Words that kill: Rumours, prejudice, stereotypes and myths amongst the people of the Great Lakes region of Africa

This report by the ‘Regional Analysts Network’ looks at the social forces and processes that create and perpetuate discrimination and exclusion in in Burundi, Rwanda and the Kivu provinces of Congo.

Much of the violent conflict in Burundi, Rwanda and the Kivu provinces of Congo over the past fifty years has been because of discrimination – and political, social and economic exclusion. In the worst cases the extreme intolerance of people of a different ethnic identity has taken the form of massacres and genocide.

When this happens, people are being excluded or killed not for what rights or wrongs they have done – nor for what they believe, or even for what they have – but for their identity: for what they are, how they identify themselves and are identified by others.

A few years ago, a respected research institute in the Great Lakes region organised a small regional conference in Bujumbura on the subject of the “identités meurtrières” – the “deadly identities” – that characterise the region. A year or so later, a small group of distinguished analysts from different academic disciplines began to meet periodically to share understandings and perspectives from the three core countries of the region. Two years ago, they decided to carry out some initial research on “Rumours, myths, prejudice and stereotypes in the Great Lakes region”. The group has taken the name ‘Regional Analysts Network’ or RAN.

This is the first RAN report. It brings together the findings of that initial research carried out in Burundi, Rwanda and South Kivu. The authors are expert academics in the fields of social anthropology, political science and law. The research has begun to look at some of the social forces and processes that create and perpetuate discrimination and exclusion.

It takes an initial look at the myths that give rise to stereotypes, and the influence these have on embedding prejudice in the views that people have of others who are outside their group. Some of the raw research material documents the transmission of prejudice through the medium of rumours. In other contexts and in other times this would be described as psychological warfare.

This dimension of conflict in the Great Lakes region requires further study, but it also requires sustained attention and action particularly from the main communicators in the different countries. The negative media and the negative messages that misinform, distort and manipulate with murderous consequences can only be effectively countered through education and more responsible leadership in unbiased communication. We hope teachers, journalists, politicians and community leaders, church leaders,civil servants, business people and advertisers, and NGOs and civil society leaders will take up this challenge.