Memory, missionaries, and making meaning from an African childhood in a postcolonial world
  • Linda Devereux

Writing memoir can create self-understanding; and reading, or listening to, the life stories of others can promote empathy through a deep engagement with the lives of other people. However, telling, or listening to, a complicated or traumatic life story is not without risks. Remembering and attributing meaning to events always talks place within a context. When I was a child my family was caught up in complex, violent, postcolonial Cold War politics in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Uncertain subject positions, political complexities, and concerns for family members can all mean that complex judgments must be made about when, if, and how to tell stories like mine. Shared family experiences do not necessarily mean shared family meanings, or shared understandings about what information to conceal and what to reveal. Using insights from the fields of narrative writing, memory and trauma studies, I draw on two autobiographies, Alison Bechdel’s Fun home, and Ruth Kluger’s Still alive, along with my own experiences of life writing, to examine why certain memories or testimonies may be silenced in public and private discourses of remembering.


Keywords: transcultural childhood—memory—trauma—ethics—memoir—postcolonial

My earliest memory, or what I have come to nominate as the earliest event I can remember, is of flight (Devereux 2010). I have always loved aeroplane flights, especially that moment when the plane leaves the ground and takes off into the heavens and I am pushed back into my seat: captive, halfway between earth and sky, suspended in place and time and between worlds and continents, coming and going in the same instant. Flight can also mean escaping, physically or emotionally. In her book Denial: a memoir of terror, Jessica Stern uses language strikingly similar to mine to describe the dissociative behaviour caused by trauma. She says dissociating is like ‘being stuck between earth and heaven, and not quite alive but also not dead, accessible to neither people nor angels’ (2010: 109). Her description is of a safe place, psychologically, but a position where one is isolated and inaccessible, beyond the reach of others.

Personal narrative has been positioned in popular and academic discourse as a tool for transformation. Writing memoir can create self-understanding; and reading, or listening to, the life stories of others can promote empathy through a deep engagement with the lives of other people (Jensen 2010). Some of the most profound learning that I have observed as an educator has taken place when personal life stories have been shared in a respectful environment. But telling and listening are not always straightforward. How do we, as listeners or readers, engage with complex testimonies that may be challenging to tell and painful to hear? How can we, as writers, share experiences that are hard to recreate? This paper is about the process of making complex stories, and some of the constraints to creating and sharing them. Using insights from the fields of narrative writing, memory and trauma studies, I draw on two autobiographies, Alison Bechdel’s Fun home (2006) and Ruth Kluger’s Still alive (2001), along with my own experiences of life writing, to examine why and how certain memories may be silenced in public and private discourses of remembering.

A brief bio …

My childhood was spent in four different countries on three different continents. I went to three schools in my first year of formal education. One of these was a boarding school several days drive away from where my family lived; the other schools were in my passport country, in another world, where I felt odd and ‘other’.

As the child of medical missionaries, I lived in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on and off between 1958 and 1964—years characterised by what some Congolese euphemistically call ‘the troubles’. My early life in Congo was interpenetrated by civil unrest and I was evacuated twice during these years.

On the particular flight I have mentioned, the first evacuation, I sat next to my mother and my younger brother. The trip was a long one and had begun suddenly and unexpectedly. I don’t remember leaving my father. Perhaps we left too hurriedly to say goodbye. For a few, fleeting moments the plane hung below clouds and I, a small child, saw a spectacular and strangely familiar picture. The red terracotta roofs and bright green gardens below me looked like Toy Town, exactly as it was in the double-page spread on the inside front cover of my Noddy books. Even the trees had the required clipped shapes of circles and cones.

We had many opportunities on that journey for me to enjoy the sensation of take off, with stops in Leopoldville—the capital city of Congo, Nigeria and Algeria, before Belgium and then Britain. Because of the emergency, the plane had been used continuously, and its basic supplies were running low. The children were served the last of the drinking water. The adults were offered wine, and although many of the shocked missionaries refused, my mother accepted. She said that, despite everything, it was quite a pleasant journey. It was July 1960, and the winds of change had blown us, scantily clad and without my father, out of Africa, to an unfamiliar, and unconvincing, British summer.

