Geographies of Fear and the Arts of Female Resistance

After a year conducting research on fear and violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lisa Trogisch writes about the lessons she learned about resilience, resistance, and the banality of evil.

Volcanoes of the Virunga National Park, photo by Lisa Trogisch

Content warning: This piece contains descriptions of violence and sexual assault.

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) holds a long list of infamous titles: the centrepiece of “Africa’s World War”, “rape capital of the world” and the “worst place on earth to be a woman”.1 2 3 Simultaneously, the DRC is one of the resource-richest countries in the world with abundant natural beauty and the last habitat for highly endangered mountain gorillas. In 2018, I spent the year conducting fieldwork around the Virunga Conservation Area on the borderlands of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda.

The Eastern Congo in particular is scarred by decades of violent conflict and war. More than one hundred and forty active armed groups are responsible for large-scale massacres, kidnappings, arsons, pillaging, killings and all forms of sexual violence, displacing an estimated 350,000 people in 2018.4 The breakout of Ebola further devastated the region during my stay. In light of the high levels of violence and an ostensibly absent, lawless state, the rangers of Virunga National Park are trained as paramilitary, legally authorised to take any means necessary to protect the park. In the past ten years, nearly two hundred rangers have lost their lives colliding with armed poachers and militias during patrols.

Since Virunga National Park became gazetted and militarized, it created its own ‘geography of fear’ — a ‘no-go-zone’ expelling local communities from the forest and the access to resources for the higher purpose of conservation. Initially for my project, I did not intend to focus on women, but I learned in my early interviews with local leaders — all men — that it is the women who are most affected by the insecurity and violence as they are providers of all resources for the families’ subsistence:

“Women and girls are the only ones who go into the park. Men cannot do that […]. This is why our women suffer. And our girls who get abused when they go into the park. They get raped” (Local chief).

In the light of the multitude of insecurities that these women navigate, I wanted to understand: how do they perceive, respond and resist to these ‘geographies of fear’ they have to live in?

In our interviews, the women around Virunga spoke with me almost with pity for the naivety of my questions, telling me that “insecurity is just a normal part of life we have to live with” (Mama Victoria).

Hannah Arendt coined the controversial concept of “the banality of evil” in her reports about the trials against the Nazi general Adolf Eichmann.5 She argued that acts of violence can become ‘normalized’ through the legitimization by institutions or authorities within a system. Arendt argued that Eichmann’s performance of violence thereby became a “banality of evil” – a normal act of duty in his everyday life, unquestioned by the doer.

Women of Virunga, photo by Lisa Trogisch

The violence around Virunga National Park became a ‘banality’ as well, a mundane feature of everyday life, creating a geography of fear for the people who have to live within and through it. In his theory on symbolic violence, Pierre Bourdieu discusses how violence can be perceived and accepted by the people as a normality within the dominant social order. “[T]heir mind is constructed according to system around them” and through this unconscious incorporation of even unjust structures by the dominated, violence is taken as unchangeable.6

So when ‘evil’ becomes a banality and ‘fear’ commonplace, how do people live with it? The women tell me how they go into the park every day to collect water, charcoal, firewood – resources for survival, despite being aware of the consequences of illegally entering the park that range from torture to imprisonment to being killed on the spot. Puzzled, I ask how they get into the park in the first place?

“Women sell what they have. And what do they have? They have bodies. They let them pass. What happens to women in the park remains the secret of the park” (Mama Charlotte).

The women explain it very clinically to me. They ‘work’ with different armed actors, not only with park rangers, but also the Congolese soldiers and militias who become their ‘safeguards’ protecting them as they get in and out of the National Park. Their narrative of “selling their bodies” transfers ‘rape’ into ‘sex work’, appearing to give them a sense of agency about the sexual violence they would encounter either way. Thereby, they do ‘business’, they ‘trade’ — as they tell it to me — to gain access to resources for their basic needs, and for their children.

The stories I heard from these women about their daily navigation through this ‘geography of fear’ detailed strategies for their emotional, physical but also pure existential survival, by embracing and making use of their fears and ineffable terrors. In order to cope with the struggle and violence in their everyday lives, they have developed these coping mechanisms as a form of female “arts of resistance”.7 Their fear of not being able to feed and protect their children is bigger than the fear of violence against themselves. Ensuring means of subsistence has more value than their own body, and making the ‘transaction’ allows them to face the threat and experience of sexual violence and rape in their day-to-day lives with dignity.

The inherent moral dilemma of my research is highly problematic. While these women were sharing their hardship with me, I could not do anything for them to change their situation. Instead, I could leave the Congo when things got ‘too rough’ compared to my safe, Western bubble, while the women have no ‘safety exit’While acknowledging that I – a white, Western woman – cannot even imagine their fears, I can only aim to pay the stories of these women forward, so we can learn from them, putting our own lives, privileges and fears into perspective. 

1. Prunier, Gérard. 2008:Africa’s World War: Congo, the Rwandan Genocide, and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press
2. United Nations. 2010: “Tackling sexual violence must include prevention, ending impunity – UN official”, 27 April 2010, https://news.un.org/en/story/2010/04/336662. Accessed 20/03/2019.
3. BBC News. 2010: “UN official calls DR Congo ‘rape capital of the world’”, 28 April 2010, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/8650112.stm. Accessed 20/03/2019.
4. Human Rights Watch. 2019: “World Report 2019: Democratic Republic of Congo”, https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2019/country-chapters/democratic-republic-congo. Accessed 22/03/2019.
5. Arendt, Hannah. 1963: Eichmann in Jerusalem. A report on the banality of evil. New York: Viking Press.
6. Bourdieu, Pierre. 1990:The Logic of Practice. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
7. Scott, James C. 1990:Domination and the Arts of Resistance. Hidden Transcripts. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Lisa Trogisch  holds a BA in Political Science and International Relations from the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich (Germany) and in Environmental Sustainability and Development from the University of New South Wales. In September 2015, she finished her MSc Political Economy of Violence, Conflict and Development at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London (UK). She is the producer of the documentary “Ghosts of our Forest” for the Canadian film company Loud Roar Productions depicting the critical eviction of the indigenous Batwa people. Subsequently, she worked for the Gesellschaft fuer International Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) in the International Climate Initiative dealing with projects merging biodiversity conservation, climate change adaptation and mitigation in developing and emerging economies.