Hunger, poverty and hu­mil­i­a­tion

Bel­gium takes a hard look at its colo­nial past

The Observer - - World -

Seg­re­ga­tion was to­tal. For white peo­ple, it was a world of free healthcare, ten­nis in the af­ter­noon, black-tie balls and grena­dine cock­tails in the evening. For the black pop­u­la­tion, it was a sub­sis­tence diet of cas­sava root that rarely, if ever, in­cluded meat. Only white peo­ple could be army gen­er­als, engi­neers or doc­tors, while adult black men were re­ferred to as “boy”.

It sounds like apartheid South Africa or by­gone Mis­sis­sippi, but this was post­war Bel­gian Congo, an era largely lost in Bel­gium’s pub­lic mem­ory – un­til now.

In re­cent weeks, im­ages of colo­nial apartheid have been beamed into homes in Dutch-speak­ing northern Bel­gium in a ma­jor doc­u­men­tary se­ries in which Con­golese-Bel­gians tell their sto­ries. Made by the Flem­ish state broad­caster VRT, the six-part se­ries Chil­dren of the Colony is the lat­est sign of Bel­gium’s re-eval­u­a­tion of its colo­nial past – not only the no­to­ri­ously bru­tal reign of King Leopold II (1865-1909), but the long sec­ond act of Bel­gium’s 20th-cen­tury rule in cen­tral Africa.

This week­end, Brus­sels’ Africa Mu­seum (pre­vi­ously the Royal Africa Mu­seum) re­opens af­ter a six-year ren­o­va­tion with an at­tempt to bury its rep­u­ta­tion as the last bas­tion of colo­nial pro­pa­ganda. Last June, a square in the Bel­gian cap­i­tal was named af­ter Pa­trice Lu­mumba, the first prime min­is­ter of the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Congo, who was as­sas­si­nated by po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents with the com­plic­ity of the Bel­gian state.

The mur­der of Lu­mumba, which shat­tered hopes of a peace­ful and pros­per­ous Congo, is an im­por­tant part of the VRT show, but the se­ries is un­usual be­cause it gives a voice to peo­ple who lived in the colony.

One of those is Pierre Mbuyamba, a Liège-based car­di­ol­o­gist born in Congo in 1937. In the doc­u­men­tary se­ries, he re­calls the “ab­so­lute seg­re­ga­tion” of his youth, where white peo­ple would rou­tinely jump queues in shops and post of­fices be­cause they deemed their time more im­por­tant. Speak­ing to the Ob­server, he told of ar­riv­ing in Bel­gium in 1963 to study medicine, and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing not only the “trauma” of un­fa­mil­iar weather and food, but the “no-for­eign­ers” signs on apart­ment ad­verts and the open racism of univer­sity teach­ers.

“I’ve al­ways thought that pub­lic opin­ion does not know well the com­mon his­tory be­tween Bel­gium and Congo that was coloni­sa­tion,” he said.

An­other par­tic­i­pant, Tracy Tan­sia, whose par­ents came to Bel­gium as po­lit­i­cal refugees from what was then Zaire in the 1980s, de­scribed the se­ries as “ground-break­ing”, be­cause of the num­ber of black peo­ple on screen, and their crit­i­cism of a sys­tem many white Bel­gians “thought was nor­mal”.

Tan­sia, who is about to start a job with the UN, grew up in a small Flem­ish town in the 1990s where be­ing black was still un­usual. She colo­nial past are the be­gin­ning and end: the cru­elty and greed of Leopold II and the as­sas­si­na­tion of Lu­mumba. Less known is colo­nial life from when the Bel­gian state took over in 1908 to independence in 1960. The re­al­ity of racism, dire poverty and eco­nomic ex­ploita­tion was masked by fond rec­ol­lec­tions of white Bel­gians who had worked in the Congo.

“It was hid­den … by of­fi­cials, schools and the old colo­nials who re­turned to Bel­gium in the 1960s,” said Geneviève Ry­ck­mans, a for­mer Congo res­i­dent and a strong critic of the sys­tem. “The Bel­gians didn’t know what hap­pened in Congo. They knew there were schools and hos­pi­tals for every­one. They don’t know the Con­golese did not ac­cept to be sub­or­di­nate.”

On the 50th an­niver­sary of Congo’s independence, in 2010, Pro­fes­sor Ides­bald God­deeris re­called a del­uge of nos­tal­gic ar­ti­cles in the Flem­ish press, from mem­o­ries of colo­nial­ists to recre­ations of the voy­age down the Congo river of Henry Mor­ton Stan­ley, the Vic­to­rian ad­ven­turer who was funded by Leopold II. “The en­tire his­tory of Congo in Dutch has mostly been writ­ten by white peo­ple, es­pe­cially white men,” said God­deeris, a pro­fes­sor in post-colo­nial his­tory at the Univer­sity of Leu­ven.

While this is a Bel­gian story, mem­ory is frac­tured be­tween northern Flan­ders and the French-speak­ing south. In a sign of the con­stant lin­guis­tic di­vide, French pub­lic broad­caster RTBF de­clined to air the doc­u­men­tary. VRT has made it avail­able online with French sub­ti­tles to reach a wider au­di­ence. But God­deeris sug­gested that colo­nial nostal­gia was worse in Flan­ders: “Black peo­ple in the French-speak­ing part [of Bel­gium] have par­tic­i­pated in the de­bate, com­pared with the dom­i­nant white colo­nial­ist per­spec­tive in Flan­ders.”

A lack of good his­tory teach­ing is be­com­ing a per­sis­tent com­plaint, and ques­tions are be­ing asked about colo­nial-era mon­u­ments and street names. While Brus­sels now has a Place Pa­trice Lu­mumba, there are far more pub­lic places ded­i­cated to old colo­nial­ists. One of the cap­i­tal’s main boule­vards is named af­ter Général Jules Jacques, who when con­fronted with re­volt against rub­ber col­lec­tion vowed “ab­so­lute sub­mis­sion” or “com­plete ex­ter­mi­na­tion”. And at the heart of Brus­sels, close to the par­lia­ment build­ing, runs Rue des Colonies.

LEFTThe con­tro­ver­sial Leop­ard Man sculp­ture at the Africa Mu­seum in Brus­sels. AP

BE­LOW A colo­nial-era trad­ing card show­ing scenes from colo­nial Congo.

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