour and add their opinions about the future of Katanga and the Congo. Many are worried for the nation but hopeful for the region. Their answers reaffirm how people ally themselves differently with Katanga and the Congo. I interview a variety of people. Some are students or other professors I meet through the university. I also talk to people near where I live, which allows me to gather views from a broader range of people in a less formal setting. I do these interviews at a mandazi (deep fried dough) near where I am staying. The owner allows to me interview people if I buy mandazi and Cokes from her. Typically, my interviews are in French but sometimes our conversations are interspersed with words in KiSwahili. The KiSwahili spoken here is dialectically very different from what I know, so it is extremely difficult.

I continue my work long into the night, handwriting my notes by the glow of a wind-up flashlight. I interviewed the Lunda Emperor today. He has supplied what will probably prove to be one of the most important interviews for my dissertation. He has also invited me back in the spring for a follow-up interview when I return from carrying out research in the archives in Belgium. The Emperor is the youngest brother of Moise Tshombe, who was the first president of the State of Katanga and the leader of the secession movement. Unlike other interviews, the Emperor and I moved between French, English, and KiSwhaili. He went to secondary school in the UK and could understand what it is like to study so far away from home. The Emperor and his family were extremely nice and gracious to all of my questions. It was very interesting to see the shift in opinion about history from one group of people to another and across different genders.

I quickly finish my notes because my flashlight is beginning to dim. The enclosure of my mosquito net gives a strange sense of security but in reality, I am waiting for the sunrise in Lubumbashi, so that I can start again.

Catherine is a PhD candidate in the University of Cambridge Faculty of History, supervised by Dr Emma Hunter. Her research is concerned with understanding the development of identity and nationalism involved in the Katangan Secession (1960-1963). Catherine’s fieldwork in the DRC was supported by the UAC of Nigeria Travel Fund, the Mary Euphrasia Mosley, Sir Bartle Frere & Worts Travel Fund, the Cambridge Political Economy Society Trust, and the Gonville and Caius Tutors’ Donation Fund.