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Beyond Catastrophe: The Pasts and Futures of Kinship in Colonial Congo

Colonial Congo became famous for its ghastly violence, but in this vibrant, dense, and capacious history, Nancy Rose Hunt refuses this legendary violence as a single explanatory frame. In A Nervous State, the reader encounters Kurtz’s “The horror! The horror!” on the first page—but so too women’s dance songs, whose lyrics of economic, emotional, generational, and reproductive concern point to dimensions of life that both contain and exceed these histories of violence (2016:1). It is these “perceptions, moods, and capacities to wonder and move” (2016:1) which form the core of Hunt’s impressive, dazzling text. By tracing these sensory experiences, atmospheres, and possibilities across what she identifies as the state’s two modes—the biopolitical and the nervous (2016:8)—Hunt provides multiple, nuanced perspectives on life in colonial Congo. This work offers much for scholars who seek to merge phenomenological and political-economic analysis, and who seek to illuminate the textures of everyday life in ways that escape dominant narratives.

Violence remains central at both the empirical and analytic levels, but it is never uniform or totalizing in Hunt’s narration. She explores how violence varied by place and time, occurring alongside and followed by experiences and moods as diverse as silence, laughter, healing, rumors, disappointment, reverie, and zest. In showing how bodies, persons, and places cannot be reduced to violence alone, Hunt rejects the linear temporality of event-aftermath in which violence can be followed only by ruin or resilience (2016:2-5). By embracing openness, imagination, wonder, and monstrosity in the archives, Hunt creates a history that goes beyond dichotomies of colonizer and colonized to show the dizzying range of African and European persons who populated (and de-populated) the forested, riverine landscape of the Belgian Congo in the first half of the twentieth century.

To ask questions, then, that escape the catastrophic mode: How was violence experienced and understood, remembered and forgotten? Which forms of violence left traces, upon whom, and how? Which other dimensions of life emerge in the archive, and how can these forms of sociality be characterized? Hunt presents several theoretical frames that shape her analysis: among others, Balandier’s perspective on the pathological in the colonial, Canguilhem’s “shrunken milieu” (2008:132, in Hunt 2016:18), Bachelard’s reverie as “poetic, material imagination” (Hunt 2016:19), and Benjamin’s distraction and flânerie.

In addition to these, I would like to consider the category of kinship as another way of thinking through these questions and materials. Recent work in kinship studies has called for attention to how politics, memory, and kinship become caught up in each other, as a remedy to modernist perspectives (even within anthropology) that tend to isolate studies of politics from studies of kinship (Carsten 2007; McKinnon and Cannell 2013). This perspective suggests questions such as: How does kinship emerge in memories of violence? What does focusing on kinship illuminate about state power, forms of sociality, and possibilities for life in colonial Congo? How might highlighting kin relations amplify the “perceptions, moods, and capacities” (Hunt 2016:1) of these places and times? In the rest of this commentary, I aim to tease out the threads of kinship that run throughout Hunt’s account of the nervous, biopolitical state.

In the memory accounts written by Congolese in the 1950s for an essay contest organized by Father Edmond Boelaert, recalling the Leopoldian period some fifty years earlier (Hunt 2016:48-53), kinship emerges as fundamental to these texts’ production. These essays’ authors learned of the Leopoldian times from their elders (Hunt 2016:49). Yet other elders refused the task of remembering: essayists “told of grandfathers who cried that the past was too awful to commit to writing” (Hunt 2016:243). The content of the memories too had to do with kinship. The Ikakota charm, a potent charm used to resist colonial power that also entailed sexual prohibitions (one of many vernacular registers that appear throughout the text), came from ancestors (Hunt 2016:51). The terrible sexual violence wrought by colonial powers sometimes operated through kinship, as kin were forced to violate each other, fathers and daughters, mothers and sons having sex (Hunt 2016:52), and men raping sisters and mothers (Hunt 2016:49). Kinship emerges here as a form of sociality that fostered both remembering and forgetting, and offered possibilities of strength through Ikakota, but was also vulnerable to the monstrous.

