February 23, 2004

Congo under the new regime

This is the last part of the history of Congo before returning to Grandpa's biography, with its more first person account of life in Africa. The other parts can be read by following the links to Part I, Part II, and Part III. If you want to read the whole serialisation of Grandpa's autobiography, you can go to this page. This post covers the period from the Berlin Conference to 1953, when Grandpa received an offer to go to the Belgian Congo as a missionary and a teacher.

Update 24 February: I posted this late last night, and I'm fixing its many textual flaws. I've also added a few more pictures and a bit of text. So, if you read it before, I invite you to reread it.

The No. 44 tram line in Brussels runs from Montgomery metro station, near the Parc du Cinquantenaire and the EU quarter in central Brussels, eastwards along Avenue de Tervueren/Tervurenlaan, passing roughly 300m from my front door. From there it continues out beyond the limits of the Brussels capital region into the Flemish suburb of Tervuren. The end of the line is adjacent to the Park van Tervuren, a large green space in the eastern suburbs and the point where Tervurenlaan becomes Leuvensesteenweg/Chaussée de Louvain. Although the line has been rebuilt in many places, powered trams have run from the Parc du Cinquantenaire to the Park van Tervuren since 1897. The line and both parks were built at the same time: to house the 1897 Exposition Internationale de Bruxelles and to shuttle visitors between the two sites.

"World's Fairs" were all the rage in those days. From 1870 to the beginning of WWI, there were usually several every year in different parts of the world. They served several functions. In the days before film - much less TV - they gave people of all social classes a taste of just how big and how diverse the world was. There was also a significant economic function. By offering people access to truly novel items, entrepreneurs could gauge whether or not there was a real market for them. Bananas, for example, first appeared on the American market at a world's fair, as did ice cream cones. They were also tourist attractions, and like the Olympics could raise the profile of a city or a country in search of new investment. Furthermore, since the pavilions at world's fairs were generally sponsored by national governments, they were a way for whole countries to advertise themselves and the investment opportunities in their lands. Sometimes, they even became cultural icons. The Eiffel Tower was originally a temporary structure built for the 1889 Paris World's Fair.

Nowadays, world's fairs are relatively minor and are far more subdued affairs. TV, cheap air travel, immigration and inexpensive shipping have killed the needs that it once met. If you want to see what distant lands have to offer, you have only to go to an ethnic grocer or a speciality store at the mall. If you're a real purist who demands more authenticity and originality than franchising can offer, you can always get on a plane and go.

Since 1928, official world's fairs have been designated by the Bureau International des Expositions, a Paris-based treaty organisation modelled after the International Olympic Committee. The 1940 New York World's Fair and the 1967 Montreal Exposition are the only post-WWI world's fairs that seem to have entered our cultural consciousness. The 1984 Knoxville World's Fair was quickly forgotten despite the enormous publicity it had at the time. World's fairs tend to be called expos these days, and the words "World's Fair" now have a very old world feel to them. Rostock, Germany held the last one in 2003, but apparently no one knew. Aichi, Japan is doing one in 2005. Shanghai is having an expo in 2010 that is rumoured to be a big deal.

Art Nouveau advertisements for the Exposition International de Bruxelles.
One in Dutch, and a more readable but less colourful image of one in French.

Back then any excuse, any anniversary of significance, could serve as a justification for a world's fair, and the 1897 Brussels fair was no exception. It commemorated the Livingstone/Stanley expedition of 20 years earlier and the beginning of Leopold II's African ambitions. The fair received just under 8 million visits and had official pavilions from 27 countries, including, of course, Leopold's own Congo Free State. In would not be entirely inaccurate to say that the whole fair was constructed to raise the profile of Leopold's African fiefdom and get some good publicity for it, like a start-up with a booth at Comdex.

So the colonial exposition was lavish, concentrating on the civilising mission of the colonisers. The published accounts speak very highly of it:

En pénétrant dans le Palais renfermant l'Exposition de l'Etat indépendant du Congo, on se trouve immédiatement dans le salon d'honneur réservé aux oeuvres d'art. La décoration est de P. de Rudder, les tapisseries de Hélène de Rudder. Elles représentent la Barbarie, la Civilisation, l'Esclavage, la Liberté, la Polygamie, la Famille, le Fétichisme, le Christianisme. [...]

