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“This Guy has become a Complete Savage”—A Last Interview with Jan Vansina

Abstract

Professor Jan Vansina looks back at the early years of his rich academic career as a historian of Africa and more specifically at his field research among the Kuba peoples of the DR Congo. Learning their language and participating in the boys’ initiation allowed him to become a deeply involved participant observer. He worked on the current anthropological themes of the day, and more importantly, he also collected oral material for an innovative historiography that would later inspire hundreds of students and researchers. Blinded by cultural prejudice, missionaries and colonial administrators did not understand what he was doing, and saw him as a hopeless case, but Kuba people came to accept him everywhere in the country. As a junior researcher, Vansina had been sent to the Kuba kingdom because of the great reputation of its art in the West. He found out that this same reputation had played a crucial role in the survival of the kingdom, in particular after its initial encounter with the terror of King Leopold’s Free State. Kuba kings had learned to deal with the realities of the Belgian Congo, using their revered art for clever diplomacy and bending the model of indirect rule to their own benefit.

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Hein Vanhee is a historian and curator at the Royal Museum for Central Africa (RMCA) in Tervuren, Belgium. His research interests include the history of Central Africa and its diasporas, colonialism, material culture and art, and cultural heritage. His latest exhibition is titled “Rituals and Ceremonies – African Testimonies” on view at the RMCA.

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