The family spent most of the next 12 months split between two continents but, after some negotiation with the Missionary Society, Dad was able to join us in Scotland for a furlough in 1961. We headed back to Congo in 1962 with a new baby brother and a new determination to stick together as a family. In August 1964, Simba soldiers, Lumumba supporters disenchanted with the assassination of their leader and their exclusion from what they saw as a west-controlled Congolese puppet government, took over Stanleyville and the surrounding areas, including the village where we lived. The Simbas took almost 1,800 hostages in the region in a bid to force the international community to recognise their claim to govern the area. They held the hostages in various locations for months but did not gain the international support that they had hoped for.

For almost four months during what has been called ‘the Stanleyville crisis’1 my father was forced to work for the soldiers, and my mother and the rest of the family, now of four children, were held under house arrest. Things became progressively worse during the months of our confinement, and some of the Simba soldiers resorted to physical and psychological torment of their captives. Dad sedated the youngest children in the family to keep them quiet while we hid together in a cupboard. There, as a six year old, I took on some of the responsibility for looking after my three younger siblings, while my mother tried to gather together enough food each day to feed us, and to keep it, and us, away from the increasingly hungry and menacing guards.

Many missionaries were killed during the following months, along with thousands of Congolese. A school friend was forced to watch the murder of her father in horrific circumstances, before being hacked to death herself. I witnessed violent attacks, and their aftermath, on people close to me. But my family was rescued in dramatic circumstances by ‘Mad Mike’ Hoare. Hoare, a retired UK army major and adventurer, was employed by Moise Tshombe’s Congolese government to recruit and train mercenary soldiers to stem the Simba rebellion. He negotiated doggedly with the various authorities for permission to make the journey out of Stanleyville to the outlying areas to rescue missionaries he knew would be killed in retaliation for the international involvement in the conflict. My family was one of the groups he reached in time. We were returned to Scotland just before Christmas 1964.

Now I work in an Australian university and, almost 50 years later, I am researching these events from the 1960s as part of a doctoral thesis. Components of this work have included interviewing survivors, including family members, about their memories of this part of their life, and writing my own life narrative. I am interested in how we each represent our memories, and how they have been shaped by personal and cultural factors.

Memories emerge without words or voice ...

Sometimes we can’t, or don’t want to, consciously remember events from our past. People suffering what Smith and Watson (2001: 21) have described as the ‘agonies of traumatic memory’ do not want to invite ‘further haunting’ and may try to shut out the past and resist the ‘fits and fragments’ of remembering, when they arise. This may be particularly true for some types of memory.

Crises of a personal sort, such as sexual assault, or of a political sort, such as state-sponsored torture or imprisonment during war, may not be easily remembered or spoken about and may only be available to the person as ‘the halting fragments of traumatic or obsessive memory’. (Smith and Watson 2001: 21)

Traumatic memories may never appear in daytime words at all, but find some outlet through sensory or bodily expression. Maria Tumarkin (2010) expresses this phenomenon vividly in a story she tells about an interaction with her grandmother. The event took place when Maria was in her teens. Maria remembers she made a sandwich at the kitchen table and then ate the sandwich as she walked to another room. Her grandmother followed her closely, absentmindedly but systematically, eating the crumbs that Maria left in the kitchen and those she dropped on the floor. Years later, Maria sat in a library where she read about the famine that had affected her grandmother’s early life. Although Maria did not recall being told about this famine and its effect on her grandmother, she knew. She had witnessed her grandmother’s bodily memory as it ‘exploded in later life’.

