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Exacerbated Stigma, a Weaponized Tool to Undermine Banyamulenge Identity

Updated: Sep 15, 2020

Members of the Banyamulenge community have been stigmatized in different countries of the Great Lakes region of Africa. The stigma has affected some of them to the point of not willing to reveal their identity.

Source: Prevention Conversation

Have you been taught to believe the propagandized slogan, “Banyamulenge, dangerous dogs”? In Nairobi, Kenya, in the mid-1990s, it was reported that some house gates had printed messages with this hateful statement, “Banyamulenge, umbwa mkali,” which means “Banyamulenge, a dangerous dog.” In the same period, in the neighboring country of Tanzania, the same propaganda emerged. Defaming Banyamulenge became widespread in different cities of Tanzania, but mainly in refugee camps. Rwanda, a country that is believed by many to be the native country of Banyamulenge, was not exempt from this misconception. Perceived social discrimination led to social inclusion barriers. Simultaneously, Banyamulenge in Burundi experienced the same problem, expressed rumors, and conspired concepts of stigmatization. This paper focuses on an exacerbated stigma Banyamulenge have experienced in the African Great Lakes region. What does the history of the Democratic Republic of Congo tell us about this problem?

The First Congo War (1996)

It’s widely believed that this exacerbated stigma towards Banyamulenge began in the mid-1990s, specifically in 1996, during the First Congo War between the Zairian national army and the rebel forces of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (AFDL) led by Mzee Laurent-Désiré Kabila. This war was very complicated, and it was fought in the name of Banyamulenge. The threat and harassment Banyamulenge receiving from local and national authorities during the Mobutu regime were believed to be the basis of fighting the First Congo War in the name of Banyamulenge (“Hidden from scrutiny: human rights abuses in eastern Zaire,” 1996). Banyamulenge are a Tutsi ethnic minority concentrated on the High Plateau of South Kivu, in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Their ancestors are mainly from Rwanda and Burundi and it’s believed that they migrated to this region of DRC a few centuries ago.

The First Congo War was a war of nations against nations. According to Turner (1997), the Mobutu regime was supported by France, while Kabila was supported by the United States through heads of Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Rwanda. In other words, although this war was labeled “the Banyamulenge rebellion,” the agenda was more complicated and what Banyamulenge were experiencing during this time was just a tiny piece of the puzzle.

It should be pointed out that some Banyamulenge youth had joined and helped the FPR-Inkotanyi (a political party consisted mainly of Rwandan Tutsi refugees who had come back from Uganda) to overthrow the Habyarimana regime in 1994. Amnesty International reported that in the mid-1996 the eastern Zaire experienced a wave of Tutsi “infiltrators” who were entering the country from Rwanda and Burundi (“Hidden from scrutiny: human rights abuses in eastern Zaire,” 1996). The same source indicated that Zairian police and army began to arrest Tutsi civilians throughout the country, which resulted in the demoralizing of Banyamulenge (“Hidden from scrutiny: human rights abuses in eastern Zaire,” 1996).

On April 28, 1995, due to a political upheaval, the transition parliament in the capital city Kinshasa declared that Banyamulenge had lost their Zairian citizenship and a repatriation of them, the Hutu refugees and other Tutsi immigrants, to Rwanda or Burundi was officially proclaimed (“First Congo War - Attacks against Tutsi and Banyamulenge civilians,” n.d.). As you can see, the official rejection of the Banyamulenge citizenship led to hundreds, if not thousands, of their killings in several years that followed. For instance, Amnesty International reported that more than 100 Banyamulenge women and children were brutally killed by armed Babembe fighters in Lueba and Mboko (“Hidden from scrutiny: human rights abuses in eastern Zaire,” 1996). Thousands more were inhumanly killed in numerous parts of the country.

One can conclude that the stigmatization of Banyamulenge started during or even before the First Congo War. The term “Banyamulenge” became prominent worldwide during this period for both positive and negative reasons. According to Amnesty International, the Hutu refugees who had fled Rwanda in 1994 were attacked by the army of FPR-Inkotanyi through the AFDL in 1996 (“Hidden from scrutiny: human rights abuses in eastern Zaire,” 1996). This war and the Second Congo War (1998) resulted in thousands of Congolese and Rwandan refugees to flee into other African countries, such as Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, and Malawi.

