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Fieldwork in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Elephant Hunters (Lys Alcayna Stevens, 2014)The Redistribution of People (Lys Alcayna-Stevens, 2014)Cosmologies of Capture (Lys Alcayna-Stevens, 2014)Political Ecology of Rainforest Conservation and Ethnography of the Bongando, Democratic Republic of Congo.

I spent a year and a half living and conducting ethnographic research with Mongo peoples (the Bankundo and Bongando) in north-eastern Bandundu Province and south-eastern Equateur Province in the Democratic Republic of Congo. My research focuses on the ways in which these people negotiate with state and non-state actors interested in accessing and controlling their ancestral forests; from international nature conservation NGOs and scientists working on great apes (Pan paniscus), to the paramilitary Congolese Wildlife Authority and elephant poachers.

Given the proliferation of international and local NGOs with an interest in forest conservation and carbon trading, the increasing expansion of rubber plantations, widespread illegal poaching, and the emerging possibilities for a lucrative market in scientific tourism, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s rainforest villages are compelling places to conduct research in environmental anthropology.

My field research examined the ways in which natural resources were conceptualized by these different actors, and the ways in which inequalities in power, wealth, ownership and mobility were evoked and negotiated. I am now writing up my ethnographic material and aim to ground local peoples’ aspirations of development, as well as their negotiations with foreign scientists and NGOs, within broader Mongo cosmologies of capture, predation, influence and the redistribution of people, objects, animals and wealth.

It is hoped that the thesis will speak to wider academic debates concerning environmental and indigenous politics, human-animal relations, market-based environmental policy, the ‘frictions’ of encounter and post-colonial scientific knowledge.

While my research interests centered on questions and issues in political and environmental anthropology, the day-to-day experience of my fieldwork was often one of more quotidien preoccupations; hunting, gathering, chopping firewood, working in the fields, cooking, talking and relaxing. Many of my observations and curiosities therefore began to develop around eating and feeding, questions of responsibility, obligation and morality, as well as ceremonial debates and practices of hospitality surrounding kinship and exchange. During my time in Bongando villages, film, photography and drawing became invaluable tools to record the idiosyncracies in people’s interactions with each other, with their children and with domestic or wild animals.

The photographs presented here capture something of that quotidien life and its preoccupations, while also alluding to my broader research interests: Central African cosmologies, political ecology, anthropology of knowledge and human-animal relations.

From top right:

Elephant Hunters: In the late afternoon, several children and young men sit next to the house of a blind and deeply respected village elder, 'Papa Cameroon', as he tells us about his experiences as an elephant hunter. Traditional elephant hunting, and the skills, knowledge and magic it necessitated, was replaced by large-scale elephant poaching for ivory in the 80s and 90s, leading to the extinction of forest elephants in many parts of DR Congo's rainforest. 

The Redistribution of People: A child looks around at the other dancers  during a celebration in which all of those painted with 'ngola' (a red pigment made from crushed bark and berries) will acquire the name of a recently deceased young woman, so that her memory may live on for the whole community. Some of these women and girls will 'wear'/keep the name for life, while others will keep it only for the 3-6 month period of mourning.

Cosmologies of Capture: Young boys (and sometimes girls) begin hunting and trapping in the forest with their older siblings from a young age. In order to capture animals, they must have a keen knowledge of those animals' relations of kinship and predation, as well as their behaviour and habits. In this photograph, three young boys proudly display a sunbird (Cyanomitra sp.) which they had lured into a trap with her favourite flower.