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Enclaves and States in (Post)colonial Congo: Spatial Logics and Epidemiological Metaphors

In the introduction to his book on postcolonial Congo[1]The Dialectics of Oppression in Zaire – Michael Schatzberg (1988:1) describes a Janus-faced state: “Zaire has two faces: one smiles, the other snarls; one exudes paternal confidence and caring, the other is insecure and oppressive.” Nancy Rose Hunt’s (2016) magisterial A Nervous State offers a unique and compelling account of the colonial precursor to Schatzberg’s postcolonial state. Unlike Schatzberg, however, Hunt (2016:8) understands the nervous and biopolitical states not as normative categories but as “guises, tracks, or modes of presence.” This is a useful way of seeing the state not solely as a set of institutions, but as an orientation rooted in a close study of state actors, their worldviews, thoughts, and praxis (cf. Gupta 1995).

As an anthropologist of contemporary Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), I am interested in how Hunt’s argument constitutes a historical prelude to the transformations that would later occur in the postcolony. In DRC today, one is bombarded by local discourses about the “absence” or “resignation” (démission) of the state. Yet while the “caring, paternal” (i.e. biopolitical) state has withered since independence, the “snarling, insecure,” “nervous” state is still very much du jour. Hunt’s reading of the colonial state(s) through southern Equateur thus provides an invaluable lens through which to understand contemporary Congo. It helps us to reconsider the histories and residues of the colonial state(s) and the postcolonial manifestations of another kind of nervous state – one that is concerned not so much with demarcating and caring for populations it is with policing and controlling them.

Yet Hunt’s use of Canguilhem’s concept of the “shrunken milieu” attunes us to the particularities and variations of the ways in which the colonial and postcolonial states emerged and changed in different parts of a huge country that is as large as Western Europe in area. In short, a country that could easily engulf several countries simultaneously – something to which DRC’s fraught history of secession movements and so-called civil wars attests. Thus, Hunt’s shrunken milieu presents the scholar of Congo with a challenge: how to pay attention to the specificities of the non-linear aftermath/s of the rubber trade and other significant events in colonial history, and yet also understand the generalities of colonial governmentality that emerged simultaneously, albeit unevenly, in the Congo colony. How can we trace the effects of the biopolitical and nervous states across different regions of this vast country?

The chapter entitled “A Penal Colony, an Infertility Clinic” brings together the two strands of state that Hunt weaves throughout the book. I would like to home in on what I consider the most interesting aspect of her argument here in order to amplify it. It pertains not simply to the state’s double sidedness but to its two components’ emergence in “enclosed space” (Hunt 2016:168). These were, I argue, two kinds of enclave – produced, aspirational spaces (Lefebvre 2000[1974]).

In my own work on DRC and the history of diamond mining in the Kasai region, I (Walker 2014) describe the slow development of these spaces of biopolitics and security-cum-nervousness, beginning in roughly the same time period in which Hunt is working. I show how by the 1950s, biopolitics and security were entirely spatially intertwined in industrial mining centers like that of Bakwanga under the control of the Société Internationale Forestière et Minière du Congo (Forminière).[2]

The extraction of diamonds presents an acute case in which regimes of security often resemble and indeed are derived from penal colonies, due to the stones’ small size and ease of being hidden on or inside the body.[3] At the same time as security regimes were ramped up to prevent illegal mining and mineral theft, colonial parastatal mining companies like the Union Minière du Haut Katanga (UMHK) and the Forminière became deeply concerned with the health and well-being of their workers and their families. The latter, particularly since the end of the Second World War, were located adjacent to the mining sites, in order to give companies control over the biological and social reproduction of the workforce. Alongside deeply invasive security measures (notably in diamond and gold mining sites) thus existed an intensive, paternalistic program of care that included vaccinations, health care, and schooling for mineworkers’ children.