The Defamation of Banyamulenge in Kenya

According to Banyamulenge refugees who lived in Kenya since the mid-1990s, the defamation of the term Banyamulenge began with the Rwandan Hutu refugees and other Congolese tribes (anonymous, personal communication, March 10, 2020). These Rwandan refugees had fled their country after the 1994 genocide against Tutsi, while the Congolese were fleeing the First Congo War of 1996. During the process of seeking refugee asylum and protection from the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), they claimed they were fleeing the Banyamulenge or what was so-called the Banyamulenge rebellion (anonymous, personal communication, March 10, 2020). These claims were misleading and, as a result, they created a considerable confusion later. Kenyans, who heard of these claims, were frightened and began using the term Banyamulenge interchangeably with a dangerous beast. Some Kenyan citizens began adopting the term on their house gates along with other terrifying phrases, such as dangerous dogs, to threaten strangers and scare them off. It was also reported that at one point armed robbers in Kenya identified themselves as Banyamulenge as a way of frightening their victims while robbing them (anonymous, personal communication, March 10, 2020). In his news article on gang activities in Kenya, Mukinda (2018) lists Banyamulenge number four among the 33 outlawed groups.

One of the early Banyamulenge refugees in Kenya reported that he saw a gate with the following words, “This gate is protected by the Banyamulenge 24 hours.” One day he visited a Kenyan immigration office and the immigration officer indicated that his office was reluctant to give visas to Congolese, because they did not want to make a mistake by giving visas to the Banyamulenge (anonymous, personal communication, March 15, 2020). My interviewee was with another member of Banyamulenge, and the immigration officer could not tell they both were Banyamulenge, because many people in Kenya had a widely known misconception that Banyamulenge were not ordinary human beings.

On a different occasion, my interviewee was approached by his long-time Kenyan friend who kept saying bad things about Banyamulenge and confided that he did not want to go to Congo because he feared he would run into a member of Banyamulenge. When he said this, my interviewee laughed out loud about his Kenyan friend’s statement. When the Kenyan asked him why he was laughing, he advised him he was a member of Banyamulenge. The Kenyan stated he was astonished to have a face-to-face conversation with a member of Banyamulenge without knowing. He had had a negative perspective about Banyamulenge, thinking that they killed whoever they met (anonymous, personal communication, March 15, 2020). My interviewee remembered another incident. One day a member of Banyamulenge attended a religious conference in Kenya. While sharing a meal with Kenyans, a fly landed on their meal, and one of the Kenyans screamed, “Look at this fly that is rude like Banyamulenge” (anonymous, personal communication, March 15, 2020).

It was not until very recently when massive waves of Banyamulenge refugees fled to Kenya that Kenyans knew who exactly they are, that they are people, not just people, but friendly people with a deep Christian faith. In some neighborhoods in Nairobi, when someone speaks of Congolese, they are referring to the Banyamulenge. When I spoke with Banyamulenge refugees who arrived in Kenya after 2003, they told me they did not experience the type of defamation the earlier refugees faced. The vilification of Banyamulenge in Kenya faded in the air when Kenyans came to realize that Banyamulenge were ordinary humans.

The Stigmatization of Banyamulenge in Rwanda

Social Aspect

Banyamulenge who lived and studied in Rwanda at all school levels, specifically in junior, middle, and high school, especially those in boarding schools, remember being stigmatized by their classmates using their own identity, Banyamulenge, as a weaponized tool. Rwandans manipulated the Banyamulenge community to the point of feeling ashamed of themselves. Being a member of Banyamulenge during this period (possibly from 1995 up to very recent years), not only led to shameful feelings, but also the community was forced to deny their identity and began to hide among Rwandans. However, it did not work for many. While the whole Banyamulenge citizenship problem in Congo is all about being labeled “Rwandans,” it appeared that those who fled to Rwanda did not feel home either. They were treated differently by the Rwandan system, and they still missed their homeland.