For me, these bodily responses play out in ways that others who have experienced war, or some other violent event, will find familiar. I have learned to notice myself jumping into doorways when a car backfires. Occasionally, after some unexpected loud bang, perhaps a demolition or some neighbourhood roadwork, I have even found myself under my desk, or pressed, back to the wall, in the windowless hallway at home. It’s strange. I don’t always even remember hearing the noise at all, and so it is hard to describe exactly what the trigger is. I just find myself in that other place. My body takes flight before my brain has a chance to catch up. My children tease that these responses are contagious. They laugh because everyone in our family, except my husband, fights for the spot in a restaurant where we can sit with our backs to the wall with a clear view of the door. I did not realise that I did this until I watched a documentary on survivors of the 2002 Bali bombings. Nor did my children realise, until then, that they had unconsciously copied their mother’s behaviour. It just seemed ‘normal’ in our family.

I am getting more used to the process of remembering and discussing my early life now, but in the beginning the experience was overwhelming. My present life, and quite literally my memory, were affected by my focus on the past. Alison Bechdel, in an interview about the process of writing her poignant and complex graphic memoir Fun home said that keeping track of her project during the seven years it took her to write it was such a huge task that she forgot many important everyday things – to the point that her partner grew concerned about her mental health and wellbeing (in Chute 2006: 1009). I remember being at a conference session on terror and violence early in my doctoral studies where an academic from Sydney spoke of his personal experience of the 2005 London bombings. Listening to him recount his trauma affected me to the point where I had trouble taking notes. I could not remember how to spell simple words. It slowed me down, I lost my thoughts, and my words quite literally vanished. I felt physiologically and psychologically silenced. As these examples suggest, it’s not only what we say about our memories that is important. Gaps and silences may also hold meaning – perhaps more profoundly, in some instances – but conveying unspoken meaning to others is not straightforward.

Even once a decision has been made to start speaking about a longheld silence, it is difficult to know when the time is right to pop something into the conversation, or to work out just where to begin. My husband of more than 30 years found out recently that I witnessed a violent sexual assault, along with other sundry details of my childhood trauma. I thought I’d better tell him before I told several hundred others at a conference. And although I have hinted to my mother that I witnessed her attack, and she has implied that she suspected I was there, we still have not had a detailed conversation about it. Sometimes, perhaps, it is easier to disclose a complex past to strangers than it is to talk to those closest to us. Possibly, I prefer to analyse my behaviour from a safe ‘academic’ distance.

Filling the gaps with something …

Memory fragments, uncorroborated suspicions, and bodily remembrances can leave strange, unexplained ‘gaps’ in a life story. Children who grow up with the ‘whispers and silences’ of their parents’ trauma, what Marianne Hirsch (2008) calls ‘postmemory’; or those considered too young to remember, described by Susan Suleiman (cited Hirsh 2008) as the 1.5 generation, may construct their own versions of events to fill out these unknown spaces in their life narratives.

I call the version of a life I created for myself my ‘sustaining story’; it is a rendering of my family history that made sense of the hard-to-believe, poorly remembered and sketchy events from my childhood. I wasn’t aware that I even had my sustaining story until I found, when conducting interviews for my doctorate, that other people’s narratives of the same events were, in some places, quite different from mine. I discovered that after so many years it could be difficult to ‘hear’ other versions of ‘the truth’. My comfortable cloak, my body armour, was being pulled away, and I felt naked and exposed.

Others who have experienced an exposure to new evidence of a past trauma have reported similar ambivalence. For example, in her memoir about a Holocaust childhood, Ruth Kluger suggests that her mother seemed to prefer to live with fuzziness, an inexactness of information, rather than certain ‘truths’ about her missing husband and son. Kluger writes about this reluctance to hearing other versions of events powerfully, and in a manner that resonates with my experience:

The most precise memories are … the ones that seduce us into lies, because they won’t be budged by anything outside themselves. No matter what you propose to them by way of later judgement and better knowledge, no matter how you reproach them or cajole them, like stubborn dogs they just show you their teeth without giving an inch. (Kluger 2001: 34)

In her autobiography, Kluger interprets her mother’s fuzziness as a choice, but perhaps it could be a less conscious bodily response, akin to the gathering of crumbs and hiding in hallways.

