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Recalling the Belgian Congo

Recalling the Belgian Congo: Conversations and Introspection

Marie-Bénédicte Dembour
Copyright Date: 2008
Edition: 1
Published by: Berghahn Books
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Recalling the Belgian Congo
    Book Description:

    When the author embarked on her study, her aim was to approach former colonial officers with a view to analyzing processes of domination in the ex-Belgian Congo. However, after establishing a rapport with some of these officers, the author was soon forced to revise her initial assumptions, widely held in present-day Belgium: these officers were not the "baddies" she had expected to meet.

    Exploring the colonial experience through the respondents' memories resulted in a far more complex picture of the colonial situation than she had anticipated, again forcing her to question her original assumptions. This resulted not only in a more differentiated perspective on Belgian colonialist rule, but is also sensitized her as regards the question of anthropological understanding and of what constitutes historical fact.

    These two aspects of her work are reflected in this study that offers specific material on the way Belgian colonialism is remembered and reflects on its conditions of production, thus combining ethnographic analysis with a theoretical essay.

    eISBN: 978-0-85745-712-7
    Subjects: History, Anthropology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Note on use of language and pseudonyms
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. List of translated technical words
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  6. Maps and Illustrations
    (pp. xvii-xx)
  7. 1: Introduction
    (pp. 1-16)

    This book is based on interviews I conducted in the late 1980s with senior men in Belgium. Middle-class and generally retired, they lived in comfortable homes, spoke of trips abroad they had taken or were about to take, had pictures of their grandchildren displayed in their living-rooms, could have been experiencing family, health or financial worries which they did not share with me. They were both tall and short, large and slim, intelligent and dull, prompt to smile and severe, listening to themselves or attentive to comments expressed by others. Nothing in their dress, speech or demeanour distinguished them as...

  8. 2: A Glossary in Disguise
    (pp. 17-44)

    This book relies on reminiscences by former members of the Belgian colonial service. In turn, these reminiscences make free use of a set of knowledge about the way the colonial service was organised. Especially after the initial interview, my informants were aware that they did not need to explain what the magistrate of police was doing, or the difference between a chiefdom and a sector, or other technicalities of the same kind. I cannot assume, however, that my reader shares this knowledge. The aim of this book is not to describe the colonial service. At the same time, I must...

  9. 3: My Project
    (pp. 45-67)

    At a time when anthropology has become aware that there is neither objective knowledge nor neutral observer, it is important to pay attention to the way the position of the anthropologist affects the production of anthropological knowledge. This chapter examines the prejudice which as a leftist student I held against colonialism, how this made me actively seek to appear unthreatening to the former territorials I was interviewing, and how my unexpected but growing respect for them caused my certainties to evaporate, making it increasingly difficult for me to be sure what the Congo was like. This chapter is not meant...

  10. 4: Their Expectations
    (pp. 68-98)

    In chapter 3, I explained that I thought I needed to be very careful in the way I presented myself if I was to persuade enough former colonials to participate in my research project. Retrospectively, my fears seem unfounded. In contrast to the reluctance I was expecting, I encountered considerable eagerness to help me with the research. Social scientists who collect life-stories have often commented on the ease with which they find individuals who are ready to tell them about their lives. Confirmation of this trend in this case is interesting for formal colonials do not generally talk about the...

  11. 5: Our Dialogues
    (pp. 99-132)

    The last two chapters have highlighted the existence of a hiatus between the research project I had planned and the study the interviewees were hoping I would produce. The present chapter follows from this approach in that it seeks to examine the ways in which this gap created spaces for misunderstandings during or after the interviews. While the previous chapters were concerned with the general background of the interviews – their historical setting as it were – this one is concerned with the way the interviews developedper se.I examine a number of methodological aspects, including the effect of the guarantee...

  12. 6: My Story
    (pp. 133-168)

    The preceding chapters have underlined how my general approach to colonialism differs from that of my interviewees. Our different memories of colonialism are evident in our consistently contrary interpretations of events. Let us take as an example the obligation under which the Africans were to cultivate. I associate it with coercion, but former colonials stress its central role in the avoidance of famine. I see its primary object as a means for the coloniser to draw economic benefits, an interpretation in my opinion warranted by the emphasis the coloniser put on the cultivation of cotton; former colonials retort on the...

  13. 7: Their Response
    (pp. 169-193)

    The underlying argument of the previous chapter is that former territorials are mistaken in not seeing, or at least not stressing, the role played by force in colonial relationships. This argument arises from my reading of the material; but what would the interviewees’ own analysis of colonialism be? The present chapter indirectly addresses this question.

    I had originally conceived of this chapter as a counterpoint to the previous one. My idea was to discuss former territorials’ interpretations of the colonial experience after having presented mine. I quickly realised, however, that this was not feasible. How could I completely remove myself...

  14. 8: Conclusion: The Anthropological Position
    (pp. 194-208)

    In an important book which explores what the passage to anthropology entails, Kirsten Hastrup remarks that ‘There is no way of seeing from “nowhere in particular”’ (1995: 4). She founds her practical theory of anthropology (see below) on the premise that one always sees from somewhere. A feature of this premise is that one never remembers in the abstract, but by reference to the context in which one lives. These are the premisses upon which I have constructed my study.

    Chapter 1 introduced the project of the book and chapter 2 provided a kind of glossary in the form of...

  15. Appendix 1: Basic career information on territorials cited in the text
    (pp. 209-210)
  16. Appendix 2: Questionnaire sent to former territorials in 1989
    (pp. 211-213)
  17. Bibliography
    (pp. 214-230)
  18. Index
    (pp. 231-235)