Since I did not live in Rwanda and experience the stigma of being a member of the Banyamulenge community, I spoke with three types of Banyamulenge who lived in Rwanda. First, I spoke with those who lived there for so many years, but left Congo as adults. Second, I spoke with those who moved to Rwanda when they were still children. Lastly, I spoke with those who were born and raised in Rwanda and did not get a chance to visit their parents' homeland. They all had something in common. They experienced the same stigma, although their experiences were somehow different.

The social stigma towards Banyamulenge began with the general public conceptualizing Banyamulenge as uncivilized community and people from impoverished and remote villages, abaturage. Their dialect became a problem and was used by the general population to demoralize and discriminate them. Kinyamulenge is a dialect mainly rooted in Kinyarwanda, although it contains words from other languages in the region, such as Kirundi (of Burundi) and other languages in eastern Congo. The pronunciation of certain words made Banyamulenge strangers to the rest of the Rwandan population. One word, for example, that was used a lot to devalue them was Umuntu, which means a person. Banyamulenge place an emphasis on ntu while Rwandans do not. In other words, when Banyamulenge pronounce Umuntu, the ntu sounds very sharp. Therefore, Rwandans began calling Banyamulenge Muntu with the emphasis on “ntu.” You would hear them say, “Dore ba muntu,” meaning “Look at the muntu.” This slogan was not utilized simply as a way of differentiating them from others, but as a way of making them feel diminished and ashamed in the public. Ideally, it was done systematically and created a huge stigma that made Banyamulenge feel uncomfortable with their dialect. It should be noted that the term Muntu was used in the early 1990s when Banyamulenge youth joined the RPF-Inkotanyi. According to one of the Banyamulenge youth who joined the battle in March 1992 (his basic military training took place in the Nakivale area, in Uganda), the term Muntu was used to differentiate them from other youth who had come from other places, not as a derogatory term (anonymous, personal communication, March 21, 2020).

In addition, because Banyamulenge are Tutsis and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda killed most Tutsis who were inside the country, the Rwandan Tutsis who survived the genocide would tell Banyamulenge that they were not Congolese, rather Rwandans because they were Tutsis like them. On the one hand, it made sense for these survivors to feel this way, because the majority of them were orphans, and having other Tutsis being part of them was a blessing. On the other hand, most Banyamulenge welcomed the idea as well until they started being discriminated against and called names that demoralized them.

After the genocide, the government banned the identification usage of tribes in the public space; this became a taboo among all Rwandans. Banyamulenge would later hold public positions. Some of them became teachers and judges, among other positions, and found themselves unable to utilize other identities, except the Rwandan identity. Unlike Banyamulenge, Rwandan refugees from Tanzania, Kenya, Burundi, and Uganda, for instance, did not experience this stigma because they were coming back home. Banyamulenge were not coming back home, but instead were simply refugees. Somehow, they had to find ways to comfort themselves. “Ingenzi ntigira ihembe,” is a Kinyamulenge saying which means, “When a cow finds itself in a strange land, its horns become useless.” Banyamulenge who fled to Rwanda as children remember in 1995, when they changed one of their famous gospel songs that says, “We will go to heaven to live with its inhabitants,” to “We have come to Rwanda to live with Kagame” (anonymous, personal communication, March 10, 2020).

It should be noted that the stigmatization of Banyamulenge in Rwanda was more apparent in the public place than at home. However, when I spoke with a member of Banyamulenge who was born in Rwanda in 1995, this individual experienced the stigma firsthand through communicating with his parents. Like the pronunciation of Umuntu, it bothered him every time his parents pronounced certain words the way he was not taught at school. His parents would tell him that that is how Banyamulenge speak. Whenever his parents visited him at school, he felt uncomfortable. He did not want his parents to talk to him in Kinyamulenge in public, because he did not want his colleagues to know that he was of the Banyamulenge community. He felt this way because his classmates would have made fun of him. To him, the stigma began to go away when he met many members of his community, such as those who were part of the Isooko (source) group, a group of Banyamulenge youth who cherished their homeland and promoted the Kinyamulenge culture at high schools and universities. This individual said that he thinks his stigmatized parents played a role in the stigma he experienced. He was not taught where his people were from, their culture, and so forth. Banyamulenge have clans and the only way to know each other is through saying their names, the name of their clan, fathers’ names, grandfathers’ names, grand-grandfathers’ names, and so on. This individual was never taught the genealogy of his family tree until he was in his early 20’s. He knew his parents’ clans, but he always thought his clan was a mixture of his father’s and mother’s clans. According to the Kinyamulenge culture, children become part of their father’s clan, not their mother’s. He would think, for example, he was “Umusama w’Umusita,” his father being Umusama and his mother, Umusita, instead of just bearing his father’s clan, Umusama (anonymous, personal communication, March 11, 2020).