Quiconque a visité l'Exposition de Bruxelles a constaté l'éclatant succès de la section coloniale de Tervueren, aménagée avec un goût, un raffinement de recherche et de grâce, un sentiment du décor qu'on n'avait jamais apporté nulle part en pareille entreprise. C'était un enchantement.

Dans un palais élevé au milieu d'un cadre somptueux de verdure, parmi les arbres séculaires d'un parc royal et près des eaux sommeillantes d'un étang, le gouvernement belge avait réuni toutes les productions de l'Etat du Congo dont il poursuit, on sait avec quelle activité, la colonisation. Il est impossible d'imaginer plus d'ingéniosité et de fantaisie, plus d'adresse et de piquante virtuosité dans la réclame. Appeler l'art à son aide pour faire pénétrer chez un peuple l'amour d'une colonie pour faire connaître ses richesses naturelles, donner l'envie d'avoir recours à ses minerais, à ses bois, certes, voilà qui n'est pas banal.

Upon entering the palace which contains the Congo Free State exposition, you come into the salon d'honneur reserved for artwork. The decorations are the work of P. De Rudder and the tapestry by Hélène de Rudder. They represent Barbarism, Civilisation, Slavery, Freedom, Polygamy, Family, Fetishism and Christianity. [...]

Everyone who has visited the Brussels Fair talks about the explosive success of the colonial exhibits in Tervuren: tastefully decorated with grace, a careful sense of refinement, and a sense of interior design unmatched by any similar enterprise anywhere. It is enchanting.

In a raised palace framed by sumptuous greenery, amid the century-old trees of a royal park near the restful waters of a pond, the Belgian government has brought together all the displays of the Congo State, where it is pursuing, with great energy, a programme of colonisation. It is impossible to imagine more ingenuity or imagination, greater deftness or titillating mastery in that venture's publicisation. Calling upon the arts to help install within a people the love of a colony by making known its natural wealth and creating a desire to use its minerals, its woods - certainly that is not banal.

From Le Livre des Expositions universelles 1851-1989

The last sentence puts me in mind of Norman Geras' recent discussion of Hannah Arendt. Evil can be banal, but it can also be flashy and artfully packaged.

The colonial exhibits included three simulacra of Congolese villages inhabited by 300 real Africans, who were intended to give it some authenticity. They sang, they danced, they held mock battles, they wore their tribal garb. By modern standards, it would have been considered beyond merely politically incorrect and well into deeply tasteless and demeaning. Even then, it had its critics.

Viewed as somewhat less than human, the African contingent lived in the royal stables at Tervuren. They were blocked from any direct contact with other Belgians as a matter of "public health." Seven of them died of influenza - showing just whose health was at risk - and another eight ran away. Considering that they were treated like zoo animals in what was for them a very harsh climate, it's hardly surprising. Their dead were even refused burial in cemeteries, getting temporary interment in the woods between Tervuren and Brussels. A decade later, they were finally given coffins and properly buried at Sint-Jan-Evangelist church in Tervuren. The survivors were sent back to Congo.

The colonial exhibition was designed to promote the acceptance of colonialism as an altruistic venture by the Belgian public. Leopold had, after all, gotten into this business through humanitarian ventures. The natives were - according to the exhibition - being Christianised and educated, were producing useful products and being raised to European civilisation.

It was necessary to make those claims precisely because they were complete nonsense and because by 1897, quite a few people knew that they were nonsense. The Big Lie was not an Orwellian invention - turning falsehood into truth by repetition was already a well known public relations strategy in the 1890's.

The grounds which housed the colonial exhibits in 1897 were later donated to the Belgian government by Leopold, along with the exhibits themselves and a substantial endowment, to be maintained as a museum and a research institute for central African studies. Thus, the Musée du Congo was born.

More than a century and several regime changes later, the facility is now the Musée Royal de l'Afrique Centrale / Koninklijk Museum voor Midden-Afrika. To avoid language issues as a primarily francophone and nominally royal institution in what is now the Flemish side of bilingual Belgium, it has rebaptised itself unofficially with the rather uninspiring English name of the Africa Museum.

The Africa Museum

Considering the history and grandeur linked to this facility, as well as the quantity of genuinely significant research to have come out of it over the years, I was deeply disappointed by what I saw: old exhibits and displays, with little sense of history or ethnography. Most modern museums place a lot more emphasis on educational value and on imparting a narrative of some sort, but the Africa Museum is still trapped by its roots as a place where people can come and gawk at strange things. It is not a place where you can learn much about Africa.

