Our second installment of the Bulletproof Project takes us to the eastern Congo, where Mai Mai militiamen have been wreaking awful havoc for years now. These soldiers are known not only for their brutality, but also their unwavering faith in dawa, or sinister magic. This belief became apparent to Western observers during the violent upheaval that followed Congo’s independence, when various ethnic groups fought the idea of a centralized nation-state. The Kinshasa regime had the latest in Belgian military hardware at its disposal, which led the rebels deep into dawa:
Faced with superior military technology, they tended to rely on supernatural resources. How else could men and women with no more than bows and arrows overcome guns and bullets, except with the help of a pantheon of spirits that would transform lethal bullets into harmless raindrops? Just as in the Mayi Mayi resistance in pre-World War I Tanganyika and many a rebellion thereafter, so in the Mulelist uprising in Congo of the 1960s magic turned out to be a key component of rebellion. Rebel forces marching into battle chanted “Mulele Mai! Mulele Mai!” evoking the power of Mulele the leader to turn bullets into Mai, literally, water.
This technique, sometimes abetted by charms or body paint, did little to protect the fighters. It did, however, horrify one of their most celebrated allies: Che Guevara, who was gobsmacked by the rebels’ faith. To his consternation, he discovered that his revolutionary brothers felt no need to train or plan, since they assumed that they would triumph in any battle thanks to dawa. The Mai Mai did, however, spend plenty of time getting sauced before battle, which may account for their ferocious reputation.