A Nervous State: Violence, Remedies, and Reverie in Colonial Congo by Nancy Rose Hunt (review)
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Reviewed by
Hunt, Nancy Rose – A Nervous State: Violence, Remedies, and Reverie in Colonial Congo. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2016. Pp. 353, xviii.

A Nervous State is certainly one of the most elegant books I have seen over the last years and an impressive attempt at entangling, and at discussing entangled, narratives. It follows the continuities of coerced labour and the fact of segregation through the Belgian colonial state in the Congo after the classical (and all too real) [End Page 207] horror story of violent Congo Free-State practices had subsided. In its second half, the book engages with the “developmentalist machine” that meant improving local welfare, but also installing (from the colonizers’ point of view) efficient techniques of health control and securitization in the 1940s and 1950s (p. 10). Nancy Rose Hunt takes various rural regions adjacent to one another and east of Equateur’s principal city, Coquilhatville (current-day Mbandaka), as field of her study. She strives to show local reactions on colonial experiences, including brutal violence (for example, p. 28), the intensified tensions during the First World War (p. 82), the experience of childlessness caused in part by imported sexual diseases (pp. 97–101), and increasing administrative control over the colonial subjects’ health and political behaviour (pp. 25, 168). Reactions were expressed through the spiritual in its widest sense, in particular, according to Hunt, in the form of healing procedures and through a “syncretistic” reshaping of local religion (pp. 18–19). Such processes were connected to increasing “nervousness” of the administration: it included panic over possible rebellions led by powerful sorcerers in regions where the colonial presence was weak (p. 68); an ever-growing wish to check childlessness—and, at the same time, to prove that it was linked to the decline of particular Congolese “races” such as the Mongo (p. 140); and the hope to respond to “subversion” and “fertility problems” through what Hunt seems to suggest as two variants of a carceral archipelago, the fertility clinic and the prison (pp. 203–204).

To build her argument, the author relies on groundbreaking fieldwork in the region in the form of group interviews carried out in Ikanga and Besele, which are especially at the heart of one of her paradigmatic episodes: that of the healer Maria Nkoi’s, arrest and removal (pp. 239–240). I would have hoped to see Nancy Rose Hunt as one of the first scholars lately to point to new archival documentation, especially regional documents, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She does not do so, but one has to say that the Belgian archives she interprets still needed much work, and the analysis is excellent for the interpreted case studies.

Hunt builds on episodes. That of her first chapter is probably the most dispersed one, as she discusses images of brutality from the Congo Free State period, showing how these conditions were eventually remembered (or nervously hidden) in the following colonial years and decades. References to the sound of laughter in reports, as “chuckling, snickering, and cackles” might point to the trauma of brutalities under the Free State (pp. 39–40). The reference to such memories in a 1954 mission-sponsored writing contest shows more clearly their constant place in memory (pp. 48–49). The second chapter engages with Maria Nkoi, feared by the Belgian colonial authorities as possible instigator of revolt in the Ikanga region. Maria Nkoi is an ambiguous figure: she denied the implication in anticolonial activities when caught (p. 66); she might nevertheless be representative of “reveries” of eviction against the colonizers and of mobilization against colonial taxation (p. 68); she appears as a gifted healer with power over trees (p. 90); and she becomes the object of local memory, the place of her activity even transforming into a lieu de mémoire (p. 85), not mentioning Belgian travellers recounting her case in an exotified and eroticized fashion (pp. 78–79). [End Page 208] A third chapter entangles the experience of low fertility in the region east of Coquilhatville with other trends, such as the freer environment and less bridled sexual life governing female life-cycles (pp. 119–121, 125–126). Discouraging...


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