Furthermore, there’s a video of a Munyamulenge woman that has been circling on different media platforms, especially WhatsApp. This video was recorded on a bus, possibly somewhere in Rwanda, because the language used in it is Kinyarwanda. In this video, the woman was upset and raised her voice; she complained and blamed those on the bus for making fun of her community. You can hear those on the bus laughing in the background. One of the passengers said, in reference to the woman, “That devil has revived.” The video reveals how devastating bullying can impact a person’s general wellbeing.

The experience and stories of defamation towards Banyamulenge women in Rwanda have led to significant changes in how they socially interact. Many have changed their names to sound like Rwandan names. For Banyamulenge, a girl name is very essential because it gives the visibility of their culture. Parents give their daughters names that are mostly attributed to their cattle. Most of the names of Banyamulenge girls will not be found in Rwandan names. For example, Nyabihogo, Nyagaju, and Nyanzaninka. The first two names are rooted in the colors of a cow, while the third name suggests a wish of receiving more cows a parent may have when a girl is born in the family. The most important indicators used to differentiate Banyamulenge women names from Rwandan women names are Nya (commonly used by youth) and Na (commonly used among adults). Most of Banyamulenge women names begin with them. Examples are: Nyantungane, Nyamasomo, Nyamasoso, Nyantabara, Nyaruhanga, Nyangabire, Nyansasirwa, and the list goes on. Another version would be Nantungane, Namasomo, Namasoso, Nantabara, Naruhanga, Nangabire, Nansasirwa. The stigmatized Banyamulenge women in Rwanda have changed their names to avoid the stigma. Their neighbors, colleagues and public officials have made fun of them to the point of not having other options other than camouflaging themselves within the rest of the population by removing the Nya and Na on their names. For example, someone who used to be known as Nyamitavu has become Mitavu, Nyangabire has become Ngabire, Nyantungane has become Ntungane, you get the idea. Unfortunately, this practice has extended beyond Rwandan borders and reached other parts of the world where Banyamulenge live, to include their motherland, the Congo.

Political Aspect

There’s a political aspect or ideology behind the stigmatization of Banyamulenge in Rwanda. This ideology is understood to have played a major role in this stigmatization in Rwanda and beyond. It’s widely believed that the current Rwandan political system has created a massive confusion in the Great Lakes region about the Banyamulenge Congolese citizenship.

But before I move on, I would like to briefly explain the political mood in the region in 1996. After the 1994 Rwandan genocide, thousands of Hutu refugees fled to Zaire (now DR Congo). Among them were the ex-FAR (former Rwandan national army) and the Interahamwe militia, all being Hutus. These Hutu fighters who had just lost the war to the Tutsi-dominated new Rwandan army of the new political ruling party, FPR-Inkotanyi, came back several times from the Zairian territory and attacked Rwanda. Paul Kagame, then vice president and minister of defense, decided to invade Zaire to pursue them (“Q&A: DR Congo conflict,” 2012).

According to a YouTube video by Friends of the Congo (2012), now General James Kabarebe who, in 1996, was in charge of Rwandan army operations, expressed his concern of what the governor of South Kivu at the time had announced about the Banyamulenge community. In the video, Kabarebe says that the South Kivu governor had declared on a public radio that he had given the Zairian Tutsis, specifically those from Mulenge (the Banyamulenge), only six days to leave the country or be killed. However, Kabarebe contradicted himself precisely six years later. On August 22, 2002, according to Ntanyoma (2013), during a debate conference at Kigali Independent University (Université Libre de Kigali, ULK), he publicly declared that Banyamulenge were not Congolese, rather Rwandans. He argued that saying Banyamulenge would not be different from saying “Banya Mont Kigali,” meaning “Those of Mont Kigali.” Mont Kigali is one of the surrounding mountains in the capital city of Kigali. Kabarebe added that Banyamulenge were just in Congo for opportunities. It took him only six years to forget what he said about Banyamulenge when his army invaded Congo for the first time. Among the distinguished guests was Azarias Ruberwa, the then General Secretary of Congolese Rally for Democracy (Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie, RCD) along with Dr. Charles Murigande, the then General Secretary of Rwanda Patriot Front (RPF), the current ruling party in Rwanda. Kabarebe’s full speech can be found in La Nouvelle Relève no 448 from August 3 to September 15, 2002.