There is undoubtedly an element of fear in opening oneself up to learning more about a past event, particularly a traumatic experience, and this can act as a disincentive to breaking a longheld silence. The process requires a willingness to be vulnerable to uncomfortable feelings as one confronts alternative, or expanded, versions of the past. As a researcher, one does not know exactly what one will find and how one will feel about this new knowledge. Bechdel explains her conflicted feelings when she consulted archives and police records, about her father’s life, including accounts of his arrest for suspect behaviour with teenage boys. She says, ‘I felt triumphant as a writer, as a researcher—but ... embarrassed as his daughter’ (in Chute 2006: 1006).

Shame, guilt and an uncertain position

Two additional and intertwined silencing forces are my postcolonial and my survivor guilt. Kluger argues that survivor guilt can be reinforced by suspicion on the part of others who assume that you must have exploited or trampled on others in order to survive. Without doubt, the sense of having survived because of my racial privilege brings with it complex feelings. As Spitzer (1999) observes, there can be tangled, bittersweet responses to both survival and loss. I knew that my family was privileged, in 1964, to escape the violence and turmoil in Congo. Even as a child, I knew that most people were not rescued by an army truck full of gun-firing mercenary soldiers, a helicopter, and specially chartered planes in an expensive multinational military campaign.

I am a living example of the privilege that being white can bring. As Judith Butler argues:

Lives are supported and maintained differently, and there are radically different ways in which human physical vulnerability is distributed across the globe. Certain lives will be highly protected, and the abrogation of their claims to sanctity will be sufficient to mobilize the forces of war. Other lives will not find such fast and furious support and will not even qualify as ‘grievable’. (2004: 32)

But I do grieve for the millions of Congolese who have died because of colonial and postcolonial violence, and I grieve for the millions more who have lived with violence ever since my brief stay in their country. I struggle to hold that pain of others while not negating my own. As Annette Kobak (2004) has observed, the two tasks can become confused. My experiences have finetuned my empathy for others, but dulled my sense of judgment about where to place my own past in these complex transnational settings.

I find some encouragement in Dirk Moses’ (2008) reminder that comparing certain events, or experiences, is not the same as equating them.

Villains and victims

This uncertain position as the child of missionaries in postcolonial times is one of the strongest silencing forces. Do I, as a white woman, have a right to tell yet another expatriate story about Africa? There are always questions of ‘authority’ when stories involve politics, particularly when there are complexities of race, class and gender (Smith & Watson 2001), and the Congo has a complex and contested history, much of which is still written and published by non-Congolese. I feel ambivalence about contributing to this academic and literary industry, and unsure as to where, or if, my Congolese experience counts.

In stories such as mine there are often no clear victims and villains. My family was caught up in complex postcolonial, Cold War politics. The Simba forces held us in an attempt to wrest a share of power from the weak, west-sponsored Congolese government that was complicit in the murder of Patrice Lumumba. But understandable anger over centuries of horrific exploitation and humiliation did not excuse the obscene violence of the Simbas, and the government soldiers were often unjustified in their killing of their fellow Congolese. The extent of the meddling by world powers in this period of the Congo’s history is still being debated (see, for example, Williams 2011). These complexities make it difficult for a listener or reader to know with whom to identify, and who to blame for the horrors.

Jason Stearns, in his book Dancing in the glory of monsters (2011) argues that the Congo’s complex, hidden and contested history is one of the key reasons why the millions of deaths in the country have not generated levels of international attention and support as countries such as Rwanda or Sudan. Perhaps western storytelling traditions have conditioned us, their audiences, to have certain expectations about who is in the right and who is in the wrong, and they expect this to be clear and identifiable in any narrative performance. If a person, or a group of people, is perceived to be in the ‘wrong’, there is an expectation that there will be an awareness of wrongdoing and, ideally, an apology, contriteness and a suitably redemptive climax. We tend to prefer narratives with hope – we like ‘lives with meaning’, but what meaning? Who gets to decide what that meaning is? How do we tell complex, nuanced narrative? Mine is not a ‘neat’ and predictable story.