It has some cool stuff. There are stuffed carcasses of animals that you can't even legally hunt anymore. Time, however, has taken its toll on them, and fake animals often look better than these real ones. It has an incredible insect collection, and a giant - 20 metres long - canoe carved out of a single tree. Oddly, one room with an immense and interesting map of colonial central Africa painted on the wall has been partitioned so that you can't even see it. Instead, the room houses a truly boring 70's era exhibition on African agriculture.

Stranger still is the extensive collection of memorabilia of Henry Morton Stanley. Stanley is treated with an odd coldness. Unwilling to hold him up either as a hero or as a villain, the exhibits related to his life seemed to me to have been neglected, as if every generation of custodian wanted to dodge the whole issue of the museum's - and Belgium's - dubious history and leave the mess for his successor.

The research output of the institute at Tervuren, however, remains significant. The bus I take home from work stops in front of it every day, and a contingent of African researchers gets on. The museum, however, is regrettably neglected. For anyone reading this looking for tourism advice, it's not a big enough museum to spend a day in or interesting enough to go out of your way for.

[N.B.: David Frazer in the comments points out that the museum has a renovation plan that seems designed to address my criticisms of it.]

The white man in the eyes of a Congolese artist

Leopold and Belgium's role in Africa has been rehashed in recent years, particularly following the publication of Adam Hochschild's book King Leopold's Ghost. This is in part due to the current catastrophic state of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Although the Congo Free State was not ruled by Belgium, it was certainly ruled with Belgium's consent. Upon its establishment, the Belgian parliament voted 5 million francs to it, to assist Leopold in setting up the administration, and 2 million francs a year thereafter. Leopold quickly set up a temporary capital for the new nation in Boma which, near the mouth of the Congo river, was the nation's only ocean harbour. From there, the administration spread inward. The first task was constructing a railroad from the navigable lower part of the Congo river inland to a new city: Leopoldville. Leopoldville was the first navigable port on the Congo river after the waterfalls and rapids on the lower Congo. Without this essential link, economic development in the interior was out of the question.

Railroad sign for Leopoldville

Leopold quickly abolished slavery across as much of the territory as he could, but instead of sending the newly freed men back where they came from, he put them to work on the railroad. The railroad was built using manual labour drawn in from all parts of the Congo and this influx of new people into the lower Congo had linguistic consequences. The Kikongo language - the dominant tongue of the old Kongo state and still the main language in the area - is a tonal language, as are many Bantu languages. The railroad workers and the white administrators brought in to oversee the project were mostly unable to speak it. A sort of pidgin Kikongo developed, dropping the tones and much of the complicated morphology of Kikongo. In the past, this language was known as "simplified Kongo" or as "rockbreaker Kongo" - a reference to its roots among the railway workers. Nowadays, it is called Kituba in Congo-Kinshasa and Munukutuba in Congo-Brazzaville. Kituba is the main vehicular language in the lower Congo on both banks of the river and in Bandundu province. It now has official language status in both Congo-Kinshasa and Congo-Brazzaville.

A Congolese student in one of my classes here in Belgium tells me that in recent years, it has lost some ground. Kituba is increasingly a language of older people in Bandundu, as young people in Congo-Kinshasa prefer Lingala or French. On the other side of the river, the Lâri dialect of Kikongo is growing in prestige and replacing the vehicular language in many areas, in part because it is associated with the opposition in Congo-Brazzaville, but also because there is a great deal of popular music produced in Lâri Kikongo. Where French has always prided itself on its written literature, in Africa a language is considered culturally important because of the music made with it.

Kituba/Munukutuba currently has some five or six million speakers in both Congos, and may be comprehensible to millions of Kikongo speakers in Angola. This phenomenon of vehicular languages is not unique to Africa, but it has become quite important there. There will be some more discussion of it in a future post.

Leopold's humanitarian principles - for which there is still some debate as to whether or not they were sincerely held - were quickly compromised by realities on the ground. Arab and east African traders had entered the Congo basin in the 1870's from what is now Sudan, Uganda and Tanzania and were engaged in a new slave trade. Leopold, barely in control of the western end of the basin, had to accept their de facto leadership and granted the most powerful of the slavers, Tippo Tip (a.k.a Hamed ben Mohammed - a Zanzibarian merchant), governorship of the eastern part of the country. In 1894, unwilling to support anything less than a monopoly over the basin, Leopold went to war with Tippo Tip. The 1890's saw a series of rebellions against the increasingly harsh rule of the Europeans, and Leopold did not fully control the country until the late 1890's.

