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Being Colonized: The Kuba Experience in Rural Congo, 1880-1960 by Jan Vansina (review)
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As with all of Jan Vansina's work, Being Colonized breaks new ground. Most histories of the colonial period in Africa focus on the colonizers. Given the paucity of sources produced by Africans, it is rare that a history describes African perspectives during the colonial era. In Being Colonized Vansina was able to reconstruct the colonial history of the Kuba of Congo (Kinshasa) because the sources are particularly rich. Complex social and political structures and well-developed arts have attracted the attention of many Europeans to the large Kuba kingdom. Moreover, as the only part of Congo to be ruled indirectly, the kingdom remained largely intact during the colonial period, thus preserving a coherent history. Vansina also was able to benefit from some of the administrative and personal papers of the Kuba King Mbop Mabinc maKyeen (r. 1939-69), which are preserved at the University of Wisconsin. In addition, when Vansina undertook historical and ethnographic fieldwork among the Kuba in the early 1950s, his Kuba assistants collected stories, news, dreams, and gossip, and these help in providing Kuba perspectives on Kuba history.

This work follows the standard European chronology of colonialism: Luso-African trade, King Leopold's conquest, concession company rule, the establishment of missions, Belgian takeover (1908), World War I, the arrival of the railroad and cash cropping, the Depression, World War II, and the movement toward independence (1960). There isn't space here to describe Kuba reactions to each of these influences, so a few examples must suffice. Vansina devotes one chapter (chapter 5) to the question of whether the brutality of the early colonial period caused population decline among the Kuba. He disagrees with Congo scholars who previously have either calculated near genocide or said that it is impossible to determine the extent of early population decline. Estimating normal Kuba birth and death rates and the effects of atrocities and epidemics, Vansina concludes that "in 1919 the population was perhaps as much as 25 percent less than what it was in 1900 and it was approximately 15-19 percent lower than it had been in the late 1870s" (147). This suggests much less of a decline than some other estimates have suggested, but it still indicates the considerable shock to African societies caused by the beginning of the colonial period.

Vansina also considers the continuing Kuba depopulation between the world wars, primarily due to the arrival of venereal disease (chapter 9). The Kuba people did not blame either their king or the colonizers for this calamity. Rather, they perceived the cause of depopulation to be a loss of harmony (poloo) among themselves. Their responses included searches for collective and personal charms, witchcraft accusations, nature spirit cults, and trials by poison ordeal. Vansina concludes that for the Kuba, "the history of colonial times was above all the story of their own struggle for survival and the return of harmony in a titanic war waged against evil" (268). This perception made the colonialists "practically irrelevant" (268) and required disobedience when colonial orders conflicted with the restoration of harmony. State and mission contempt for Kuba efforts to cope with depopulation and the loss of harmony fed a "raging rural resentment" (269) that came to a head just at the moment of independence and resulted in widespread administration of the poison ordeal.

After World War II the Kuba began to modernize (chapter 11). They were late in adopting modern values because indirect colonial rule left their social hierarchy and culture largely intact. In contrast, the Luba and Lulua, who lived largely along the rail line, were at least two generations ahead in modernization. The Luba/Lulua were much less embedded in rural village communities and much more open to modern ways, because their ancestors had once been slaves and pawns of the Kuba or because they were new arrivals in the region. Vansina considers Western dress and education as indicators of willingness to modernize and finds that it was only in the 1940s and 1950s that the Kuba embraced both. Traditional elites finally realized that they would need to be more modern to cope with change. Yet Kuba society did not fracture along traditional-modern lines, largely because the modernizing elites...

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