In Kisangani, the third largest city of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and the capital of its former Orientale Province, the legacies of state decay and conflict continue to affect the social fabric of society. Women and children, who frequently face abuse and rape, are the main victims of this legacy. The Congolese director Dieudo Hamadi shadows a Congolese policewoman, Honorine Munyole, in charge of a special unit for the protection of women and children, in Maman Colonelle. Hamadi, a Kisangani native, isn’t a newcomer to Congolese cinema. He also directed Atalaku (2013), which documented Congo’s dramatic 2011 presidential poll, and Examen d’Etat (2014), which scrutinized Congo’s opaque and rigid educational system.
Munyole was born in Bukavu, the capital city of a province in Eastern Congo, which is known for its notoriously high incidence of rape. The documentary begins with Munyole’s transfer from Bukavu to Kisangani. In Bukavu, her courageous work to protect women and children earned her respect and admiration among the community. But having arrived in Kisangani, Munyole, a widow and the mother of seven, is directly confronted with the challenges of a new context: Her new home in Kisangani is sparsely equipped, some of the officers in her unit do not speak the local lingua franca, Swahili (only Lingala), and as a newcomer, she still has to gain the trust of Kisangani’s residents. Ironically, in front of Munyole’s new police station, officers wear yellow jackets reading “The police is there to protect us” to remind citizens of their purpose.
As the case of Kisangani illuminates, many communities in the DRC still have to grapple with unresolved and overlapping legacies of conflict. During the Second Congo War (1998-2003), Rwanda and Uganda were generally seen as allies. However, rivalries surrounding illicit mineral flows and tactical allegiances often caused tensions and confrontations, as documented in Jason Stearns’ book Dancing in the Glory of Monsters. The confrontations cumulated in what is known as the Six-Day War (June 5—10, 2000). Kisangani was the main battleground of the war, and thousands of civilians lost their lives, were injured, and raped.
Following Munyole’s transfer to Kisangani, widows and rape victims of the war finally feel that there is someone to confide in. Almost 20 years after the war, the means through which to seek justice for these victims are limited. In terms of financial support, an underfunded police unit has to rely on community solidarity in the forms of donations to help widows, rape victims, and children. In this context, the “manage to get by yourself” attitude of many residents, which has been fostered by government neglect, and societal fragmentation, is Munyole’s biggest enemy. By addressing public spaces such as the marketplace, Munyole strives to foster solidarity, and inform people about their rights in the context of sexual violence, and the responsibilities parents have towards their children.
She interprets her job as more than merely policing. She also provides food and shelter to several widows and orphans. As a result, she is often confronted with questions such as “But what is the government doing about this?” a seemingly paradoxical question given that she works as a state-employed police officer, but one that illuminates the lack of faith people place in the state apparatus as a whole. Her case challenges many preconceived notions about civil servants in the DRC, as the vital work of her police unit shows that there are civil servants who continue to serve the public despite all the obstacles.
Throughout the documentary, Hamadi manages to place dismaying societal attitudes into a wider context: Envy and disputes about the state-recognized victim-status among the disabled and rape victims, or the propensity of parents to abuse, lock up, or give away their children to prophetesses because they have succumbed to “witchcraft.” Contrary to sensationalism, Hamadi’s style of documentation lets people speak for themselves, while his framing allows for sensitive issues such as memory, solidarity, conflict, and government neglect to come to the fore. The documentary is dedicated to Hamadi’s friend and fellow artist Kiripi Katembo, a brilliant Congolese photographer and documentary film maker, who passed away from malaria in 2015.
As President Kabila’s refusal to organize elections continues to destabilize the country as a whole, Maman Colonelle serves as a powerful reminder of local sources of suffering, defiance, solidarity, and heroism, and highlights what is at stake.
- This review is part of our round up of the films screening at Encounters International Documentary Festival taking place in Cape Town and Johannesburg from 1-11 June. For screening details visit www.encounters.co.za.