The early years of the Congo Free State look a good deal like those of a failed dot-com. During its first decade, the Compagnie du Congo, the business apparatus that was the real instrument of Leopold's control, was unable to turn a profit. Then, in 1894, it turned a very small operating profit. In 1895, there was another loss, but in 1896 there was a significant profit - some three million francs. By 1902, profits were over 30 million francs and rising. The Congo Free State was becoming the exception to the rule. Where other colonies were hopeless drains on their national economies, Congo was making money hand over fist.

Leopold had found a product able to turn his fortunes around: rubber.

Rubber was not an entirely new thing. The chemical used to make rubber - latex - is naturally produced by a wide variety of plants, including the common dandelion. However, there is a plant native to South America, Hevea Brasiliensis, that produces latex in large quantities and can be harvested without killing the plant itself. Aboriginal Americans were well aware of latex and the Aztecs were already making rubber balls for games when the Spanish arrived. The natives called this magic substance cahuchu, which was borrowed into French as caoutchouc. (The Littré apparently claims the word is of Carib origin, placing it's discovery by Europeans on the Guyanese or Venezuelan coast of South America.) The Conquistadors believed the balls to be demonic and never investigated their properties.

The 19th century, however, was a more rational age, and rubber was used in a variety of industrial and household products in the Victorian era. In the 1870's, British botanists at the Royal Botanical (Kew) Gardens successfully bred economically viable rubber trees and transplanted them to Malaysia and Ceylon. Latex had proven useful in a variety of applications. British traders and explorers - the only Europeans with regular access to pencils in the 18th century - noticed early on that latex could remove graphite marks from paper. As a result, the word rubber in British English still designates what Americans call an eraser. Americans received their first introduction to latex through a different but no less important application, as their vocabulary also attests.

But what was really driving the rubber trade was the growing automobile industry and its enormous demand for rubber tires. By the 1890's there were already annual automobile shows in major cities across Europe and America, and the 1897 Brussels Exposition had a large pavilion dedicated to "automobilisme". Congo's climate was well suited to rubber production.

Leopold had originally only shipped copper and ivory out of Congo, but in the early 1890's he set about developing Congo's potential for growing rubber. First, he declared that native title in land was limited to grounds in active use. For him, that meant villages and land with crops growing on it. The rest of Congo - virtually all of the country - was declared to be his personal property, and any unauthorised activity on it was illegal. This land was then turned to raising rubber.

Rubber, like the sugar which drove Portuguese slavery, is a very labour intensive crop. The way it is grown and harvested has not meaningfully changed in the last century. The only real change is that roughly half of the world's rubber needs are now met by synthetic substitutes. The trade wars and embargos of the 1930's, along with the capture of most of Britain's rubber-growing colonies in WWII and the general difficulties maintaining ocean trade in the war, motivated a lot of chemical engineers to turn to the problem of synthesising rubber. There are no longer very many products which require natural latex, and large rubber plantations would probably disappear from the world completely if labour costs in rubber growing countries rose to the levels of Latin America. South America, home of the rubber tree, no longer produces any commercially significant quantity of latex.

But, in those days, there was no substitute. Leopold, having seized nearly all of the land in the Congo basin, proceded to hand it out, in the form of concessions, to investors. Leopold then decided that since Congo was a country, the natives should pay for all the government services he wasn't giving them. Africans, lacking any money to pay taxes, had to make payment in the form of corvée. They were compelled, at gunpoint, to work in the rubber plantations on the lands around their own villages without any compensation. Each Congolese household had a monthly quota of rubber to meet, and failure to reach the quota could mean that a family was taken hostage or killed.

The Congo Free State, despite its burgeoning revenue, was deeply in debt to the Belgian state. This seems to have been Leopold's plan all along: that he would force the Belgian government to take on the colony through growing debts. A large part of the Compagnie du Congo's profits were diverted directly to Leopold. Leopold drove his private investors into bankrupcy one by one, taking a larger and larger share of the company's assets himself. Promises of free trade, made at Berlin in 1885, were quickly forgotten and Congo became closed to anyone not attached to the administration. Rubber was a hot commodity all over the world, and Leopold's quotas increased steadily.

