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  • Noemie Arazi

Searching for the legacy of the Swahili-Arabs in the Congo

Picture a rural area along the Lualaba-Congo River way out to the east of the country. It takes 10 to 12 hours by car through forests and hills to cover a 230 km journey south of Kindu, the capital of the Maniema Province. During the rainy season this journey can take up to several days. The destination is Kasongo, now a sleepy town with age old mango trees, wide lanes of red earth, the relics of colonial architecture either abandoned or reused and houses in concrete and mud. Its administrative buildings carry American Western style fonts. There is no electricity but many solar panels of all sizes. A handful of cars and lorries pass through depending on the day of the week. Motorbikes definitely dominate the local choice of transport. Market days are Thursdays and Sundays. There are numerous mosques. A Cathedral dominates the southern end of town.

Walking for about a kilometer to the east of the Cathedral along a narrow path lies a site known as Tongoni or Vieux Kasongo. Upon entering the site, one can make out manioc fields and oil palms in the midst of lavish vegetation. This green opulence hides the material traces of what once constituted an important trading post for merchants who arrived from the east African coast during the second half of the 19th century. The merchants, generally referred to as Swahili-Arabs, were trading in slaves and ivory destined for the Indian Ocean trade and the plantation economy that flourished on the East African Coast and its offshore islands. Tongoni (or Vieux Kasongo) was one of their principal slave and ivory markets in the Congo from where the caravans left to undertake the 6 months journey back to the coast.

This summer, with the help of students we cleared and burnt the vegetation at Tongoni in order to expose the house foundations that are still visible on the surface. Five of these buildings have been marked with concrete slabs, apparently at the Belgian Congo period. We exposed a total of six house foundations, which include the one of Tippo Tip and his son Sefu. Tippo Tip was a notorious merchant from Zanzibar, who made a fortune out of ivory and slaves. Once we had cleared the grounds, we began to plan the exposed surfaces of the site with a compass, tapes and a GPS. We then started our test excavations. We dug a total of nine trenches. Twenty meters to the east of where we worked runs a river by the name of Kabondo, which cuts the site in half. According to various farmers who work their fields in Tongoni, the other side of the Kabondo River is where the slaves used to live.

We complemented the archaeological data with oral histories and memories by interviewing various residents of the surrounding communities. As most of our knowledge is based on the perspective of colonial explorers, administrators, missionaries and the Arabs, those testimonies present significant narratives that will hopefully help us in exploring different narratives of this part of the Congo during the 19th century. We talked to village chiefs, spiritual guardians of sacred sites, and people interested in history.

Georges Senga, a photographer from Lubumbashi, works on the creation of a visual narrative of Kasongo's Swahili-Arab heritage. Our objective is to co-author a book, which takes Kasongo’s cultural landscape as a point of departure through which the divergent and entangled meanings of history, decay, memory and identity will be explored. Another field season will follow in the summer of 2019.

Team: Noemie Arazi (Groundworks asbl, Brussels), Igor Matonda (University of Kinshasa), Olivier Mulumbwa Luna (University of Lubumbashi), Alexandre Smith (Royal Museum of Central Africa, Tervuren) and Georges Senga (Artist/Photographer, Lubumbashi).

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