Colonial ghosts haunt Belgium as Africa museum eyes change

BRUSSELS: At the entrance to Belgium’s Museum for Central Africa stands a giant golden statue of a European missionary with an African boy clutching his robes, along with a plaque that reads: “Belgium brings civilization to Congo.”

The statue and some of the exhibits inside anger many visitors for the way they portray African people and Belgium’s brutal colonial past.

Now Belgium wants to change that, at least a little. It is spending 66 million euro to modernize the museum, set in rolling gardens outside Brussels, and put a new face on the colonial experience.

The golden missionary will stay, as will many other symbols of local “savages,” including a statue of the “leopard man,” a native wearing a mask poised to attack his sleeping victim. The decisions about what to keep raise questions about the extent to which Belgium is facing up to its past even now, more than five decades since Congo won its independence.

Guido Gryseels, the museum’s director, says it’s a delicate balancing act.

“We will be very critical, but what we want to do is provide the elements to the visitor so that he can make up his own mind,” Gryseels said. “There are a lot of good things that happened too.

“What was realized in terms of infrastructure, roads, airports, ports, education, health facilities, research, is really quite incredible.”

Some reject that position outright. Belgium left just a few dozen Congolese university graduates and an economy built chiefly to supply the country with raw materials. Today, there is just 2,000 km of paved road in a nation the size of Western Europe.

Millions of Congolese are estimated to have died and the country was decimated between 1885 and 1908 after King Leopold II declared Congo his personal property.

The king’s troops were ordered to collect the hands of victims, often shot for resisting slave labor, to prove they had not wasted bullets. Leopold had even imported Congolese for a human zoo to show life in the country he never visited. Some, who died of influenza, are buried near the museum.

Adam Hochschild’s acclaimed 1998 book “King Leopold’s Ghost” describes the Belgian king’s unrestrained plunder of Congo. The author told Reuters he has been surprised at many Belgians’ ignorance of their colonial history.

Belgium may not be the power it once had been, but its citizens are among Europe’s richest. Much of that prosperity can be traced to imperial past, when the country stood among the globe’s most successful trading economies.

Over the first six decades of the 20th century, ivory, rubber, copper and diamonds all flowed from Africa to Belgium. The royal family’s wealth is reflected in its sprawling Versailles-modeled palace, extended by Leopold.

Unsurprisingly, the museum’s collection – from human corpses to stuffed elephants to the uranium used for the Hiroshima nuclear bomb – tells the story of Belgium as much as today’s Democratic Republic of Congo.

“Until 1960, thanks to Congo, Belgium was one of the most powerful states in the world,” said Gryseels. In “the colonial period ... Belgium was one of the superpowers. A lot of people feel nostalgic about the good old days.”

Joseph Ibongo, director of Kinshasa’s Congolese National Museum, said the poor state of his own institution, with an inventory roughly one tenth the size of that in Brussels, shows that the crimes of the period remain unresolved.

“We are still able to see ... the brutality of the colonial administration,” he said. “People had their hands cut off – can we honestly say these were the ‘good old days’? I don’t think so.”

In the more than half-century that Belgium ran Congo from 1908 to 1960, hundreds of thousands of Belgians worked there in everything from business to colonial administration.

Although links with Africa as a whole remain strong, with more than 700,000 air passengers traveling between Brussels and the continent last year, exports from Congo were little more than 280 million euros.

“Congo is a very emotional topic here in Belgium. There is not a single Belgian family that did not have a family member that worked in Congo,” Gryseels said.

Many Belgians resent the criticism of their colonial past although few are prepared to say so in public.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, one senior Belgian diplomat reflected the views of many of his compatriots when he said that he believed the controversy was being stirred up by the old colonial powers – notably Britain – to taint their smaller neighbor’s colonial success.

Ludo De Witte, the author of a book that exposed Belgian complicity in the murder of Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba, said it is an issue that Belgium’s political and business elite would rather sweep under the rug.

“If the Belgian elite represent something, it’s because of the role of Belgium in central Africa,” he said. “They want to keep it that way. They are still hoping for [global] influence, also economic, when conditions are okay. That’s why they prefer not to touch these difficult issues.”

Gryseels said that the revamped museum will place the exhibits in a fresh “context.”

“It’s walking a tightrope and you’ve got to go step by step,” Gryseels said.

“Don’t offend them too quickly with too much criticism that everything was bad.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 26, 2014, on page 16.




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