A Colonial Lexicon

Of Birth Ritual, Medicalization, and Mobility in the Congo

A Colonial Lexicon

Body, Commodity, Text

More about this series

Book Pages: 496 Illustrations: 47 b&w photographs, 8 maps Published: November 1999

Author: Nancy Rose Hunt

African Studies, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies, Postcolonial and Colonial Studies

A Colonial Lexicon is the first historical investigation of how childbirth became medicalized in Africa. Rejecting the “colonial encounter” paradigm pervasive in current studies, Nancy Rose Hunt elegantly weaves together stories about autopsies and bicycles, obstetric surgery and male initiation, to reveal how concerns about strange new objects and procedures fashioned the hybrid social world of colonialism and its aftermath in Mobutu’s Zaire.
Relying on archival research in England and Belgium, as well as fieldwork in the Congo, Hunt reconstructs an ethnographic history of a remote British Baptist mission struggling to survive under the successive regimes of King Leopold II’s Congo Free State, the hyper-hygienic, pronatalist Belgian Congo, and Mobutu’s Zaire. After exploring the roots of social reproduction in rituals of manhood, she shows how the arrival of the fast and modern ushered in novel productions of gender, seen equally in the forced labor of road construction and the medicalization of childbirth. Hunt focuses on a specifically interwar modernity, where the speed of airplanes and bicycles correlated with a new, mobile medicine aimed at curbing epidemics and enumerating colonial subjects. Fascinating stories about imperial masculinities, Christmas rituals, evangelical humor, colonial terror, and European cannibalism demonstrate that everyday life in the mission, on plantations, and under a strongly Catholic colonial state was never quite what it seemed. In a world where everyone was living in translation, privileged access to new objects and technologies allowed a class of “colonial middle figures”—particularly teachers, nurses, and midwives—to mediate the evolving hybridity of Congolese society. Successfully blurring conventional distinctions between precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial situations, Hunt moves on to discuss the unexpected presence of colonial fragments in the vibrant world of today’s postcolonial Africa.
With its close attention to semiotics as well as sociology, A Colonial Lexiconwill interest specialists in anthropology, African history, obstetrics and gynecology, medical history, religion, and women’s and cultural studies.


A Colonial Lexicon is a marvelous breath of fresh air in an increasingly stale historiographical room, by turns inventive, provocative, and exasperating.” — Timothy Burke , International Journal of African Historical Studies

A Colonial Lexicon is a powerful study. Hunt takes risks. She employs novel methods and approaches. She challenges historical conventions and applies a great deal of historical imagination to her analysis. All of this makes for a fascinating, if at times unsettling, journey.” — Randall M. Packard , Bulletin of the History of Medicine

“[A]n important contribution to current debates in medical anthropology, . . . gendered approaches to colonialism, and semiotics. . . . Hunt does an admirable job. . . .” — Sangeetha Madhavan , American Ethnologist

“[I]nnovative, brilliant . . . . [A] smart, well-researched book full of remarkable insights into colonialism, missionaries, medicine, gender and the practice of social history. . . . 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.” — Dorothy L. Hodgson , Journal of Social History

“Hunt’s study is an important contribution to the historiography of medical practice, missionary activity, and gender in the Congo, three themes that she brings together quite effectively. . . . Her fascinating portrayal of the Belgian colonial welfare state, where births were not only medicalized but also ‘bureaucratized,’ thus becoming statistics that vindicated the pronatalist preoccupation, is well crafted and compelling. . . . [This is] a richly textured and groundbreaking study.” — Ch. Didier Gondola , American Historical Review

"[V]ivid. . . . The breadth and richness of this book make for a lengthy yet fascinating read; it is an important case study for scholars in the history of colonialism and medicine in Africa and medical anthropology, as well as those concerned with African studies and ethnography more generally. . . . [G]uided and motivated students will enjoy Hunt's wit, excellent descriptive writing, narrative reports, evocative images, and theoretical challenges." — Ellen Gruenbaum , ISIS

"I know of no other discussion of twentieth-century medical missions in African that captures their professional dilemmas and distinctive cultural ambience with such vivid colour and humanity." — Brian Stanley , Baptist Quarterly

“ ‘Birth’ is more than the begetting of children and Nancy Rose Hunt’s ‘colonial lexicon’ is much more than a history of medicalized childbearing in the formerly Belgian Congo in colonial and post-colonial times. . . . With erudition and wit Hunt challenges conventional models—be they feminist, obstetric, colonial, missionary, or health-bureaucratic—about what it means to medicalize childbearing.” — Barbara Duden, Universität Hannover

“A highly original study. This book links medical work with maternity work in the context of arguments about gender relations and about feminist perspectives on writing history.” — Gillian Feeley-Harnik, author of A Green Estate: Restoring Independence in Madagascar


Availability: In stock
Price: $31.95

Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Nancy Rose Hunt is Assistant Professor of History and Obstetrics/Gynecology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She is a coeditor of Gendered Colonialisms in African History.

Table of Contents Back to Top




1 Crocodiles and Wealth

2 Doctors and Airplanes

3 Dining and Surgery

4 Nurses and Bicycles

5 Babies and Forceps

6 Colonial Maternities

7 Debris





Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing

Winner, 2000 Herskovits Award (American Council of Irish Studies)

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-2366-2 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-2331-0
Publicity material