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Field notes

1st post by guest blogger Gillian Mathys

Two weeks ago I was talking to one of my favourite informants, in a village not that far away from Goma. The word ‘informant’ seems weird in this context, as we have spent numerous times together and as I feel a lot of sympathy for this man, over the age of eighty. Let’s call him George for the sake of this blog  –although that is not really his name.

I’ve been seeing George since 2010, and our relationship has developed a lot since then. During the first interviews in 2010, we often sat outside, his sons following our conversation. We were often interrupted by people thinking that I was an NGO, hoping that –as they thought was the case for George- they also could be enlisted in a project, whilst others were worried that I had come to talk about ‘la politique’, which they saw as potentially disturbing local peace.

After my first visit in 2010 we more often sat inside –his health had deteriorated a bit- and it was clear that most people around had gotten more or less used to me visiting ‘tate’, and talking about things in a past long gone.

It is weird how these relationships develop. Whilst in 2010 I did not see George as a potentially very interesting interviewee –he seemed very reticent and I sometimes had the feeling he did not like me that much. Yet, a lot changed when I came back in the beginning of 2011, as if ‘coming back’ after being home –and thus keeping my promise of coming back- had made a difference to him. His sons also stopped showing up, which probably is also part of the explanation why topic that were before taboo suddenly became open for discussion.

I know this is a regular learning curve for everyone who does research involving people: establishing some kind of trust takes time. However, I often wonder if or how (much) this region is different from other places that do not experience daily uncertainty and higher levels of insecurity as the result of protracted conflict. I only ever did research here (in the Kivus) and in Rwanda (which has difficulties of its own), with people who were adults during the colonial period, in rural settings, and it sometimes feels that –especially with regards to certain topics- there is a climat de méfiance which makes it even more difficult to address certain issues, even though they pertain to the past.

Next to this climat de méfiance I also wonder how much my nationality makes a difference to the people I am talking to. Being Belgian, talking about events during the Belgian colonial period (and before) often feels eerie, and it sometimes causes awkward situations. During one of the last interviews, George started singing a song in Kiswahili, which was translated by my assistant (my Swahili is unfortunately very basic). To my surprise the melody of the song was the one of the Belgian national hymn, but the lyrics had changed considerably.

His version of the song, which he had learned while he was a schoolboy, glorified Belgian colonization, Belgium’s ‘civilizing’ mission and the battle against Arab slave traders. George must have felt my surprise, because he asked me if I too knew the song. He urged me to sing the version I knew, as a result of which I ended up singing the Belgian national hymn in Dutch (Flemish) and out of key, to an old man, sitting on a footstool on the earth floor of his house and feeling utterly embarrassed.


Now I am in Bukavu. Things were a bit tense the past week, as a result of some problems in Camp Saio, and the rumours of a military uprising, and radio trottoir very actively voicing these concerns. Some schools were closed and students sent home, and some petrol stations and shops were also shut down. It seems that things have calmed a bit since then, although there remains tension in Sud-Kivu pertaining to the ‘enregistrement’, the issuing of biometrical ID’s and the attribution of ranks to soldiers from former armed groups enlisting into the FARDC.

At times like that it becomes very apparent how difficult it is for an outsider to assess certain situations. In general, it is not always easy figuring out appropriate behaviour (e.g. with regards to dress code, addressing people, even making jokes, etc.) but when things get a bit tense the feeling of not belonging, and not comprehending (sufficiently) the environment in which we operate becomes emphasized. Luckily my friends and ‘family’ here helped me to assess the situation, which turned out to be less serious then the rumours indicated (but at the same time, the tension felt in the streets was an important indicator of the general atmosphere and of the perception of the current situation as volatile).

It remains to be seen if this tension will endure.


Today I went back to the communities outside of Bukavu where I am planning my interviews. I had my ordre de mission signed by the provincial authorities, but I did what I always do, and presented myself to the local authorities as well.  I cannot make myself invisible anyway (a white person roaming the bananeraies always attracts attention), and being upfront about what I am doing has proven to be the best strategy to avoid too many disturbances from local power holders and others during interviews. This is important, as I never work with questionnaires, and my interviews are more or less loosely structured conversations focused on certain topics related to my research questions. Therefore it is important to create a more or less relaxed environment. Too many questions from others about what I am doing is not contributing to an unstrained conversation (people might fear repercussions), especially because of the general climat de méfiance already in place. I am a bit worried about what I will be able to do here because I haven’t been doing interviews in ‘my’ villages in South-Kivu since July 2010, and I am wonder if this might have been too long. Will I be able to build on what was there before, or will I have to start all over again? Is being away for over a year too long?  I guess these questions can only be answered by doing it, and that is exactly the plan for the coming weeks.

by Gillian Mathys, doctoral student at the University of Ghent (Belgium)


About Congo Research Network

The Congo Research Network (CRN) is a community of researchers working on DR Congo and its diaspora across the Humanities


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