Of course, eventually the quotas reached a point where they were impossible to meet. Leopold's interests were operated through middlemen - Africans who had become foremen on Leopold's giant plantation and Europeans to oversee them. For the Europeans, a failure to meet the quota meant losing their cushy jobs and going back to wherever they came from. For the Africans, it might have meant joining their charges. The only way to keep your position was to show that you had done everything possible, used every form of coercion, to meet the quota. That included using random violence to squeeze as much work as possible from the natives. Any failure to reach the impossible quotas had to be accompanied by proof that you had killed enough Africans to show that you had tried. And by proof, they meant body parts, particularly hands. Under Congo's perverse incentive scheme, a sufficient number of hands could be accepted in lieu of an absent quantity of rubber.

Despite the virtually North Korean isolation of the colony, word did begin to leak out of the atrocities taking place there. In Britain and America, and later elsewhere in Europe, something new in the history of politics started to take place. Intellectuals, writers, media figures of various kinds, started a campaign to end the horrors being visited on the people of Congo. The Congo Reform Movement is well documented at this website. They counted among their members Joseph Conrad, author of The Heart of Darkness, Mark Twain and Arthur Conan Doyle. Before movie stars, this was as close to celebrity as anyone.

We are all quite used to such movements. Indeed, by now it has become cliché. The South African boycott, already over ten years in the past, has made that sort of thing commonplace. When MTV starts airing ads on behalf of Aung San Suu Kyi, when Hollywood figures speak out against the occupation of the West Bank, when best-selling novelists pen op-eds against sweatshops in southeast Asia, we hardly bat an eyelash. Well, in 1897, it was unheard of. The Congo Reform Movement was the forerunner of all those media driven campaigns.

By the time of the 1897 Brussels Exposition, the situation in the Congo Free State was already receiving publicity in London and New York. Leopold was angry and the Belgian government was forced to defend their king in the public media over his behaviour in a distant colony that they didn't want anything to do with. Had it just been the British and American press, Leopold might well have kept his colony until his death. This sort of celebrity media campaign was wholly new territory, and there was no precedent for him to use in responding. He and his agents at first denied all the charges, and then claimed that the British and American governments were plotting to take the Congo for themselves. It might all have worked. At the turn of the century, much of the world's media ran on the kinds of principles that Fox News has been resuscitating in recent years. The King says so, and long live the King.

But, new technology often has unexpected consequences. Leopold had never considered what effect the Kodak camera - portable, durable and easy to hide - was going to have on his closed regime. As photo evidence emerged, the level of cruelty became impossible to ignore. In 1905, the Belgian parliament established a committee to investigate what was going on in the Congo Free State. Finally bending to extraordinary international pressure, it did exactly what Leopold had sought for it to do. Belgium annexed the Congo Free State on November 15, 1908.

Proclamation of Belgian rule over the Congo, on display at the Africa Museum

J'ai l'honneur de faire savoir au personnel de l'Etat Indépendant du Congo, à tous les Résidents non-indigènes de races européenne et de couleur, et à tous les Nationaux Congolais QU'A PARTIR DU 15 NOVEMBRE 1908, la Belgique assume la souveraineté sur les territories composant l'Etat Indépendant du Congo.

Boma, le 16 Novembre 1908,
Pour le Vice-Gouvereur-Général absent,
L'Inspecteur d'Etat,


I have the honour of informing the staff of the Congo Free State, all non-indigenous residents of European and coloured race, and all Congolese nationals THAT FROM THE 15TH OF NOVEMBER 1908, Belgium is assuming sovereignty over the territories composing the Congo Free State.

Boma, 16 November 1908
On behalf of the Vice Governor General in his absence,
State Inspector,

Stanley's original estimate of 40 million people in the Congo basin is considered somewhat exaggerated. Figures between 20 and 30 million were and as far as I know still are considered reasonable estimates of the 1880 population of the Congo basin. A 1911 census - never published in Belgium but publicly circulated in Britain - recorded a population of under 8 million. How many were killed by Leopold's foremen, how many died of starvation and disease and how much the harsh conditions lowered the birth rate is hard to tell. Estimates of those killed by state-sanctioned violence run as high as 10 million, few are lower than 5 million. If we measure genocide by the percentage reduction in population (which, frankly, isn't a very good measure), Leopold far outdistances Hitler, Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot as the number one political killer of modern times.

Unlike any of the other great killers of the industrial age, Leopold did it not for ideology or for his country. He did it in response to market forces. If people hadn't been willing to freely buy his rubber, Congo would have folded up long before the worst of the brutality. This would probably have left France in charge - hardly the same as liberation, but the formerly French Congo is still prosperous and peaceful by comparison to the formerly Belgian Congo. Leopold is also the model of the modern kleptocrat. He took everything he could from Congo to enrich himself. Mobutu Sese Seko was only following in the well trodden foot-steps of his white predecessor. Stalin and Leopold may both have named cities after themselves, but even Stalin had better excuses for his crimes than Leopold II.

