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“Se Débrouiller” or the Art of Serendipity in Historical Research

  • Emma Wild-Wood


A school has no textbooks: the teachers are told “débrouillez-vous,” use the notes you took as a pupil. The pickup truck breaks down and will go no further: the passengers realize they will have to find another way home— “débrouillons-nous.” A resourceful man, who has learnt to turn his hand to a variety of things in order to survive, gives his job description with a smile as “débrouillard.” In the Democratic Republic of Congo the phrase “se débrouiller” has entered the realm of myth, joke, and national identity. The French words even puncture conversations in vernaculars. Congo has suffered from a long history of colonial oppression, economic mismanagement, political dictatorship, and most recently violent internal warfare.

The Congolese know that they must learn how to manage on their own, to sort things out by themselves, to cope somehow, to get by. Such is the necessity of being able to deal with the unexpected or the unfortunate that Congolese joke—and many sincerely believe—that “débrouillez-vous” the “golden rule of resourcefulness” is written into the constitution. In a difficult situation they will remind each other of “Article Quinze.” Congolese people understand themselves as those who endure hardship, but have the resilience to rise to whatever comes their way, to cope with the unexpected. Indeed, so often does the unexpected occur that managing events as they happen rather than planning ahead for events that might not happen often seems the most effective way to cope with life.



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1 adj. smart, resourceful, n. a coper, survivor”. Robert and Collins Senior French-English Dictionary (3d ed.: Paris, 1993), 212.

2 “Internal war” is used to explain a category wider than “civil” or “guerrilla” war. The main combatants in Congo are not Congolese but soldiers from neighboring countries. Their aim is not simply political power and security, but also economic gain. Vehnämäki, Mika, “Diamonds and Warlords: the Geography of War in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone,” Nordic Journal of Africa Studies 11(2002), 49.

3 è Nziem, Isidore Ndaywel, Histoire générale du Congo: de l'héritage ancien à la République Démocratique (Paris, 1998), 746.

4 The faculty of making fortunate discoveries by accident,” Collins English Dictionary (Glasgow, 1979), 1330.

5 Wild-Wood, Emma, “An Introduction to an Oral History and Archive Project by the Anglican Church of Congo,” HA 28(2001), 462.

6 E.g., Henige, David, Oral Historiography (London, 1982), chapter 2.

7 E.g., In Pursuit of History: Fieldwork in Africa, ed. Adenaike, Carolyn Keyes and Vansina, Jan (Portsmouth, 1996).

8 Carolyn Keyes Adenaike, “Reading the Pursuit: an Introduction” in ibid., xxxvi.

9 Ibid. xxxiv.

10 Turner, Victor: Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual (Ithaca, 1967), 10, with emphasis adeded.

11 Hammersley, Martyn and Atkinson, Paul, Ethnography: Principles in Practice (2d ed.: London, 1995), 112.

12 Adenaike, , “Reading the Pursuit,” xl.

13 Vansina, Jan, “Epilogue: Fieldwork in History” in In Pursuit of History, 135–36.

14 Hirsch, Eric and Stewart, Charles, “Introduction: Ethnographies of Historicity,” History and Anthropology 16, (2005), 262.

15 Ibid.

16 Migration and Identity: the development of an Anglican Church in North-East Congo (DRC) 1960-2000” (PhD., University of Edinburgh, 2005).

17 E.g., Oloni Seth and Otuwa Simeon both cycled 30 kilometers to Aru and back to Ekanga on 11 August 2000 in order to be interviewed. They came with a written account sent by someone too ill to travel.

18 Copies of the interviews are stored in the library of the Institut Supérieur Théologique Anglican, Bunia, Congo.

19 Vansina, Jan, Introduction à l”Ethnographie du Congo (Brussels, 1965), 214.

20 Bozzoli, Belinda, Women of Phokeng: Consciousness, Life Strategy and Migrancy in South Africa 1900-1983 (Portsmouth, 1991), 48.

21 E.g., Rabe, Marlize, “Revisiting “Insiders” and “Outsiders” as Social Researchers,” African Sociological Review 7(2003), 149–61.

22 E.g., Anzukaru Marita (f), church founder and revivalist, Aru, Lugbara, (Anguzu Georges, interpreter), 21 August 2000.

23 E.g., Anziko, Aser, Duria, Berocan, Bigule Tiru, Kiko, Mawanzo, Neema, Onzia, Seme, Usaru, (f), CECA 20 and Catholic women from EAC Foyer Social group, Aru, Lingala, 11 August 2000.

24 E.g., Aiye Joanne (f), MU member, Aru, Lugbara and Draru Leonora, (f) MU member, Aru, Swahili, 12 August 2000.

25 Basimasi Kyakuhaire (f), early catechist in Boga, Mahirani Mustum Melena (f), EAC founder in Butembo, Estella Mustum (f), daughter, interview Komanda, Swahili, 21 September 2000.

26 Adenaike, , “Reading the Pursuit,” xl.

27 è Nziem, Ndaywel, Histoire générale du Congo, 746.

28 Ellis, Stephen, “Writing Histories of Contemporary Africa,” JAH 43(2002), 19.

29 Galatians 3:28.

“Se Débrouiller” or the Art of Serendipity in Historical Research

  • Emma Wild-Wood


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