AFRISURGE: Transformative Heritage: customary governance, community building and digital restitution in contemporary Northeast Congo

January 2020 to December 2024
customary authorities
political culture
ritual objects
customary chiefs
power objects
institutional dynamics
digital restitution
Université de l’Uele (Congo-Kinshasa)
Research fields
Cultural Sciences
Law and Political Science

The project’s beating heart is the transformative potential of material heritage from Northeast Congo, valorising it firstly as a source for advancing scholarly understanding of customary authority in local governance today, and secondly, as a resource for education and community building in a politically fragile region. These goals are intertwined : locals view the loss of ritual objects due to colonial collecting and warfare, and chiefs’ loss of touch with traditions, both as reasons for the poor state of society. Despite challenges, customary authorities have retained a key role in local governance in the relative absence of state power. Firstly, the project aspires to a non-Eurocentric scientific revision of customary authority as multifaceted and negotiated, based on fieldwork, archival and collection research. The study of ritual objects and practices, a foreign territory to political science, helps to gain deeper insights in customary authority and armed mobilization in contemporary governance, and the continued relevance of historically-rooted political cultures therein. Secondly, reconnecting communities with cultural heritage is explored as a method to improve social cohesion and well-being. Digital restitution will enable that Congolese universities and source communities gain access to digital repositories of Western collection databases and use them as a resource for education and community building. Applications of the latter are provided for in the project.