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THE TRUE ACCOUNT of ten years, 1950 - 1960, spent with the Sonde people of the southwest Congo.
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Scattershot anthropological vignettes of a Congolese ethnic group during the 1950s from former Belgian colonial administrator Daems. From 1953 to 1961, Daems lived with the Sonde people in the southwest Congo. As the region had little geopolitical and no economic importance to the Belgians, both the landscape and the local customs remained intact. But Daems appreciated that colonialism would open up the area and big changes were imminent, so he set about interviewing the Sonde chief and taking notes so as to preserve a glimpse of Sonde life and the elements that gave it distinction and strength. Gathered here are a handful of storiesframed as oral histories, as told by the chief (the kianza) and his father, with occasional essays by Daemsexplaining the social hierarchy of the tribe, their laws and enforcement, worship and witchcraft, slavery and the role of ghosts, initiation processes into adulthood and various secret societies, andmost wonderfullyexactly what it was like to encounter their first European, all this in an effort to get at the glue that secured the Sondes' cultural convictions. But Daems is not an artful storyteller: the words he puts in the chief's mouth have a cooked quality, yet remain uninflected and too windy by half. No sense of overarching context emerges, so that while these peeks into Sonde life are unquestionably fascinatingand Daemss respect and admiration evidentthey lie about unassembled into a whole, even at times taking on a sideshow character that the author clearly doesn't intend. To his credit, Daems never tries to whitewash Belgian arrogance or misguidance in the Congo, but he does bring a fusty, overly literal eye to his subject: ``Black heritage is much richer than soul food, a chicken walk, sagging pants, and a `cold piece' to command respect.'' Without puzzling these truly remarkable elements of Sonde life into a complete picture, they remain as frustratingly opaque as a cabinet of curiosities. (2 maps; 28 illustrations, not seen) -- Copyright ©1999, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
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