Vlassenroot (2002, p. 499) argued, “Contrary to what local political and social leaders like to believe about their followings, the existence of a Banyamulenge identity is not the result of pure invention.” The term Banyamulenge came from the Mulenge village, the first village Banyamulenge ancestors created on the Congolese soil many years ago, not from nowhere as Kabarebe might have thought when he compared it to “Banya Mont Kigali.” This is one of the misconceptions about the Banyamulenge existence and should be treated as such. Besides ignoring an accurate history of Banyamulenge and what led to the creation of the term Banyamulenge, one would not imagine another reason why this idea would be brought up in the first place. Kabarebe’s statement came out at the same time when his forces were fighting in the Mulenge mountains with a half of the Banyamulenge soldiers led by General Patrick Masunzu, who had fallen out with the RCD, which was backed by Rwanda.

It’s widely known among Banyamulenge that the current ruling party in Rwanda, the RPF, has always wanted all Banyamulenge to move to Rwanda for a political hidden agenda. On January 1, 1997, some high-rank RPF military officers gathered a few Banyamulenge influential figures at the then the National University of Rwanda at Butare and asked them to make all Banyamulenge leave Congo and put them in refugee camps in Rwanda. Most of Banyamulenge in the meeting did not welcome this idea. Even towards the end of October 1996, Rwandan senior officers met with Banyamulenge leaders in Uvira and expressed their collective deportation idea of all Banyamulenge to Rwanda (Vlassenroot, 2002). The unknown plan portrayed the considerable distrust between the RPF and Banyamulenge up to this day.

Stigmatization Beyond Rwanda

The stigmatization of Banyamulenge in Rwanda, unfortunately, crossed Rwandan borders and followed Banyamulenge even in Western countries. Some Banyamulenge who lived in Rwanda for many years consider themselves Rwandans, maybe to pursue opportunities in Rwanda, similar to what Kabarebe had argued about Banyamulenge in Congo. The stigma never left them even in the free world, such as the United States of America. For instance, Banyamulenge have public famous figures, especially in the music industry, who would not publicly admit that they are members of the Banyamulenge community.

Almost every time a member of Banyamulenge publicly becomes successful in Western nations, Rwandan-based news media publish articles saying that a member of the Rwandan diaspora has made such a success. For example, when the author of How Dare the Sun Rise, Agathe Uwilingiyimana, was invited to speak at the United Nations headquarters, in New York, Rwandan media reported Uwilingiyimana was a Rwandan. It was not until Uwilingiyimana, during the Q&A session, said she was Congolese and a survivor of the 2004 Gatumba massacre, where more than 160 Banyamulenge were brutally burned alive, that Rwandan media stopped confusing their followers.

Even during a simple event, such as a wedding, Rwandan media confuse people by intentionally avoiding to mention the Banyamulenge identity. For instance, on March 10, 2020, Iyamuremye (2020) of one of the leading online news media in Rwanda, Inyarwanda, published an article about a Banyamulenge wedding that took place in Texas. Inyarwanda claimed that one of the famous secular artists in Rwanda, TMC, performed in “a wedding of Rwandans who live in the United States.”

Again, the stigmatization of Banyamulenge in Rwanda has created a conflicting identity in the region and beyond. It would make sense to say that this confusion has enormously encouraged Banyamulenge neighbors (other Congolese tribes) to emphasize their points about the Banyamulenge being “foreigners” from Rwanda and force them out of the country.

