The Belgian Congo

So here I am in Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium, first step on a trajectory that will hopefully bring me into contact with some wonderful people and set me up to go back to Africa again. It already has, to some extent– more on that in a minute.

When I first arrived in Europe I was supposed to stay in Paris with some teammates from the radio show at ULaval, but one got a job offer out of town and the other two had to move house, so I landed in Paris and just went straight on to Brussels. 

My first full day there I went to the Royal Museum for Central Africa in the Brussels suburb of Tervuren. It’s a huge neoclassical beast of a building (like a lot of Belgian public architecture, it would seem) and quite a lot has been written about its flawed outlook on the region. Several rooms of dusty glass cases of early 20th-century headdresses and fishing implements on one side provide symmetry for several rooms of preserved birds and monkeys on the other– when this place was built, the people of Africa were seen less as our fellow humans than as another object for study, like parrots and butterflies. I have even read that in the 1920s, families were brought from Congo and put on display in a glassed-off area, in a reconstituted village, with a sign saying “Please do not feed the tribesmen, we feed them very well!”

Looking at the snow falling softly outside, I started to spin a short story about what must have been going on in these people’s heads. What was life like for a jungle-dwelling Congolese family hauled off to live in a Belgian fish tank? How did they arrive– by plane, by ship? Either way it must have been terrifying. What did they wear? The importation of slaves was banned almost everywhere by 1900, so did these people volunteer themselves? Were they compensated? Or, despite everything, were they forcibly taken? What did they eat? What religion did they practice? Did they pick up any words of French or Flemish? Was there ever anything enjoyable about being gawked at, a moment of lightness, a moment of connection? Did they stay until they died, and if not, what happened when their period of exhibition was over?  Was any of them able to transcend the glass barrier and communicate with a “keeper” or a spectator, bring about some acknowledgement of their common humanity?

I don’t think we’ll ever know. The evidence would indicate that Brussels’ concern for these people’s well-being was purely biological, like that for the live spiders that the museum is hosting for its current travelling exhibit. 

Besides the preserved animals, the live spiders, a giant dugout canoe and some dusty necklaces and sculptures, there is a three-room history section, with Belgians and Congolese discussing the negative and positive (!) aspects of the colonial period. The basically genocidal nature of forced rubber harvesting during the early Belgian period is mentioned only briefly, through the words of outraged Belgian officials who apparently had no idea what was going on and spent a lot of time wringing their hands. “Congo would be a veritable earthly paradise if the laws were half respected!” Well, as is well-documented, they weren’t, and these worthy people sat on their hands.  The history section stops at independence, mentioning the name Patrice Lumumba only once: as a firebrand who broke protocol on the day of independence by delivering a speech on past abuses that upset the king. Mobutu’s name does not come up, nor do the names of any of the independence actors in Rwanda or Burundi. Rwanda and Burundi are barely mentioned at all in the museum, except in two small vitrines on ethnomusicology.

The museum has recognized that their present exhibits “are not in line with modern scholarship” on the region, and they plan to close in summer of this year and redo the whole place. In order to humanize it somewhat in the meantime, an exhibit on the Congo river has been added that features a few present-day Congolese small-business owners who depend on the river talking about their daily lives. A few paintings by expatriate Belgian-Congolese artists have been added, including one that shows a group of expats hauling away the museum’s most controversial sculpture– by a white artist, it shows a young member of a Congolese secret society performing ritual murder, and is still in the museum–before the eyes of shocked white museum staff. There’s another vibrant painting of a summer day on a restaurant terrasse in Matongé, Brussels’ African neighbourhood. 

Except for the paintings and the river videos–and videos of Congolese and Belgian doctoral students on a biology research mission–the postcolonial history of the region is not even touched. 