Memory and representation of memory, as Susannah Radstone (2005) cautions, is not an individual pursuit; it is situated in cultural practices and politics. The production and circulation of memories can, she argues, become ‘trafficking in symbols’ (2005: 136). In other words, for others to engage with a story, they must find enough tropes, symbols and structures with which they are familiar. When I talk to people about the Congo, often the only books they have read about the country are Joseph Conrad’s Heart of darkness and Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible. The missionary and mercenary characters from these novels are not attractive, and they leap out and infest my story before I have even begun to tell it. Remembering and attributing meaning to events always takes place within a context.

However, the contexts and politics of remembering, like fashions, change. When something becomes politically unpopular, be it a war, colonialism, or government policies such as removing Indigenous children from their parents, great effort is put into attributing blame and responsibility for wrongdoing to particular individuals. Alternative versions of events are often silenced. Western colonial powers, in their rush to distance themselves from any ongoing responsibility for their actions in Africa, are quick to scapegoat individuals in this endeavour. Missionaries are easy, and visible, targets.

There can be complex consequences for those who turn to testimony in situations where their version of events challenges the dominant discourses (Gilmore 2002). Gilmore argues that such examples of testimonio and memoir are ‘sitting ducks’, as any self-representation that puts the personal in the public sphere as a ‘disruptive performance’ is fraught with risk because of its ‘dialectical relation to dominant notions of legitimacy’ (Gilmore 2002: 699-700). Such narratives, she warns, are more likely to ‘elicit scepticism or condemnation than to invite sympathy or vindication’. It can be difficult to propose alternative, or expanded, meanings about contested events and characters.

What I am arguing here is that, in addition to the private silencing that can result from issues such as concerns about the fragility of memory or survivor guilt, there are other significant silencing factors that affect which stories are available and which narratives are deemed to be trustworthy or to ‘matter’. Stories like mine, about missionaries caught up in independence violence, may be hard to hear, and difficult to tell, in postcolonial times.

What to share, how, when, and with whom?

There are also limits to how violence and its effects can be represented in the public sphere. Carolyn Nordstrom, who writes extensively about war and violence in Africa, has observed:

I have found that if I describe a body tortured by illness in my work in medical anthropology, it is accepted as ethnographic fact. But when I describe a body tortured by fellow humans, it becomes a field for cautionary tales of ‘pornographic violence’; of ‘reproducing the violence in speaking of it’. (Nordstrom 1997: 20)

Some framing of violence is somehow more acceptable than others. Natural causes of trauma are easier to grasp than those caused by our fellow humans. Where humans are involved as agents of carnage, such violence must be justified clearly; framed, for example, as a ‘war on terror’.

Kluger writes in her autobiography about her awareness of the limits of what she could say about personal experiences of horror. She recounts an event when, crammed for many hours into a cattle truck on the way to Auschwitz, an elderly woman urinated on her [Kluger’s] mother. Kluger recalled this incident when a group of friends was discussing claustrophobia, but she did not mention it. She says the incident in the cattle truck was:

an unforgettable event in my life, and yet I hardly ever get a chance to speak of it. It doesn’t fit the framework of social discourse … there are limits [to reminiscing] … when I am with company, I let others talk. And so my childhood falls into a black hole. (Kluger 2001: 93)

These events are just not the things one drops into everyday discussions. Their gravitas frightens ‘polite company’. Nobody knows what to say. Such events are pushed beyond the margins: beyond normative power; beyond narrative power.

Like Leo Spitzer, I grew up with parents who believed that there are ‘some things that children should be spared knowing’ (Hirsch & Spitzer 2006: 138), and my parents did all they could to protect us from the horrible situation we were in. My mother went without food to feed us. She put herself between the Simbas and her children. My father worked all day in the hospital treating his usual Congolese patients. In addition, he treated wounded rebels, with all the attendant fears of repercussions if those endeavours were unsuccessful, and then in the evenings he attended to missionaries affected by the violence. He wondered how much sedative he could give his children if, as they frequently said they would, the Simbas came the next morning to kill us all. My siblings and I experienced events that have been described as ‘indecent’ for a child to witness (Kluger 2001). In situations like these, and in their aftermath, families do what they can to protect themselves and each family member. Certain events may not be discussed. It may be easier for a child to maintain that they don’t remember some things than it is to face the distress caused to their parents by being reminded of their inability to protect their children. This may be especially so for children like me who do not completely trust the memories themselves. Who would want to cause hurt through their possible imaginings: childhood versions of what a life story might have been.

