- Gender and Decolonization in the Congo: The Legacy of Patrice Lumumba
Although a significant amount of writing exists on the history of Congo's decolonization, almost all of it focuses on the political process. With this book, Karen Bouwer adds a much needed gender perspective to this body of work. Gender and Decolonization in the Congo is both a book about women and one that seeks to employ a gender analysis to understand Patrice Lumumba's writings and his life's legacy. The book falls into three parts: one on Lumumba's writing and the women in his life, a second part that focuses on female political activists, and a third that explores the gender politics of representations of Lumumba.
The first two chapters interweave Lumumba's personal history with the women in his life and his theoretical views on the role of Congolese women in a decolonized society, with historical information on the limitations placed on Congolese women during colonialism. Here, Bouwer sets the stage for the tension between the reality of women's lives and their representations that pervades the entire book.
At the heart of the book are two chapters that focus on the lives of two female activists— Andrée Blouin and Léonie Abo—and the ways in which their experiences reflect the place of women in the independence struggles. While Blouin was a [End Page 138] close collaborator of Lumumba, Abo is the odd one out in this book. She was never associated with Lumumba, but was the wife of rebellion leader Pierre Mulele. By including, through Abo, Mulele's rebellion, Bouwer signals her understanding of the decolonization of Congo as a struggle much broader than simply the gaining of political independence from Belgium.
While she does not lose track of the portrayal of women in the last part of her book, Bouwer's main focus switches to an analysis of representations of Lumumba in Cesaire's play A Season in the Congo (1959, 61 and 66) and Raoul Peck's documentary Lumumba: Death of a Prophet (1992) and film Lumumba (2000.) Her focus reveals the deeply gendered nature of the ways in which the Congolese leader is depicted and remembered, laying bare the legacies of colonial power structures. The book's conclusion contains a short reflection on "the gendered politics of transmitting and defining legacies" (191) and the struggles of the women close to Lumumba to have some form of control over the interpretation of their role in his life and legacy.
Large parts of this book focus on the ways in which information and interpretations about women and gender in the Congo have been represented through film, fiction, and biography. Giving voice to the women in her story proves to be a difficult task, as their stories are all mediated through (often male) storytellers. In the case of Blouin, Bouwer relies on a biography with which the activist collaborated but later renounced. For Abo, her main sources are the writings by Ludo Martens,1 who had an extensive working relationship with Abo. Bouwer does a nice job of reading these sources against the grain, teasing out the women's voices, but I disagree with her decision to "refer to Abo as the author,"even though, as she admits, "her voice is usually mediated through Martens." (102) Martens's historical writings, although certainly valuable, are forms of political activism, a point that needs to be taken into account when using them as historical sources. His (and Abo's) vehement opposition to the Mobutu regime are the basis for the books, which were attempts to counteract the appropriation of Lumumba's legacy for the Mobutu regime by giving Mulele and a revolutionary tradition a place in the history (and identity) of Congo.
In all, this book makes a significant contribution to the scholarship on Congo's decolonization from an understudied perspective, and demonstrates how political legacies are shaped.