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A Colonial Lexicon of birth ritual, medicalization, and mobility in the Congo. (Reviews).

A Colonial Lexicon of Birth Ritual, Medicalization, and Mobility in the Congo. By Nancy Rose Hunt (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 1999. xix plus 475pp. $20.95).

The social history of Africa, like many other "third world" areas, poses tremendous challenges to scholars: How do we retrieve the everyday practices and ideas of ordinary people enmeshed in broader processes and structures such as colonialism, state-building, and development when most of the people were illiterate and left few written sources? Given the scarcity and unevenness of sources, how do we recapture and retell the experiences of Europeans and Africans as they interacted, collaborated and struggled during the colonial and post-colonial period in a manner that recognizes and represents the agency, opportunities and constraints of all involved? How can we assess not just the political-economic contours of such encounters, but their meanings as well?

In this innovative, brilliant, if sometimes irritating book, Nancy Rose Hunt combines the analytic tools of poststructuralist theories with more conventional modes of analysis to offer one possible solution to these enduring questions. Her study explores the changing economic and cultural logics of childbearing and reproduction from the 1920s to early 1990s in the rural Yakusu region of the former Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo [DRC]) as missionaries, colonial and post-colonial state officials, and development agencies tried to medicalize these practices by building and staffing maternity clinics and hospitals, training Africans to be nurses and midwives, encouraging prenatal care and hospitalized deliveries, and advocating medical and surgical interventions, where appropriate. Rather than write a straightforward narrative of social change as a result of the "colonial encounter," in which Africans respond to European impositions and interventions, Hunt's tale is more textured, tangled and complicated. Her book is a potpourri of stories, events, and accounts taken from archives, oral histories, periodicals, and interviews woven around (and around) the central themes of medicine, missions and gender. Most of the chapters are structured around the convoluted histories of what Hunt terms "signifying objects," that is the things such as crocodiles, airplanes, bicycles and forceps that emerge as central, remembered terms of the period. As Hunt explains, her purpose in excavating this "colonial lexicon" is to address "the terms of struggle and negotiation, not only what these terms were, not only how these terms entered and continue to enter into memory and performance, but why these terms were the lexicon of debate" (p.11). By focusing attention on "the social life of objects and their complex cultural entanglements as differentially signifying symbols and commodities in colonial and postcolonial histories" (p.12), Hunt succeeds in her quest to show "how local Congolese in the Yakusu region differe ntially translated and reshaped the opportunities that colonial medicine offered according to preexisting logic and emerging formulas of authority and prestige" (p. 9). Her primary study site, a British Baptist mission station operating in a Belgian, Catholic-affiliated colony, also reveals the differences and overlaps among and between colonial officials and missionaries in terms of their ideas, practices and policies.

This book is based on meticulous, exhaustive research, including fourteen months of fieldwork in the DRC (employing participant-observation, interviews, and the collection of reproductive histories); substantial archival research in the DRC, Belgium, and England; interviews with retired missionaries; and careful perusal of assorted written texts such as periodicals, writings by literate Africans, and missionary letters and diaries. As a consequence of the thoroughness and depth of her research, she is able to describe in great detail both mundane (such as a particular vaginal birth in the maternity clinic) and extraordinary (such as a staged "horror" show for African Christmas carolers) events; evoke the experiences, perspectives and reputations of individual Europeans and Africans; and include almost 50 fascinating illustrations. Moreover, her impressive technical knowledge of obstetrics and gynecology enables her to review and analyze shifts in and debates over the terms, procedures and practices of the mi ssionary doctors and nurses (such as embryotomies and craniotomies).

Drawing on these rich sources of data, Hunt conveys the complicated, multiple entanglements and engagements of biomedical and local childbirth ideas and practices in a manner that challenges more simplified, dualistic arguments and judgments about the relationship (whether positive or negative) between biomedicine and local therapies. Some African men and women desperately sought, for various reasons, to take advantage of medicalized childbirth. Others resisted and resented missionary intrusions in their lives. Many (including midwives, nurses and even missionary doctors) combined aspects of both systems. Perhaps most importantly, the introduction of biomedicine was never just a matter of abstract categories and binary power relations (colonizer/colonized; Eurpopean/African), but a convoluted process based on the skills, demeanor and reputation of specific individuals; concrete social practices; and contested ideas and meanings. Some missionary doctors developed fearsome reputations, scaring patients away; w hile others attracted both eager and reluctant patients. Moreover, those Africans Hunt terms "middle figures" (evangelical teachers, nurses, midwives) were crucial to the relative success or failure of the medical enterprise in any given period, as they often served as the "bridges" and "translators" between the two systems.

In sum, this is a smart, well-researched book full of remarkable insights into colonialism, missionaries, medicine, gender and the practice of social history. But it is also, at times, a frustrating book. In her efforts to portray the complexities of the encounter, Hunt's narrative style occasionally becomes annoying, as she weaves her stories and sources around and around a "signifying object," jumping time-periods, abruptly shifting voices, and intentionally disrupting any coherent linear narrative. Not only does this make reading certain sections of the book a tedious process, but Hunt sometimes makes startling, overdrawn conclusions that seem unsupported by her evidence, (As an example, after a lengthy discussion about the practice of embryotomies, she writes "The exigency of detestable embryotomies, their loathsome aesthetics, the sacrificing of beautiful brown babies for the descendants of cannibals--such topoi were likely part of a missionary point of view at Yakusu" [p. 234]). These efforts to descri be missionary racial and gender ideologies and imaginings too often seem forced and overstated, especially in contrast to the subtle nuances conveyed by her rich evidence. Finally, the book has some unfortunate loose ends. The most troubling (because it is one of the most interesting) is that her concept of "middle figures" drops out of the book midway--she continues to discuss these important people, but does not (even in the conclusion) link them to the analytic framework she sets up in her introduction. These criticisms notwithstanding, Hunt has written an important book that will make significant contributions to the ways we research, write and understand social history in Africa and elsewhere.
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Author:Hodgson, Dorothy L.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 2001
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