The controversial ‘Leopard Man’ sculpture at the Africa Museum. Photograph: Virginia Mayo/AP
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 “boys”.
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.
The Belgian Congo was a center for ivory hunting. Photograph: Getty Images
“I’ve always thought that public opinion does not know well the common history between Belgium and Congo that was colonization,” 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 works on gender and race equality issues, grew up in a small Flemish town in the 1990s where being black was still unusual. She remembers crying in her mother’s arms, aged four or five, after racist taunts by other children as well as the little boys and girls who flinched at holding her hand.
Belgian society has changed a lot since then, she thinks, from black girls proud to wear African print dresses, to the school prom, to the increasing visibility of black people on TV. However, she said the colonial past still casts a shadow over how black Belgians are treated today, pointing to the absence of them in decision-making roles. “A lot of people feel weird when a black person is in charge, and that is because of colonialism.”
The best-known chapters of Belgium’s 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 the hasty passage of 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. As 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 the revolt against rubber collection vowed “absolute submission” or “complete extermination”. And at the heart of Brussels, close to the seat of government and parliament building, runs Rue des Colonies.
Reign of terror
Up to 10 million people died under the rapacious rule of Leopold II. Photograph: W and D Downey/Getty Images
The Congo Free State, founded in 1885 as the personal fiefdom of Leopold II (pictured right) inspired Joseph Conrad’s imperial horror story, Heart of Darkness. Under Leopold’s rapacious rule, as many as 10 million people were killed, according to an estimate by historian Adam Hochschild.
The vast sums paid for monuments, museums, and palaces in Belgium were considered extreme, and growing public protest contributed to the Belgian state taking over the Congolese territory in 1908. During the first world war, Belgium gained the lands of Rwanda and Burundi. While the murderous cruelty was over, economic exploitation of Congolese mineral wealth carried on as before. When independence arrived in 1960, hopes soared with the election of charismatic Patrice Lumumba as Congo’s first democratically elected leader. He was assassinated in 1961 by Congolese rebels and Belgian army officers on the orders of the CIA, with the tacit support of Belgium.