- A Nervous State: Violence, Remedies, and Reverie in Colonial Congo by Nancy Rose Hunt
A Nervous State is a provocative and insightful study of the impact and memory of violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Nancy Rose Hunt eschews a straightforwardly linear discussion of the legacy of state-sponsored violence during the early twentieth century on later generations of Congolese. In contrast to much popular work on the Congo, this book rejects using catastrophe and crisis as the main narratives to order Congolese history. Without denying the violence of Leopold II's regime and the Belgian colonial state, this study provides a much-needed sense of the diverse narratives of healing, anxiety, and opportunity that emerged in the decades following the end of the brutal reign of concessionary companies in the northwestern province of Equateur.
The book's cover alone features a photograph that illustrates quite well Hunt's determination to upend the sense of passivity and powerlessness of Congolese people in the face of colonial domination. Taken by an American Protestant missionary doctor sometime in the 1920s, the image features a group of Congolese medical assistants wearing aprons. On first glance, there appears to be little remarkable about this image. But if one looks closely, one may notice many of men have mutilated hands, just as in the far more commonly seen images of severed hands made by North American missionaries at the turn of the 20th century. The photo reminds us that, contrary to the popular considerations of Leopold II's Congo, people survived and lived after the early years of violence came to an end.
Hunt draws on an eclectic range of conceptual approaches, but a central theme is the role of healing. Maria N'Koi, a spiritual leader who briefly was believed to have inspired a range of acts opposed to colonial authorities during World War I, [End Page 424] takes a leading role in Hunt's sprawling narratives. Oral traditions suggested N'Koi's healing powers emerged after her husband developed a relationship with another woman. While colonial officials described her as an example of superstition and danger, she became the object of the literary attentions of a Flemish colonial writer, who made N'Koi part of an imagined milieu of unbridled desire. N'Koi returned from prison to provide assistance again to women seeking to have children and suffering from illness. Hunt ties N'Koi to evolving spiritual traditions linked to spirit possession, ethnobotanical knowledge, and song. The healer ended up outliving colonial rule itself, and survived through Mobutu Sese Seko's dictatorship in the 1970s. N'Koi's life became material in long-running disputes over women's reproductive health among Belgian doctors and other residents of the colony that ignored how state violence had abused women.
While historians in North American and European history have engaged with histories of the senses for some time, Hunt's foray into this topic is quite novel and valuable for scholars in colonial Africa. Chapter 1 demonstrates Hunt's gift for drawing new perspectives together with previously ignored sources. For example, Hunt examines Leopold II's own inquiry into abuses in the colony—usually viewed as a cynical ploy to sate critics of the government—as a means of analyzing responses (laughter, for example) to reports of colonial violence. Hunt similarly shows how plays created by students at mission schools in the 1950s articulated memories of fantastic acts of transgressive violence along with stories of powerful talismans used by Congolese warriors in struggles with each other. Rather than rely on visual images alone, these other sources highlight hearing as a means of contextualizing violence.
Ambiguity regarding sexuality and illness repeatedly emerges in colonial accounts of Bandundu from the 1920s onward. Low population rates became a topic of state anxiety in Equateur, even as the role of state authorities was neglected in favor of describing the problem as a medical or cultural issue requiring state intervention. Though colonial officials lacked the means to monitor Congolese health and...