In the different enclaves of the Belgian Congo, epidemiological metaphors of infection were prevalent in discourses about space, and it is here that we begin to see the intertwining of biopolitics and security and the ways in which they emerged in different parts of the colony. Hunt (2016:175-176) writes that Befale territory was described, in 1943, as “‘contaminated,’” the epidemiological idiom calling not (at that moment) for sanitary agents but for “informants and spies.” In my own work on Kasai, colonial agents used similar metaphors. Consider the following passage, from a 1928 medical officer’s report on indigenous labor:

The European areas (postes européens) and mining company workers’ camps (cités de travailleurs des sociétés minières) constitute small islands of healthy terrain (îlots de terre saine) in the middle of a deeply infected region. We must never lose sight of the fact that we are surrounded by a poisoned human atmosphere from whose contact we must protect ourselves, and that we have nothing but contaminated labor, from which we can but extract certain sorted elements (éléments triés) as long as we have not disinfected all the masses (cited in Walker 2014:62)

The medical officer’s words are instructive for the logics of enclaved space they reveal: on the one hand, they refer to a small island of health. On the other, it is easy to see how the “poisoned human atmosphere” surrounding the “small islands of healthy terrain” was an idiom that evoked more than just the strictly biomedical, much in the way that metaphors of health and unhealthy bodies stood in for colonial nervousness in Equateur. Yet it is the doctor’s last phrase that is the most significant. He notes that they must simultaneously protect themselves from dangers outside the enclave while nevertheless denoting an ideal of expansion in order to eliminate those dangers – to dispense with an “outside” to the enclave in general: “…as long as we have not disinfected all the masses.” Indeed, mining companies like Forminière conducted vaccination campaigns well outside the territories over which they had legal control. They also sought, at different points in time, to increase security and curb illegal mining by soliciting an expansion of the legal borders of the mining zones.

The enclave – both biopolitical and security-oriented – is always fraught, however, which is what makes it an aspirational space: the Ekafera penal colony became a “porous ‘hotbed’ for all Tshuapa’s Kitawala,” (Hunt 2016:195). Forminière also later decided to retract its request to expand its zone of intervention, in order to concentrate its security and biomedical interventions in a smaller area presumed to be more manageable after it realized it was unable to prevent illegal informal mining within the wider region (Walker 2014:62).

The histories of these contractions and expansions, as well as the advent and implementation of the techniques of enclaving that Hunt identifies in Equateur and that I have witnessed in Kasai compel us to think about how the spatial logics of enclaving encompass and complicate our understanding of the processes through which the biopolitical and security states were constituted and transformed over time. In this way, we can be attentive to the micro-histories of the Congo’s many regions while highlighting the emergence of different guises of state and their reliance on sanitary and corporal metaphors that appeared simultaneously in different parts of the colony.


Works Cited 

Gupta, A. (1995).  Blurred Boundaries: The Discourse of Corruption, the Culture of Politics, and the Imagined State. American Ethnologist 22(2):375-402.

Lefebvre, H. (2000[1974]).  La production de l’espace. Paris: Anthropos.

Schatzberg, M. (1988).  The Dialectics of Oppression in Zaire. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Turrell, R. (1984).  Kimberley’s Model Compounds. The Journal of African History 25(1):59-75.

Walker, J. Z. (2014).  The Ends of Extraction: Diamonds, Value, and Reproduction in DR Congo. University of Chicago.



[1] Here, I refer to “Congo,” although the country has had different names throughout its history: Congo Free State, Belgian Congo, Republic of Congo, Zaire, and now, Democratic Republic of Congo.

[2] Hunt notes the regional variation and different rhythms through which the two states developed, signaling that the extractive zones had perhaps advanced further in their securitization at an earlier date: “So it was that a group of eighty-three Kitawala arrived as Ekafera prisoners from Congo’s industrial core in 1944. Their dossiers contained fingerprints, suggesting they hailed from a more hardened, sophisticated world of security management…” (Hunt 2016:186-187).

[3] It is instructive here to remember that De Beers’ own business, which inspired diamond-mining compounds elsewhere in Africa, was transformed and heavily buttressed by the construction of a penal station in Kimberley, South Africa. This enabled De Beers to use particularly invasive techniques on inmate-workers to prevent diamond theft (see Turrell 1984).


Joshua Walker received his PhD in sociocultural anthropology from the University of Chicago in 2014. From 2014-2016, he was a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research (WiSER). He is currently working on a new research project entitled “‘I Will Never Marry A Luba Man’: Gender, Marriage, and Ethnicity in Central Democratic Republic of Congo” as a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Political Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand.