The Knowledge of Hearts and Minds: Measuring Love (and Intelligence) in Late Colonial Congo – Amandine Lauro

In DUFOYER, Pierre, Amour heureux, Leopoldville-Brussels, Action Familiale, 1959 - (Original photograph : R.P. De Decker).

Amandine Lauro is a Research Associate of the Belgian National Fund for Scientific Research (FNRS) at the Université libre de Bruxelles.

Love, what is it?” What remains today a tricky question was already a burning issue in late colonial Congo. While magazine columnists have kept looking for the answer, it seems that a group of Belgian Catholic intellectuals of the 1950s had already reached a foolproof definition. It can be found in a book published in 1959 in Kinshasa (then Leopoldville) by ‘Pierre Dufoyer’, the pseudonym of a collective of “experts” on family and moral issues directed by a Jesuit priest. By then, Dufoyer was already a best-selling author in metropolitan Belgium (Di Spurio 2012) of a successful series of handbooks mixing Christian rhetoric and psychological expertise, designed to guide youngsters on the risky path of adolescent courtship. And since after all, with the help of God and Science, love could be measured and mastered, why deprive Congolese people of such enlightenment?

Published one year before Congolese independence in 1960, Dufoyer’s book Amour heureux [Happy Love] was rooted in a longer and well-known history of colonial “civilizing” and disciplinary ambitions in the field of gender and familial configurations. The teaching of Congolese “Evolués” (the target audience of the book) as to how to recognize “true love” and how to live by the European ideal of a companionate marriage grounded in new economies of romantic affection, Christian respectability and nuclear family ethos, was the latest in a long line of efforts to regulate African intimacies. As Jennifer Cole and Lynn M. Thomas show in their groundbreaking book Love in Africa, imperial ideologies of love were not just matters of moral discourse; they were also tied to the politics of (racial) in/exclusion, stabilizing the workforce and ensuring the success of development and “modernization”. (Cole & Thomas 2009)

More specific to this late-colonial publishing venture were its new scientific ambitions. For Pierre Dufoyer, choosing a spouse and living in marital bliss required rational strategies based on new advances in psychological knowledge. This reflected a global post-war trend in the rise of psychological expertise on these issues, but colonial Congo raised particular challenges: the so-called “African sensuality” (Dufoyer 1959: 59-60) was considered an impediment to Congolese youngsters’ ability to distinguish love from lust for instance. Again, this was a point on which moral guidance converged with scientific ambitions: African specificities regarding love and intimacy had indeed begun to arouse scholarly interest in the late colonial period. These investigations were connected to wider interrogations about the influence of urbanization, “proletarianization” and social change on Congolese communities. Not surprisingly, urban Katanga provided a laboratory for these analyses.

Similar to the preoccupations of social scientists working in the Congolese Copperbelt in the 1950s (Rubbers & Poncelet 2015), psychologists were interested in the effects of what they perceived as a radical transition from a rural, kin-based and “under-developed” society to an urban, individualist and industrialized one. The challenges of “modernization” were also perceived as mental and affective. Could they be measured, then, in the light of urban dwellers’ adherence to ideals of love, mutual attraction and companionate marriage? Some psychologists thought so.

A young Belgian psychologist from the University of Louvain, Maria Leblanc, noticed for instance that “manifestations of tenderness” and “of romantic love” were emerging in the cités of Elisabethville and Kolwezi (Leblanc 1960: 84-85). Leblanc was primarily interested in measuring the “acculturation” of Katangese women and their “transitioning personalities”. Like many others, her work started from the premise that “traditional” married life was an affair of kin-based networks, fecundity and transactional exchanges, which had nothing to do with emotional attachment and individual bonds. In this context, love was necessarily both a higher and a foreign feeling, a product of Westernization. Shared by numerous colonial “experts”, these conceptions informed larger racialized ideas about sexuality, consent and the prevalence of gender-based violence, ideas that I often encounter in my research on rape and colonial justice.

