Books Features

Scholarly Synaesthesia

Nancy Rose Hunt’s latest book beats, breathes, quivers and unsettles. Her writing brims with the curiosity and rigour that evidently fuels her meticulous tracing of neglected archival materials. Also palpable are the insight and sensitivity that enable her to encapsulate both the changing machinations of a biopolitical state, and the ‘therapeutic insurgencies’ of ordinary Congolese. However, it is Hunt’s attention to sensation and to perception, what one might call her scholarly synaesthesia – her ability to read the archives with an attentive ear, to read ‘dynamics of combat through acoustics of hushed silence and sadistic laughter’ (23), for example – that renders her work so compelling for an anthropologist of Equateur and of the senses.


Young girl covered in red ngola paste dances baáta with dozens of other women and girls following the death and burial of a beloved young woman in this village. Tshuapa Province. © Alcayna-Stevens 2013
Young girl covered in red ngola paste dances baáta with dozens of other women and girls following the death and burial of a beloved young woman in this village. Tshuapa Province. © Alcayna-Stevens 2013


Hunt carries the reader through histories, memories and reveries in southern Equateur, in what is today the Democratic Republic of Congo (and the contemporary provinces of Tshuapa, Mongala and Equateur). The reader is transported from the brutality of forced rubber extraction under the Congo Free State (from 1885), through to the distraction, hedonism and ‘motion’ that punctuated the end of colonial rule (until 1960). With each chapter, the reader is swept, as if by an eddy, into events ‘when state power and subaltern wills clashed’ (23).

While the reader might find herself awaiting the familiar plotline of ‘horror and humanitarianism’ (3) associated with severed hands in the Congo Free State and sexual violence in the ongoing Kivu conflict, Hunt makes clear that she eschews ‘catastrophe logic’, crisis and haunting. Instead, the reader meanders along with her, through myriad afterlives – as opposed to any single aftermath. Hunt’s attention to mood (palpable in the stories, poems, diaries, letters and songs she analyses) steers the reader beyond narratives of moral indignation and ‘resilience’ – a ‘platitudinous word […] born of neoliberal austerities’ (253) – into the undercurrents of insurgency and resistance: anger, excitation, regret, privation, fright… nervousness.

My own research traces the encounters between Tshuapan villagers and the same ‘energetic, environmental NGO’ (239) with which Hunt makes a canoe-trip up the Lomako in 2007. These relationships are plastic: they stretch and bunch, simmer and boil over. When moods shift, tensions can suddenly erupt, as they did when the young people of the territorial capital (a small town of around 3,000 people) stormed and ransacked the compound of the environmental NGO in 2014, demanding jobs, repairs to local infrastructure, and a football pitch. Later in 2014, a group of women in a village 90km from the territorial capital felled a tree – ‘across the warpath’ (242) – to block the arrival of the NGO, accompanied as it was by the Congolese Wildlife Authority, deployed in order to secure the newly-created forest reserve.

Flight, and ‘concealment’ in what Hunt calls ‘refuges’, is also practiced in contemporary Equateur. The nganda, or temporary forest encampments, kept alive despite colonial efforts, continue to thrive as ‘alternate spaces’ (116) in forested parts of DR Congo. So too does the frustration of the post-colonial state (and that of the environmental NGO). Both lament the number of people who live in the forest, or who periodically enter it for months at a time to hunt, fish, or gather caterpillars(which are then transported to and sold in urban centres as far away as Kisangani and Kinshasa). Both state and NGO continue to make plans to ‘peacefully evict’ such people.

I find Hunt’s work inspiring on several levels. Firstly, it encourages me to linger on the visceral and vernacular memories that fuel edginess and volatility: the ways in which the armed Wildlife Authority induces shudders and frowns, and conjures up recollections of government soldiers’ abuses during the war of the late 1990s; or the ways in which people recall the responsibilities fulfilled by plantation bosses in the 1970s (and now, as far as they are concerned, neglected by NGOs). Secondly, her work motivates me to attend to the reverie that springs from NGO promises of development, as well as from a nostalgia for futures imagined in decades past. In their discussions and debates, people mingle this nostalgia with an ‘eviction reverie’ reminiscent of Maria N’koi, Likili and Kitawala (which continues to flourish and grow in nearby forests to this day).

Thirdly, I am curious to trace the ways in which the ‘pathologization’ (241) of nganda in medical and territorial eyes, as ‘unhealthy’, mosquito-ridden, and leading to the neglect of villages and fields, compares with the environmental concerns of contemporary NGOs preoccupied with the bushmeat crisis in central Africa, and with the separation of people and wildlife. Beyond these resonances, Hunt’s work also inspires me to attend to gestures, glances, sighs, nods, restlessness and laughter, and the ways in which they allude to simmering resentment, ambition, reverie or suspicion.

Hunt’s attentiveness to the senses renders her analysis both capacious and fine-grained. I am touched particularly by her attention to women’s stories and bodies, and the affective and corporeal repercussions of violence in their lives. Contemporary Tshuapan women intimate past violence at the hands of former European plantation bosses, of soldiers, rebel armies or police, or ongoing violence at the hands of husbands. Often silent on the public stage, they whisper these stories at the stream, in their fields, in their kitchens and at women’s church groups, and sometimes they join together and protest, as they did in 2014, when the Wildlife Authority arrived.

In the stories of both men and women, it is often through sound (the forest suddenly silent after an explosion during the war), smell (the earth as one presses against it to hide when a patrol passes), or other senses (such as hunger in one’s stomach, aching in one’s back, or a sudden loss of balance during grief) that poignant moments are recalled. Both women and men also speak of aspirations, of seeking out the kind of ‘independent, urbane lives’ (246) Hunt and other scholars of Congo have attempted to trace and capture.

Today’s researchers of Congo are part of a growing and vibrant research community, and increasing numbers of excellent historical, sociological and anthropological works on Congo and its diaspora have been published in recent years. But while much of this research focusses on the country’s capital, Kinshasa, Hunt’s work provides an invigorating engagement with Equateur which I hope will stimulate further research into the lives (and afterlives) of the people and politics of this region, inspiring anthropologists and historians of Congo – and beyond – to consider how writing can be used to make room for that which is unsaid, but which is felt. I eagerly anticipate the ways in which such a scholarly synaesthesia can be used to capture the nervousness, suspicion and reverie taking hold as thousands of Congolese (as well as the international community) call for the end of Kabila’s presidency.


Lys Alcayna-Stevens is a post-doctoral researcher at the Laboratoire d’Anthropologie Sociale, and in the Medical and Environmental Anthropology research group at the Institut Pasteur, both in Paris. Her most recent publication, ‘Habituating Scientists’ (2016) was published in the journal ‘Social Studies of Science.’