The Stigmatization of Banyamulenge in Burundi

Banyamulenge have faced the same stigma in Burundi, although not as bad as in Rwanda. I interviewed a member of Banyamulenge who arrived in Burundi in 1999 as a refugee. The first thing he noticed at school was how their Burundian classmates referred to them, Abanyamunyamu. Abanyamunyamu has no meaning. If you take the term Banyamulenge and cut it in half towards the end, you will have “Banyamu” and “lenge.” Abanyamunyamu comes from the first half, Banyamunyamu. If you spoke Kirundi, you would pronounce Abanyamunyamu. Whoever created this word, the idea behind it was to demoralize Banyamulenge.

My interviewee was bothered by this new word he had never heard before, a word whose plan was to devalue him and his people. As a result, he became uncomfortable with his Kinyamulenge name. He couldn’t change it. One of his little sisters refused to go back to school for at least a week because of the bullying she had encountered. Her name became a problem as well. The family had no other options to fix this young woman’s issue, but convinced her she was a Burundian who was born in Congo. Another sibling refused to go back to school unless his name was changed, and it was. Whenever the topic of being a member of Banyamulenge was brought up, he wished he had a place to disappear (anonymous, personal communication, March 12, 2020). Some Banyamulenge refugees attempted to convert themselves into Burundians. However, those who found themselves unsuccessful, they pretended they were Rwandans to cover their shame.

This interviewee advised that one time he became an active member of a Burundian gospel music group for three years. He would not want anybody to know he was a member of Banyamulenge. After many Banyamulenge refugees fled to Burundi and their presence was inevitable in local churches, one day, his group leader was giving the group a piece of an advice to make sure they maintained the Burundian culture everywhere they went. The group leader used Banyamulenge as an example of people who kept their culture, and who had influenced Burundians to the point of worshiping in their language, Kinyamulenge. The appreciation of a Burundian was my interviewee’s turning point. He realized his people and culture were valuable (anonymous, personal communication, March 10, 2020). My interviewee thought that Burundians had the same misconception Kenyans had on Banyamulenge. They heard of and had been told about Banyamulenge during the First Congo War and had a negative picture of them. Again, the root of this misconception was the bad reputation the term Banyamulenge had in the region.

The Misconception of Banyamulenge in Tanzania

Each country among those previously listed has its specification when it comes to the stigmatization of Banyamulenge. Tanzania is home to Banyamulenge captives from eastern Congo, notably the Bibogobogo area, in Fizi. These Banyamulenge, mostly little children and women, were captured in their villages during the First Congo War of 1996 by Babembe fighters known as Mai Mai. Their parents, husbands and siblings were burned alive, while others, after being wrapped with rocks in cargo sacks, were thrown into Lake Tanganyika. The abductors turned their captives into wives up to this day.

A small number of Banyamulenge refugees fled to Tanzania before and after the 2004 Gatumba massacre in Burundi. The misconception about Banyamulenge in Tanzania was that Banyamulenge were Rwandans and everybody had been a soldier. At the border, Tanzanian officials would screen them to verify they were not soldiers. They would quarantine them in a transit place without food for three days and detect who was a soldier and if they did not pretend to be refugees while being on a hidden mission to invade the country. Then they would check their backs to ensure they did not have signs of battle injuries or marks of carrying guns (anonymous, personal communication, March 13, 2020).

The interviewee continued to narrate his story by saying that he believed that Tanzanians’ assumption on Banyamulenge was that they were killers. Even in the refugee camp, other refugees could not easily approach Banyamulenge refugees, always with fear of being attacked. The interviewee also believed that refugee camp personnel still suspected Banyamulenge refugees would raid the camp at any point. He asserted that other Congolese tribes who lived in the refugee camp before them were responsible of creating this misconception. They told Tanzanian officials terrible and untrue stories about Banyamulenge (anonymous, personal communication, March 10, 2020).

