Preferred Citation: Vail, Leroy, editor. The Creation of Tribalism in Southern Africa. London Berkeley:  Currey University of California Press,  1989.

6— History, Ethnicity and Change in the 'Christian Kingdom' of Southeastern Zaire

Identity, Conflict and History

A first and lasting impression when one consults ethnographic maps of southeastern Zaire is one of confusion. Different authors delimiting the 'tribes' at more or less the same time invariably report different findings.[1] Some of these names refer to regions, hence to the people inhabiting those regions. The 'Bena Marungu' are people living in the Marungu Massif, so named for its grassy moors. Conversely, the 'Gua', 'Rua' or 'Luba' are called that by neighbours they have intimidated ('Luba' may mean 'the ferocious ones'[2] ), and so the land the 'Gua' occupy is 'Ugua', using the Bantu nominal prefix for place. 'Bemba' are those speaking the Bemba language regardless of culture or history; 'Kalanga' means those who preceded current populations, and were hence prior in time or culture, regardless of any more particular identity. Sobriquets (or less affectionate names), perhaps told to explorers, seem to be the most common source of these 'tribal' terms. 'Hemba' are the 'ones to the east' of someone to the west;[3] Tabwa' are 'the ones easily tied up' by those wanting to take slaves without undue resistance;[4] 'Kunda' similarly are 'slaves', and they do not appreciate being called that;[5] 'Holoholo' (who have had a linguistic monograph written about their 'language') are people whose greeting, deemed to sound something like that to outsiders, was found comical.[6] Tumbwe' is the name of an hereditary chief of the Sanga clan (who appear on some maps as 'Bena Tanga', named after an early ancestor); his followers are 'Tumbwe' too. 'Kunda' are also called 'Kamanya', after an early primal ancestress; 'Lumbu' are also 'Ngoy', from an early chief, or 'Zimba' after an emblem or 'totem'.[7] Both of these latter identities are considered mikoa (clans) by local Africans. Lest we think that we have figured this out, Boone tells us that 'Lumbu' may be considered 'Kunda' or 'Luba', yet they appear on her map as distinct from these.[8]

Ethnic identity in southeastern Zaire is a matter of situational reckoning. Clyde Mitchell, writing of the greater region, has called for 'a phenomenological approach—from the actors' point [s] of view' when describing the 'different referents in different social situations', which Western observers have called 'tribes'.[9] These might be considered 'fuzzy sets', rather than the bounded, discrete entities often sought or imposed when considering inhabitants of a region such as this.[10] Clifford Geertz's description of the 'contextualized persons' of Morocco could apply here, where people have coped with diversity by 'distinguishing, with


elaborate precision, the contexts . . . within which men are separated by their dissimilitudes, and those . . . where, however warily and however conditionally, they are connected by them'. Importantly, such an identification system—for it is that, despite the apparent contradictions—provides only 'the most sketchy, outline implications concerning what men so named as a rule are like' and is a means of categorization which 'leads, paradoxically, to a hyperindividualism in public relationships, because by providing only a vacant sketch, and that shifting, of who the actors are . . . it leaves the rest, that is, almost everything, to be filled in by the process of interaction itself.'[11]

If these are the ways identity is determined, such people must have a different sense of history from that of Westerners. In the 1950s, Ian Cunnison wrote a book and several papers on the 'Luapula people', describing how they have come from lands and tribes around the southern end of Lake Mweru to settle in the Luapula River valley.[12] His use of the term 'people' is meant to reflect a common lifestyle and purpose of immigrants from a range of diverse backgrounds. Indeed, a new 'tribe' called 'Shila'—also a group drawn from many ethnic origins who settled along the shores of Lake Mweru to engage in fishing—has come into being in recent years, as export of fish to Copperbelt markets has become a lucrative pursuit. Among these 'Luapula people', or 'Shila', are many from northeast of Lake Mweru, who may call themselves 'Tabwa', as do those I have studied. Cunnison's ilyashi, which 'implies the affairs and cases of the past which make the present affairs what they are', will be detailed as the background for 'mulandu, which is a present affair or case'.[13] For these people, then, 'histories . . . are particular' and 'known well only to the groups which partook in the events enumerated. More accurately, a history is always and only the history of a group. . . . There is no coherent wider history.' As Cunnison notes, 'the facts for a universal history are there, but they are concentrated in the histories of the various groups, and only a few of these facts will have become diffused into current circulation; and of these, some people will pick up some, others will learn a different set'[14] —or, perhaps more appropriately, factions will compose and use a different set, according to goals of the moment.

