Friday, February 25, 2011

Dark Heart of Belgium

In 1885, a large amount of territory at the heart of Africa along the Congo River, heavily populated and featuring a wealth of natural resources but little explored by Westerners, was granted to the king of the small, neutral European nation of Belgium. The idea was allow free trade and not upset the balance of European power in Africa between Britain, France and Germany. King Leopold II would also "civilize" the inhabitants of the territory. Leopold brutally exploited the Congo Free State, leading to the death of millions. In 1908, international outcry about human rights violations caused Belgium's government to take away the personal possession of its king and administer what became known as the Belgian Congo directly. Leopold died in 1909 after 44 years in power. I hear Adam Hochschild's King Leopold's Ghost is a good account of the history of the Congo Free State, and it's on my to-read list.

Like 15 other African countries, the Congo became independent in 1960. King Baudouin visited Leopoldville to celebrate independence, but it wasn't an entirely friendly affair. His ceremonial sword was snatched upon his arrival. And the new prime minister Patrice Lumumba's speech was not exactly diplomatic: "For this independence of the Congo, even as it is celebrated today with Belgium, a friendly country with whom we deal as equal to equal, no Congolese worthy of the name will ever be able to forget that it was by fighting that it has been won, a day-to-day fight, an ardent and idealistic fight, a fight in which we were spared neither privation nor suffering, and for which we gave our strength and our blood. We are proud of this struggle, of tears, of fire, and of blood, to the depths of our being, for it was a noble and just struggle, and indispensable to put an end to the humiliating slavery which was imposed upon us by force." Western press was outraged, as this contemporary piece from The Guardian attests. Lumumba lasted in office for less than three months in independent Congo, deposed in a coup and murdered several months later, by Congolese opponents but with the complicity of the CIA and and Belgium.

Congo's history of tragedy has continued. Belgium has been less involved, though it gives more foreign aid to its former colony than anywhere else, and there is a fair-sized Congolese population in Brussels. I often walk through the neighborhood of Matonge, named after a part of Kinshasa and lined with African restaurants and shops, on my walk home from work.

Last week, I took the tram from Brussels to the nearby town of Tervuren, where the Royal Museum of Central Africa is housed on an extensive campus near the woods. A series of wooden elephants greet you as you walk up to the doors of the massive building.
Inside a domed foyer featuring several golden statues, my eyes were drawn first to the one on my left. A bearded figure who seemed to be Leopold comforted a Congolese child. "Belgium brings civilization to the Congo," the inscription read. In another, a golden woman "brought charity to the Congo." In another, a turbaned Arab mistreated a naked Congolese woman, representing slavery, which Belgium "ended."

The museum is one of the most interesting I've ever visited in many ways. It is a treasure trove of ethnographic artifacts like masks and statues and preserved specimens of central Africa's rich biodiversity, mammals, giant birds, giant insects. But the historical element is most fascinating, and troubling. Famous for being slow to change from a proud moment to colonial adventure of particular infamy, the RMCA now does confront the dark side of Belgians in the Congo. But barely. In the least revised room, a tall statue of Leopold stands in one corner, a leopard murder cult figure stands over a sleeping man he is about to kill, and all of the Belgians killed in service in the Congo are listed in two large placards on the wall. Henry Morton Stanley, the famous explorer of "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" fame who helped Leopold open the Congo for business, gets a mostly valedictory treatment. Leopold does not come out looking good from an exhibit on the history of the colony, I believe based on a "history-confronting" exhibition from several years ago (Hochschild, for one, was not impressed), but details of atrocities are largely left out. The independence moment is well-covered, in a fairly neutral tone, noting Lumumba's dissonance in the otherwise friendly handover of power. You can listen to a recording of the catchy "Independence Cha Cha." It doesn't say what happened to Lumumba, or the Congo, next.

A young woman grabbed us on our way out to poll us about what we thought about the museum. I like this initiative, which I've never seen before from a museum. The animals and masks are great for kids - that is what would have really fascinated a 12-year-old me. But the history exhibit needs some work. There's something unique at the RMCA - I would not tear down the statues, it presents the way things were in a way that is quite illuminating. Just do a much better job of truly delving into Belgium's heart of darkness.


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