AIII #12: The Congo and its Rock

The Congo and its Rock

(article picture: Sisyphus, circa 1870 by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, Tate Britain, provided by the author)

Chris Davey

In the uncertainty of post-World War Two Europe, Albert Camus describes a political landscape not too different from our contemporary one where we continuously reincarnate victims and executioners. In fact, Camus describes in Neither Victims Nor Executioners a splintering scenario where the recent past of war and political violence is met with a future threatening more of the same.[1] Averting this looming, repetitive darkness lies in the hands of those who create and own it: human beings. Camus’ exhortations and version of responsibility hold true not only globally, but locally in places where violent political conflict bookends periods of chaos and struggles of survival. And often killing itself is ‘the lowest form of survival’.[2] This is the Congo today.

As the Democratic Republic of the Congo seems ever present on the paradoxical precipices of destruction and hope, it is not too different from many other parts or times of the world. Popular literature and global news media have been quick to set the DRC as the standard for humanity struggling to find itself lost on the dire side of suffering, until our popular focus is jerked somewhere else. Whether it be the so-called rape capital of the world, site of mineral exploitation, or safe haven to the twentieth century’s last génocidaires, it retains its place in popular imagination as victim to contemporary history’s worst ills. The Congolese people, most notably since colonial occupation have been acutely faced with Camus’ lead question: ‘Do you or do you not, directly or indirectly, want to be killed or assaulted? Do you or do you not, directly or indirectly, want to kill or assault?’[3] Whilst associating this Hobbesian condition with every life at all times in the Congo would be sensationalist, incidences – both at the macro and micro level – resulting in direct, structural and cultural violence, are woven into the Congolese social diet. Whether one accepts last-resort recruitment into a local militia to survive and support family, labours in the mines caught between restrictive international regulations and oppressively abusive working conditions, or ekes out an urban living of the working poor, violence pervades. Killing becomes the lowest, most desperate form of survival.

Underlying this global/local condition is the sanctity of taking life and denying livelihood to another. The ideology of legitimized murder and similarly, cheapness of human life, supports all manner of industries and empires, and for Camus it produces a paralyzing, dialogue stifling fear. Within the Congo, and regionally with pressure ever present from the tiny giants neighbouring to the East, this ideology is ever-present. Identities and livelihood are imbued with this ideology. For Camus, the only avenue of escape is overcoming the fear of opposing this ideology and aspiring to a ‘real’ Utopia where murder is not legitimate, and therefore human life has inherent value.[4] Only then can we ‘create preconditions for clear thinking and a provisional agreement between men (and women) who want to be neither victims nor executioners.’[5] Similarly attempts to break out of what novelist Charles Djungu-Simba, describes as the Congolese cycles of apocalyptic nightmares, can only be done so by the collective endeavours of forgiveness and deep political change.[6] Even beyond the sensationalized interpretations pushed by tabloidesque global news media, the Congo remains trapped, regardless of the literary device one uses.

Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, presents a representation of this kind of ‘absurdity’, the cycles of nightmare. Sisyphus is damned by the gods to continuously and relentlessly push a heavy rock up a hill, only to see it tumble back down again, a life of ‘futile and hopeless labour’ as divine punishment.[7] This is absurdity defined. For Camus, this is the essence of life, in all but a few ways. Questions of meaning and love are immaterial to the crushing reality of the absurd. What remains are questions akin to that iterated above from post-war Europe: what is the value of life, and is murder legitimate? If Congo suffers the fate of Sisyphus, it is owing to the fate of a people doomed to sow the seeded ills of colonialism. An undeserved fate indeed! This should lead us to continue to question the imperative that post-colonial powers have in continued compensation and reconciliation for spreading the disease and violence of the dark continent of old Europe.

If the absurdist view is such, is not all lost? No, meaning and transformation are not to be rejected. Camus claims that murder is the antithesis of the absurd and thus life, as voluntarily ending life fundamentally undermines this perspective. Therefore, life is supreme, and murder always immoral. For Sisyphus meaning and transformation came in accepting, nay embracing his fate. There are inescapable elements of mortality: the past and present that are perhaps unavoidable. The Congolese people are much like Sisyphus, and any other people burdened with a fate of past imperialism and dictatorship, present uncertainty and threat of violence, and a future never free of such burdens. It is their rock. It is their fate.

The past and its history are not to be forged through collective amnesia but through examination and reconciliation. Accomplishing Camus’ revolutionary acceptance of fate and overcoming fear, delegitimizing murder, and seeing each other as human, neither victim nor executioner is the only avenue. Embracing our fate and therefore life, may not break the cycle, but will endow us Sisyphus’s with shared power and meaning. This should not deter the necessary pursuit of justice, but undergird it with dialogue and compassion.

‘There is no suffering, no torture anywhere in the world which does not affect our everyday lives… Today tragedy is collective.’[8]

Chris Davey is a PhD Researcher in Peace Studies at the University of Bradford, and an Associate Research Fellow the John and Elnora Ferguson Centre for African Studies (JEFCAS). His research seeks to interrogate the formation of identity with the destruction processes of genocide and the layering of victim and perpetrator identity. He writes for Debitores Sumus the JEFCAS blog, and his own personal blog.


[1] Albert Camus, Neither victims nor executioners (Chicago: World Without War Publications, 1972), 5-7.

[2] Achille Mbembe, ‘Necropolitics,’ Public Culture 15, no. 1 (2003): 36.

[3] Camus, 7.

[4] Ibid., 9.

[5] Ibid..

[6] Felix U. Kaputu, ‘Eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo on the way to peace? War remembrances, post conflict discourse construction: a discursive analysis of Djungu-Simba’s novellas’ Afrika focus 27, no. 1 (2014): 13.

[7] Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus (London: Penguin Books, 1975), 107.

[8] Camus, Neither victims nor executioner, 14.

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