At Lubanda on Lake Tanganyika, the site of my research, these same terms, liasi and mulandu, are used slightly differently from what Cunnison reports. Liasi is a conversational explanation, an extemporaneous exegesis without a coherent story form (a plot leading from a beginning to a climax and end). Mulandu (pl. milandu ) is an account given during litigation over land and other important rights. As Tabwa aphorism has it, a chief 'is his people' and is identified with particular lands as mwine kyalo .[15] A chief personifies a number of qualities and organizes contact with spirits of his ancestors and of the earth; through him, people 'are' the land they inhabit, and vice versa. As Cunnison found, so for Tabwa at Lubanda: 'the primary reason for histories is the justification of a claim for a piece of land'.[16]Milandu may also be presentations accompanying accusations of sorcery or some other grave affront, since to accuse implies a readiness to explain one's grievance from its origins. For Tabwa at Lubanda, like Luapula people, the basic elements of milandu are known to both sides of a dispute, but are arranged differently to reinforce the legitimacy of particular claims.

Conflict which surfaces as a dispute was often begun long before, and will just as often continue long after resolution of current difficulty. Milandu, too, are open-ended, although there may be discrete stories in a longer account; further incidents are added as they happen or become necessary in a given situation. In this they are like syntagmatic chains, with paradigms of stories within which there


are further paradigmatic sets allowing for the change of characters or other secondary elements to suit the needs of particular narrators in particular situations. Metaphors are important to this last process, since references to, say, animals or celestial phenomena in turn bring to mind a cosmology in which corresponding values, hence attitudes, are implied. Each character fitted into these slots may be more or less elaborated depending upon the point to be made in the particular narration.

Once such a basic structure is recognized, then, when the researcher obtains a given version, told on a particular occasion by a particular narrator to a particular audience, that has characters different from those of another version of the same basic story, one must determine why each version was told in order to understand the change in dramatis personae . In other words, such differences are a product of history, as an outside observer would see it, even as they are history to the narrator and his audience.[17]

Tabwa history, then, like that Cunnison found among the Luapula peoples, is particular, 'always and only the history of a group'.[18] It is worth noting that in other contexts Tabwa culture provides other opportunities for debate, and that ambiguity is part and parcel of Tabwa existence. Divination, for instance, is a principal process by which misfortune—the breach of expectation, a threat to order and existence—is assigned cause. Tabwa have a number of different sorts of divination, but the principle of each of them is the same: the diviner provides a parable (a dream, often elaborated while using an oracular device) and the supplicants must then imagine what content can and must fill such a 'pronominal structure', as Christopher Davis-Roberts calls it. 'To the family would fall the task of determining . . . how this pronominal structure, when inserted into their past might so alter it (or their sense of it) that present action could, in its turn, transform their future into what they would wish'. As she adds,

the possibility of finding truth in divination . . . makes us aware of the extent to which personal identity . . . and lineage group history are both things which do not exist as such. Instead, they are objects of knowledge which are 'worked on' (or, like painting, created) in a process of historization which recuperates in life as lived the features of social knowledge.[19]

History is active, then, changing and changed as vicissitudes compel men to decide which few paths among the many taken, and the more not taken, matter. Yet even as one constructs a reasonable explanation of the present from snatches of the past, and this history allows action to rectify social disharmony or imbalance of health for a happier future, when that future comes, further or different conflict or affliction may necessitate a restructuring of the same elements. There is nothing absolute about such a history, then, of an individual or the group within which he finds himself.

Despite this fluid situation, an overarching Tabwa ethnicity has arisen. Indeed, a universal history of the Tabwa was written by one of the very first individuals from the area to gain the skills and perspective of literacy. This, in turn, reflects an ontological shift, caused by and contributing to change in the local political economy.

Stefano Kaoze (c. 1885–1951) of the Marungu Massif was, in 1917, the first Congolese ordained a Catholic priest. He was also an ardent proponent of black consciousness and a patriot of his Sanga clan and a 'Tabwa' tribe; his ministry, writings and participation in a number of colonial councils made Kaoze, more than any other individual, 'father' of a growing Tabwa ethnic awareness. A recent hagiography, Stefano Kaoze: prêtre d'hier et d'aujourd'hui, has been prepared by


a team supervised by Monsignor Kimpinde, Bishop of Kilwa-Kasenga, Zaire.[20] Meant for a growing Catholic audience in Zaire, the book includes many passages from Kaoze's writings and interviews with the abbé's contemporaries and kinsmen organized to demonstrate Kaoze's 'message to our generation'. This goal is ably accomplished; in the process, history has been revised in some significant ways. Here follows something of Kaoze's life and times, the manner by which his own ethnic awareness began, and how he attempted, and in part failed, to convey this to his fellows. Tabwa people may have no universal history, and the concept of one may be alien to Tabwa perceptions of existence, but Kaoze sought to create one nonetheless. In so doing, he became a key actor in a drama pitting Catholic missionaries against colonial administrators, with the emergence of Tabwa ethnicity as one of its results.

6— History, Ethnicity and Change in the 'Christian Kingdom' of Southeastern Zaire

Preferred Citation: Vail, Leroy, editor. The Creation of Tribalism in Southern Africa. London Berkeley:  Currey University of California Press,  1989.