My story is, thus, complicated by the fact that it is one ‘in relation to’ the significant others who feature in it (Smith & Watson 2001). Like all life representations, I make choices about what I share and what I hide, but the decisions are more complex because they are not just about me. There are difficulties about whose story it is, politically and personally. I am not just breaking my own silence, but outing my family and others as well. Bechdel (in Burkeman 2006: n.p.) describes this as a ‘hostile act to another’s subjectivity’. She did not tell her mother that she was writing a book until she had worked on it for a year. She says: ‘I wanted to get a purchase on the material before I had to grapple with her feelings about it’ (in Chute 2006: 1006).

Her mother felt betrayed.

Bechdel had to make difficult ethical judgments about what to tell, and how much to tell. Shared family experiences do not necessarily mean shared family meanings, or shared understandings about what information to conceal and what to reveal.

Risks in sharing and listening …

As authors we may have some sense of how our family may feel about what we write about common family history, but when sharing a story, whatever its form, we don’t always know who else will be in the audience. We may have no control over where a story ends up. Because it is difficult to predict the audience, it can be difficult to predict a response. As Hirsch points out, where people or groups feel ‘ownership’ of certain events, where they feel some ‘living connection’, much is at stake. They may have a very strong emotional investment in their version of a story, but she cautions:

Once verbalised … the individual’s memories are fused within the inter-subjective symbolic system of language and are, strictly speaking, no longer a purely exclusive and inalienable property … they can be exchanged, shared, corroborated, confirmed, corrected, disputed. (Hirsch 2008: 110)

We lose some control over ‘our’ memories when we make them public. We literally, have to ‘share’ them with others who may choose to use them, or respond to them, in ways that are different to our choosing. We become vulnerable to our audience in handing over this representation of ourselves.

However the writer, or teller, may underestimate the demands that they are also making on their audience to become vulnerable. Kluger suggests why it may be so hard to hear some stories and stay ‘with’ them. She uses the German word trauerarbeit, a word for which there is no direct English translation, which describes the ‘labour of mourning’ involved in attending to traumatic narratives. There are, she suggests, consequences for those who accept the challenge of this type of mourning for other lives. Butler argues that:

Perhaps … one mourns when one accepts that by the loss one undergoes one will be changed, possibly forever. Perhaps then, listening, mourning with another involves an agreement to transformation the full result of which cannot be known ahead of time. (2004: 21).

Maybe this is why testimony is such a complex process. It demands that readers attend to histories, lives, and experiences different from their own. Often it demands action, sympathy or debate: all testimony invites a response. It requires vulnerability on the part of the sharer and on those being shared with, particularly when the witness attempts to make available what Cvetkovich (2008) calls a ‘rich and contradictory story’.

Why then do writers persist with testimony? Why do I? My project stems from my desire to understand how violence and dislocation can influence memory and the meaning made of such events. A friend challenged me recently to consider that silence is not the required comradeship with the death that has silenced others. And I want to develop the courage to take up Butler’s challenge to imagine ‘what might be made of grief besides a cry for war’ (2004: xii). For me this is partly a process of working through, around, and sometimes against personal and cultural pulls to silence. It means finding a way to translate the silences into a form that might be woven meaningfully into a story that can be told, and heard. The distance of nearly 50 years from the events I have described may, like the view from the plane, have the potential to offer a different perspective on the landscapes in which I have lived.

Note: The author would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their sensitive and helpful suggestions for improving this text.

End notes

  • 1. For more information on this part of DRC history, see Gondola 2002 and Renton, Seddon and Zeilig 2007.
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