It’s delicate to discuss Belgian-perpetrated human rights abuses, no matter how long ago they occurred, in a museum visited by thousands of Belgian schoolchildren and their school-age African immigrant friends–just look at the bomb that relatively frank discussion of segregation and Jim Crow throws into integrated American classrooms like the ones I was in. It’s difficult to historically examine something as morally dubious as colonialism, and not cause offense, while so many of those who played a part in it are still alive. Many of the Belgian colonists honestly thought they were doing a good thing for humanity, some (such as doctors) did– but others really, really messed things up. 

It’s complicated to discuss how Lumumba became Lumumba, who he was, that he had played the Belgian game and grown disillusioned, his socialist beliefs and the American and Belgian involvement in the coup deposing him and his execution, without disparaging Belgium. It’s complicated to discuss how the coup led to the rise to power of the repugnant embezzler Mobutu, who bled Congo dry for thirty years despite being propped up by Western governments. 

It’s especially disturbing to talk about the events of the last few decades in Rwanda. It requires admitting that the Belgians tried to ease Rwanda into independence and bungled it, that Belgian policy declared who was Hutu and who was Tutsi. It would mean tossing around names like Kayibanda and Habyarimana, showing pictures of riots and dead bodies,  explaining how the Hutu supremacist governments came to power, how Rwandan policy before the genocide created an angry diaspora of Tutsi holed up in surrounding countries…who marched in under the command of Paul Kagame as the genocide was burning out, to take over Rwanda as it destroyed itself. How Rwandan-backed rebels deposed the sick Mobutu and his demoralized army and set up Laurent Kabila, how Rwanda is now backing a rebel group to destabilize Kabila’s son’s government in the name of their own economic interests…

But all that is too complicated. So Lumumba, practically canonized by the left wing in Africa and elsewhere, makes a cameo appearance, commits a diplomatic faux-pas and walks offstage to the sound of 1960s-era Congolese jazz recordings. And Mobutu? Let’s not even touch that. The current battle over influence and minerals in the country is way too dynamic.

It’s complicated, and I understand those who say that the post-independence era is not really the museum’s sphere, some might say looking at the late 20th century in Rwanda should be left to the Gisozi Genocide Memorial in Kigali, and in Burundi and Congo to books few people read, written by people with their own agendas. You will find few people more polarizing than Patrice Lumumba, except for perhaps Paul Kagame— while many people lionize the Rwandan president, others are afraid of him; Jean-Charles used to work in Rwanda and said he would cross the border to Burundi on weekends to “be able to breathe freely” and one of my Rwandan neighbours says the political climate is as dangerous there now as at any time since the war.

It’s complicated…you risk offending Belgians as well as expats on both sides of a handful of political divides, you open yourself up to allegations of racism from both blacks and whites. But cutting the story off in the middle is the worst kind of cop-out. The current museum presents readers with a sort of fossilized, preserved Congo, frozen in time like a 50-year-old snake in formaldehyde (and there was no shortage of those). It gives almost no insight into the dynamic and troubled region where Congolese, Burundians and Rwandans live today, it does next to nothing to answer the questions which I sincerely believe people are asking: “How do these people really live, now?” and “Where did it all go so wrong?”   I’m very much looking forward to the renovations, to see if the Belgian museologists do the courageous thing and attempt to shed light on either of these questions.      

Postscript: If what I have just said leaves you bewildered (or curious) you might want to consult the following books: In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz by Michela Wrong, King Leopold’s Ghosts by Adam Hochschild, We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow we will be Killed with our Families by Philip Gourevitch, and certain chapters of The Shadow of the Sun and The Soccer War by Ryszard Kapuscinski. If you’re really interested, check out certain chapters of Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles by Richard Dowden and read Shake Hands with the Devil by Roméo Dallaire. 

Adam Hochschild

Michela Wrong

Roméo Dallaire

About msmarguerite

Young Quebec City-based freelance journalist. once and future nomad. I blog about life, about travel, about things I notice and every so often about work. I enjoy language learning, singing, swing dancing, skating and...other stuff, sometimes. My heart is somewhere in East Africa, Haiti or Eastern Europe. English, français, русский, malo slovensko, un poco de espanol, um pouco de português ndiga ikirundi, mwen ap aprann kreyòl...
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