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Sons of Which Soil? The Language and Politics of Autochthony in Eastern D.R. Congo

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 May 2014


The recent wars in the DR Congo have led to a marked upsurge in both elite and popular discourse and violence around belonging and exclusion, expressed through the vernacular of “autochthony.” Dangerously flexible in its politics, nervous and paranoid in its language, unmoored from geographic or ethno-cultural specificity, borrowing energy both from present conflicts and deep-seated mythologies of the past, the idea of autochthony has permitted comparatively localized instances of violence in the DRC to inscribe themselves upward into regional, and even continental logics, with dangerous implications for the future. This article analyzes how the “local”/“stranger” duality of autochthony/allochthony expresses itself in the DRC through rumors, political tracts, and speeches and how it draws energy from imprecise overlaps with other powerful, preexisting identity polarities at particular scales of identity and difference: local, provincial, national, regional. Across each, autochthony operates as a loose qualifier, a binary operator: autochthony is adjectival, relational rather than absolute, policing a distinction between in and out, and yet not indicating, in itself, which in/ou t distinction is intended. Thus many speak of “Sons of the Soil,” but of which soil, precisely? The slipperiness between different scales of meaning permits the speaker to leave open multiple interpretations. This indefiniteness is a paradoxical source of the discourse's strength and weakness, suppleness and nervousness, its declarative mood and attendant paranoia.



Les guerres récentes en république démocratique du Congo ont engendré une insurrection marquée dans les discours à la fois de l'élite et du peuple et une violence autour des questions d'appartenance et d'exclusion, exprimées à travers le discours vernaculaire de l'identité “autochtone.” La notion d' “autochtonie,” dangereusement flexible politiquement, nerveuse et paranoïaque dans son langage, dégagée de toute spécificité géographique et ethnoculturelle, utilisant l'énergie de conflits à la fois présents et des mythologies profondément ancrées dans le passé, a permis des éclats de violence très localisés comparativement en RDC, s'inscrivant dans une logique régionale et même continentale avec des implications dangereuses pour l'avenir. Cet article analyse comment les dualités “locaux/étrangers” et “autochtones/allogènes” s'expriment en RDC à travers des rumeurs, des tracts politiques, des discours, et comment elles tirent leur vitalité d'assimilation avec d'autres polarités identitaires puissantes et préexistantes sur des échelles particulières des notions d'identité et de difference: au niveau local, provincial, national, régional. A chaque niveau, l'autochtonie opère comme un qualifiant vague, un opérateur binaire: la notion d'autochtonie est adjectivale, relative plutôt qu'absolue, régentant une distinction entre l'intérieur et l'extérieur, sans pour autant spécifier, en elle-même, sur quelle distinction “intérieur/extérieur” elle opère. Beaucoup parlent alors de “fils de la terre,” mais de quelle terre s'agit-il au juste? La fluidité entre les différentes échelles de sens permet à l'orateur d'ouvrir son discours à des interprétations multiples. Cet aspect indéfinissable est l'origine paradoxale de la force et de la faiblesse du discours, de sa souplesse et de sa nervosité, son humeur déclarative et sa paranoïa vigilante.

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Copyright © African Studies Association 2006

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