Signs of the misconception about Banyamulenge in Tanzania can not only be detected in refugee camps, but also in the general public. In a YouTube video by Cloudsmedia (2018), Hasna Mwilima, a member of the Tanzanian parliament from South Kigoma, mentioned Banyamulenge during a parliament session. In this video, Mwilima was very upset and blamed the country’s law enforcement for profiling her residents by accusing them they were not Tanzanians. Mwalima made the following statement in Swahili, “Leo wananchi wa Kigoma, hatuishi na amani. Kutwa kucha tunaitwa Banyamulenge, tunaitwa Wakongo, tunaitwa Warundi.” The comment translates to, “Today citizens of Kigoma, we do not live in peace. Each day they call us Banyamulenge, they call us Congolese, they call us Burundians.” This statement is a vivid indicator of how serious the problem of the misconception about Banyamulenge in Tanzania is. This misconception has led Tanzanians to use the term Banyamulenge as a nationality. The fact that Tanzanian law enforcement officers ask people at checkpoints in Tanzania if they are Banyamulenge or Congolese is a hint that there is a high need for a clarification about this misconception, not only in Tanzania, but also in other African countries.

The Power of Social Stigma

Major and O’Brien (2005) argued that stigma is a characteristic that extensively degrades a person, diminishing her or him, to the point of minimizing a whole person to the insignificant one. Stigma makes the stigmatized to consider themselves as devalued in the eyes of the rest of the society. The marks caused by stigma are linked to the physical appearance of a person, and can either be “visible or invisible, controllable or uncontrollable.” According to Major and O’Brien (2005), stigma is more associated with social context than with the individual. Stigma affects three major areas in an individual’s life: self-esteem, academic achievement, and health.

Better Health Channel summarizes the harmful effects of stigma. This Australian official website of the Victoria State Government states that these effects include feelings of shame, hopelessness, and isolation; fewer opportunities for employment or social interaction; bullying, physical violence or harassment; and self-doubt (“Stigma, discrimination and mental illness,” n.d.).

According to Corrigan and Watson (2002), stigma impacts individuals in two ways. The public stigma is the reaction between the stigmatized and the public, while self-stigma is when the stigmatized turn against themselves as a result of the reaction they receive from the public. The following are stereotypes characterized by the public stigma: negative belief about a group (for example, dangerousness); prejudice: agreement with belief (for example, fear); and discrimination: behavior response to prejudice (for example, avoidance). Corrigan and Watson (2002) further explained that self-stigma is characterized by the following stereotypes: negative belief about self; prejudice: agreement with belief (for example, low self-esteem); and discrimination: behavior to prejudice (for example, fail to pursue a dream). Stigma is a very dangerous weapon.

What can Banyamulenge do to Deal with this Stigma?

Although Better Health Channel focuses on a stigma associated with mental illness, it provides helpful information that Banyamulenge may find useful to deal with the stigma they have experienced in different places. The following are a few recommendations: Do not believe what other people tell you about yourself, especially those with an unknown agenda of making you hate yourself; do not allow other people’s ignorance impact the way you feel about yourself (“Stigma, discrimination and mental illness,” n.d.). Moreover, do not hide away from your own people. Isolating yourself from your community will only do more damage than you think. Finally, a language has a great power. Do not believe that, for instance, you are uncivilized and spoiled, as this tool has been used countless times to degrade your humanity.


Banyamulenge have experienced a powerful stigma that has specifically and intentionally targeted them in recent years. They have been stigmatized in the Great Lakes region (Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, and Kenya). The confusion intentionally created by the current political system in Rwanda has grown and affected millions in the Great Lakes region and beyond. This exacerbated stigma, unfortunately, has followed them even in Western nations, where freedom of speech prevails. There is, of course, a hidden political agenda behind this stigma, as we have previously discussed. The humiliation has negatively affected many individuals of the Banyamulenge community worldwide. Among other battles, Banyamulenge are left with one option when it comes to dealing with this stigma, and that is to accept their identity and deny other beliefs that aim to devalue them.


Amnesty International. (1996, 20 December). Hidden from scrutiny: human rights abuses in eastern Zaire.

BBC. (2012, 20 November). Q&A: DR Congo conflict.

Corrigan, P.W. & Watson, A.C. (2002). Understanding the impact of stigma on people with mental illness. World Psychiatry, 1(1), 16-20.

Cloudsmedia. (2018, 4 May). “Wananchi wa Kigoma kuitwa Wacongo/Warundi” mbunge awasha moto bungeni [Video]. YouTube.

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Fidele Sebahizi

PhD Student

Criminal Justice: Homeland Security

Helms School of Government

Liberty University, Virginia, United States

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