The urbanity that became a defining feature of colonial Congo (Hunt 2016:218-225) hinged on ideals and practices of kinship. The fact of “independent women” who were outside of marriage relations and engaged in the cloth trade (Hunt 2016:118-119), and the category of “friendship marriages,” or sexual friendships (Hunt 2016:122), made possible the “sexual economies and hedonistc forms of distraction” (Hunt 2016:225) that characterized urbane life. At the same time, this gendered sociality intersected with anti-venereal disease campaigns that sought to name the partners of people being screened, which some saw as endangering marriages (Hunt 2016:224-225). Kinship thus enabled urbane distraction and economies, while hindering state knowledge of bodies and relations.

In the intertwined modes of nervousness and biopolitics that characterized the colonial state, kinship was central. The penal colony of Ekafera was meant to isolate rebels “who might try to stay in touch with neighbors and kin” (Hunt 2016:176), housing people who hailed from a distant region. Yet some degree of kinship continuity was permitted, as rebels could move to Ekafera with wife and children (Hunt 2016:185). However, not all wives of Kitawala rebels did move, preferring “the allure of continuing urbane lives in a temperate city rather than risking the unknowns of a grisly penal colony set down in remote, humid jungle” (Hunt 2016:187). Moreover, the fact of Ekafera being established on Boyela ancestral lands, where Boyela were still living, meant that it could never become the imagined ideal of a “no man’s land” (Hunt 2016:193). And because some of the Boyela were already Kitawala—that is, the same religious rebel group being relegated to Ekafera from distant lands—rebel sociality persisted despite colonial fantasies of isolation (Hunt 2016:193-195). In the penal colony, kinship was a target of colonial intervention yet also escaped and thwarted its control.

A central object of concern and intervention for the biopolitical state was infertility, in which the very future of kinship itself seemed to be at stake. In nervous fears and fantasies of “race suicide” and “racial degeneration,” Belgian doctors and scientists confronted and tried to halt the end of kinship for some populations of Congolese facing infertility (Hunt 2016:141,146-147). Through forms of “therapeutic belonging” like Likili, a bote or charm, Congolese worked to ensure the future of kinship (Hunt 2016:141-143). Likili’s origin stories were centered on kinship, along with movement and trees, focusing on reproduction and continuity rather than fear of “extinction” (Hunt 2016:147-148). Yet infertility was also experienced as a disappointment, marked by shame and sorrow, evident in “oversized” “fragile” houses (Hunt 2016:120-125)[1] and vibrant songs (Hunt 2016:128-130).

Infertility and childlessness seem to constitute the very limits of kinship, perhaps even the end of sociality and life itself. And indeed, on a totalizing population-wide scale this would be true. Yet the story of the journalist Charles Lonkama, who traveled with Hunt in 2007, offers another view. In a moralizing discussion in which his mother was seen as “sullied” from being in a polygamous relation, Lonkama revealed that of his two mothers, “[t]he one who he had been taught to call Mother showered him with material attention but had not given birth to him” (Hunt 2016:240). Local practices and ideologies of relatedness thus “ensur[ed] belonging and inclusion” (Hunt 2016:240) for the woman who could not bear a child. Such a case, along with forms of belonging like Likili, suggests the capacious possibilities for a reproductive, regenerative, and vital sociality that exceeds the limits of a nervous, biopolitical state.


Work Cited 

Canguilhem, G.  (2008). “The Living and Its Milieu.” In Knowledge of Life. Translated by Stefanos Geroulanos and Daniela Ginsburg. New York: Fordham University Press, Pp. 98-120.

Carsten, J., ed. (2007). Ghosts of Memory: Essays on Remembrance and Relatedness. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Carsten, J., and S. Hugh-Jones, eds. (1995). About the House: Lévi-Strauss and Beyond. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McKinnon, S., and F. Cannell, eds. (2013). Vital Relations: Modernity and the Persistent Life of Kinship. Santa Fe: School for Advanced Research Press.



[1] I am reminded here of the resurgence of interest in house kinship (e.g., Carsten and Hugh-Jones 1995).


Jessica Robbins-Ruszkowski is Assistant Professor in the Institute of Gerontology and the Department of Anthropology at Wayne State University. Her research interests are in aging, personhood, kinship, care, memory, the body, and political economy, from comparative ethnographic and historical perspectives. In her ethnographic book manuscript on aging in Poland, she draws on theories from studies of kinship, postsocialism, and memory to show how contemporary desires for “active aging” in Poland exceed standard postsocialist narratives and instead are rooted in particular national understandings of the links between person and place.


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