Congo, Popular History and Socio-Political Organization.

Posted: December 1, 2013 in History/Philosophy
Tags: , , , , ,

The past days I’ve been reading the book Congo by the Belgian anthropologist dr. David Van Reybrouck. It isn’t an academic work. Instead, it’s a really well-written book that combines the techniques and nuance you expect of an academic with an easy-to-read style. The book got multiple awards in both The Netherlands and Belgium.

As a Belgian, I’m sure everybody will understand my special relationship with Congo. While I was a student, I read in multiple (foreign) books and articles how the Belgian colony Congo was probably the most horrible example of modern colonialism. I recommend everyone to read this great book. Not only shows it the horrific situation, but, equally important, it gives the different socio-political  and ethnical organizations that exist(ed) in Congo their history back. The latter is something that until today is way to often forgotten. Congo has been more than the perverse playground of the Belgians.

The direct motivation for this blog are two sentences about the agreements the Belgian king Leopold II made with over 500 leaders within the area later known as ‘Congo’:

In an oral tradition, in which important statements were made with blood brotherhoods, the leaders often didn’t understand the importance of the cross they put on a piece of paper with weird signs. And, even if they could understand the text, they weren’t acquainted to European concepts in property and constitutional law like ‘sovereignty’, ‘exclusivity’ and ‘perpetuity’.” (p. 64)

Especially the first sentence hit me as something quite important. When a law is implemented in a political structure with a modern and highly developed state bureaucracy, the law immediately spread-out through numerous buildings, people and pieces of paper. Once the law is taken up by the bureaucratic machine, it’s so widely spread that you can’t simply forget or delete it. The law is carried and maintained by a huge variety of entities. Societies with a lack of such a modern bureaucracy need different ways to bring and keep laws/rules into existence. Rituals and ceremonies, like a blood brotherhood, help keeping the day of implementation and the implemented rule itself in the minds of the people for a longer period compared to a simply proclamation of those rules. Repeating these rituals or organizing annual feasts to celebrate them is a way to keep the laws into subsistence.

It might seem a bit superfluous. But in older historical works you won’t find an interpretation of such rituals as a way of seriously organizing socio-political issues. They are considered primitive behavior of a backward people. David Van Reybrouck doesn’t give a thorough explanation of those blood brotherhoods. That’s simply not the goal of the book. But by writing these thoughtful sentences, he does make a difference.

Recognizing the obvious cruelty of the regime isn’t enough. There is a real need in popular history books for a serious and respectful treatment of the complex socio-political structures that already existed. Congo seems like such a proper book.

* English version: Congo: The Epic History of a People, Van Reybrouck (D.), Ecco, March 2014, pp. 656.

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  1. […] Congo, Popular History and Socio-Political Organization. […]

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