Clara Devlieger

  • July 13, 2011

Clara Devlieger’s life has come full circle. Born in Congo to Belgian parents, she is hoping to complete a PhD in Social Anthropology on disabled traders in the Kinshasa-Brazzaville area, the border area between the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo.

Clara [2011] was born in Congo as her parents were working in a religious development organisation. Her mother is a physiotherapist and was working in a hospital. Her father is an anthropologist, but was teaching at the time and began his own research on disability while in the country. Her parents had graduated from university and headed out to Congo immediately afterwards. They lived there for two years and then moved to Kenya and Zimbabwe, where she attended a Dutch international school.

The family then went to the US where Clara’s father started a PhD at the University of Illinois. Within a few years when Clara was at junior high school they were on the move again, this time to a town outside Chicago. When she was 14 they went back to Belgium.

Clara, who has two younger brothers, says she didn’t find moving around that difficult. “I was used to it,” she says. “I got used to feeling that we would be moving every few years. It makes you depend more on your close family.”

The move back to Belgium was the most difficult as she was a teenager. “I felt like an American then,” she says, “but at the same time I felt as if I was coming home as all my family was in Belgium. It was a time of mixed emotions.”

At university, she did a degree in English and Dutch at the Catholic University of Leuven and then decided to do her master’s in Social Anthropology at the nearby Louvain-la-Neuve University where she could also hone her French. She said she felt it would be difficult to find jobs in anthropology after graduation so she wanted to develop her languages. “I had a strong interest in culture and languages are clearly integral to culture,” she says.

Clara, who is also involved in the youth movement Chiro and is a keen orienteer, had been planning to do her master’s dissertation on the subject of boundaries. Her choice became a study in Kinshasa (Congo) where a political religious movement had a specific philosophy about boundaries. While in Kinshasa, she visited the border between Kinshasa and Brazzaville, the capital cities of the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Republic of Congo respectively. “There were disabled people everywhere there,” she says. “They were trading and carrying goods around getting them ready to be transported to the other side of the Congo River. It was fascinating.”

Most of the disability was caused by polio. “Disabled people are normally social outcasts in Congo. They are at the bottom of the social ladder, but if you go to the border they have turned things around,” she says. “Disabled people are controlling things and are organised in unions. It is fascinating how they have managed this. I want to discover whether there are general lessons to be learnt about improving the situation for disabled people or socially weak individuals in general.”

She has got Gates funding for an MRes in Social Anthropology which covers the first year of her PhD in 2011/12 and hopes to secure further funding for the following two years. She has also secured funding from Trinity College for pre-research linguistic training. She is keen to learn Lingala, the most widely spoken local language.

“I want to explore what is really going on,” she says. “Some journalists have written about disabled traders in Congo, but nothing has been written in any depth.”

Latest News

Addressing energy injustice in the Global South

A new framework which uses artificial intelligence to analyse textual data on energy use and behaviour could help policymakers develop a deeper understanding of energy injustices in the Global South. The study, Grounded reality meets machine learning: A deep-narrative analysis framework for energy policy research, was led by Gates Cambridge Scholar Ramit Debnath [2018] and is published in the journal Energy Research […]

Scholar wins top German prize for PhD thesis

A Gates Cambridge Scholar has won a prestigious international award for her PhD dissertation on the relationship between offshore finance and state power. Dr Andrea Binder was named winner of the Körber Foundation’s German Dissertation Award 2020 for social sciences. The prize, one of the most highly endowed for young researchers from Germany, honours excellent PhD research which […]

Developing a farm for impact model

Shadrack Frimpong has not yet started his PhD, but already his and his team’s work has earned him awards from the Queen, the Clinton Foundation and the Muhammad Ali Foundation. The awards are for their outstanding work in creating a potential new development model for rural crop-growing communities starting from Shadrack’s own village in Ghana. […]

An interdisciplinary approach to major global challenges

Midway through her PhD at Cambridge Molly Crockett and her team discovered a critical role for the neurotransmitter serotonin in regulating social decision-making. “We found that temporarily disrupting serotonin levels made people more willing to punish unfairness,” says Molly. “I had come to Cambridge planning to look at how serotonin affects self-regulation in a broad sense, but […]