Science and Spirit in Postcolonial North Kongo Health and Healing

by John M. Janzen


The Kongo region—the Lower Congo—from the 1960s until the present (2014) has seen the significant decline of mortality and natality rates, the tripling of the population, significant emigration, and the advent of family planning. In medicine, “biomedicine” (the medicine of global medical-school-taught doctors, nurses, lab technicians, and pharmacists, and related medicines and techniques) has become pervasive, largely replacing the tradition of the nganga and the min’kisi. However, the complex, socially-driven questions about misfortune continue to be asked by individuals and families; the examination—mfiedulu, kufiela, kufimpa—of relationships continues to be practiced by a variety of specialists (nganga, ngunza, family gatherings); a more expansive personhood common in Central, and Sub-Saharan Africa requires rituals of protection and holistic healing by ngunza, pastors, priests, biomedical doctors, and psychotherapists who minister to the “whole person” and the social group. Thus, while science has become the defining reality of medicine, the role of spirit—ancestral, social, religious—has persisted and in some respects even strengthened because of the loosening of social bonds and the chaos of the political order. The paper will explore examples of these trends identified in the author’s recent field research in Lower Congo, while making the case for an enduring Kongo or Western Equatorial African culture of health and healing.

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John Janzen is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, University of Kansas. He is the author of numerous books and articles on Kongo art, religion, society and medical anthropology. He spent four months in 2013 in Lower Congo on a Fulbright Scholarship researching postcolonial health and healing, particularly the relationship of science in Congolese medicine to spiritual healing, and the role of the state and other institutions in the legitimation of knowledge.