But Leblanc’s work was more subtle than average. She had been trained at the University of Chicago, had read Margaret Mead and Georges Balandier, and had done participant observation (even if in a very colonial version – Leblanc had worked for the Union Minière’s psychology unit). She urged her readers not to be blinded by the absence of public expressions of affection between Congolese spouses; their “modesty” in the “expression of feelings” was a misleading appearance, and the “exchange of sentiments” took, she argued, different paths of externalization (Leblanc 1960: 64-65).

Not all psychologists shared Leblanc’s (relative) cultural sensitivity, even when confronted with contradictory evidence from informants. Another Belgian psychologist, Robert Maistriaux, also thought he could measure the degree of “conjugal harmony” of Katangese couples through psychological surveys. Marie-Louise, the young wife of a Congolese nurse in Elisabethville, told him: “Among us, conjugal love is shown through practice. (…) Our love is not like the one of the Europeans, which is light and external.” All those “kisses”, “embraces” “rings, bracelets, necklaces” that European couples exchanged were just for show, she added. Besides, in what ways were these different from the African “fetishes” and “talismans” so criticized by colonial moral entrepreneurs? (Maistriaux 1963: 110,184).

These interviews provide fascinating material, but their authenticity and conditions of collection are questionable, especially at a time when gender and domestic issues still played a fundamental role in defining access to colonial privileges for Congolese elites. I doubt however that the (bitter) irony deployed by some of the women featured in Maistriaux’s book is something he could have invented. Maistriaux indeed thought poorly of the “underdeveloped” intelligence of Katangese women and of their degree of “modernization” as gendered subjects. When Marceline, a young mother who had been living for five years in Elisabethville, told him that spouses should primarily support each other and that a good man had to be “sweet with her [wife], not to bully her and think twice before getting angry”, Maistriaux dismissed her testimony as unrepresentative of the “backward” conception of marriage of Congolese women (Maistriaux 1963: 185).

A member of the Pierre Dufoyer collective, Maistriaux was a leading figure in the (flourishing) field of applied psychology in late colonial Congo. A few years earlier, he had been appointed by the colonial state to study another major topic of inquiry within the field: the intelligence of African people and measuring its development. He devised intelligence tests used to place thousands of Congolese children in schools, in a context in which educational opportunities beyond primary level were scarce. Similarly to what Erik Linstrum has shown for the British empire, psychological technologies acquired an overwhelming legitimacy in Belgian post-war colonial milieux (Linstrum 2016). They promised to measure Congolese people’s potential for “improvement” and “educability” and to develop efficient tools for testing workers’ aptitude(no surprise then that the Union Minière played a pioneering role in the establishment of psychological research in the colony). Against (de)colonial anxieties about Congolese social disruption and political challenges, psychological expertise offered the promise of finding a suitable place for everybody on the reassuring, technocratic, basis of a rational knowledge of minds… and of hearts. On the eve of decolonization, Pierre Dufoyer still thought that his science could guide social change. The conclusion of Amour heureux made it clear: with colonized people “properly” educated on emotions and conjugal love, “wouldn’t the future of Africa be better?” (Dufoyer 1959: 92)


COLE, Jennifer & THOMAS, Lynn M. (eds), Love in Africa, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2009.

DI SPURIO, Laura, Le temps de l’amour. Jeunesse et sexualité en Belgique francophone (1945-1968), Brussels, Le Cri, 2012.

DUFOYER, Pierre, Amour heureux, Leopoldville-Brussels, Action Familiale, 1959.

LEBLANC, Maria, Personnalité de la femme katangaise. Contribution à l’étude de son acculturation, Louvain, Editions Nauwelaert, Leopoldville, Université Lovanium, 1960.

LINSTRUM, Erik, Ruling Minds. Psychology in the British Empire, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 2016.

MAISTRIAUX, Robert, La femme et le destin de l’Afrique: les sources psychologiques de la mentalité dite “primitive”, Brussels, Editest, 1963.

RUBBERS, Benjamin & PONCELET, Marc, “Sociologie coloniale au Congo belge. Les études sur le Katanga industriel et urbain à la veille de l’Indépendance”, in Génèses, 99, 2, 2015, pp. 93-112.