Considering how badly Congo has been served by the labour intensive industries where it ought to enjoy competitive advantage, by participation in international commodity markets, by international efforts to reinforce human rights and by the humanitarian gestures of the developed world, it should hardly be a surprise when people in Congo have no faith in free trade, foreign investment or in humanitarian intervention. Every time I see someone from Congo interviewed on TV - usually following some disaster, massacre or rebellion - it is a wonder to me how he or she doesn't look into the camera and tell the rest of the world to fuck off.

Leopold II died December 17th, 1909. He had four children, but the only boy died at the age of ten. Belgium, as a Salic Law state, gave the throne to Leopold's nephew Albert.

The Belgian Congo was another money sink. Belgium never recovered the money given to Leopold.

Belgian rule was a kinder, gentler sort of tyranny. The corvée system was abolished in 1912. The brutality of the police was curbed but never disappeared. The new administration's thinking was characterised by Pierre Ryckmans - the colony's governor from 1934 to 1946 - as "dominer pour servir", dominate in order to serve. Belgium took up, half-heartedly, Leopold's original stated intent to raise the colony to European civilisation.

It was a paternalistic mandate, one which envisioned Congo as a child who needed the stern but loving rule of a good father. The subtext - never expressly stated - was that Congo was an abused child that had been beaten by its previous guardian. Unfortunately, where Congo's new father was not the cruel beast the old father had been, he was still too negligent to be allowed the care of a fragile country. The Belgian regime tried to develop the country's mineral resources, but every year more was spent on the colony than was earned. Roads and railways were built, but Leopold had eviscerated the aboriginal economy. New development translated poorly into changes in local standards of living.

At no time during Belgium's rule over the Congo basin, did it ever occur to them to rebuild the aboriginal economy. One of the things I remember my Grandpa telling me about Congo was that native economic activity had been ruined by Leopold, and that even in the 50's people lived as much on the crumbs of the Belgian administration and the few European run industries as by their own productivity. Instead, the emphasis was always on projects designed for export markets. The Belgian Congo was an early - and failed - experiment in export driven economic development. Nor was there any serious effort to turn administration over to the Congolese themselves at any level. Very little was spent on native education. What schooling the natives did get mostly came from missionary schools. As a result, Congo never fully recovered from Leopold II.

Belgium - like a good paternalistic father - ensured adequate religious education for its ward. In 1912, Belgium had dismantled enough of Leopold's apparatus of terror to allow outsiders back in. Catholic missionaries, who were very restricted under the Free State, became very active across the country. Belgium was - and still is - a nominally Catholic state. Protestant missionaries were tolerated, but received none of the assistance or subsidies that Catholic missions got.

It is here that the Mennonites enter the history of Congo. The Fellowship of Evangelical Churches - sometimes known as the "Egly Amish" - had started in the aftermath of the American Civil War as a revival movement among Indiana Amish. This group separated from the mainstream of Amish society, becoming a prostelysing, conservative church. They abandoned the fetishes of Amish life - strict dress codes and the refusal of modern technologies - and became a small Mennonite sect.

The first Mennonite missions to Congo came from within this group of Amish refuseniks, who at the time numbered under 4000.

They were not the first Protestants to go to Congo. The Presbyterians had established a tenuous foothold during the Free State period. But the Egly Amish did something novel at the time. They reached out to other Mennonite churches and formed the interdenominational Congo Inland Mission. Nowadays, Mennonite interdenominationalism is fairly commonplace, but the CIM - established eight years before the more general Mennonite Central Committee's founding in 1920 - was the first of its kind. The CIM built a mission in western Kasaï in 1912 and expanded, slowly, into the neighbouring areas. Unlike the Catholics, they preached in the local languages of the Congo, initially refusing to use even trade languages like Kituba and Tshiluba.

Aaron and Ernestine Janzen - a Mennonite Brethren couple from Mountain Lake, Minnesota - went to Africa with the first wave of CIM missionaries. In 1920, they moved to Kafumba - a village in the vicinity of Kikwit in Bandundu province, near what had been the eastern border of the ancient Kongo kingdom - to establish a new mission there. Grandpa was a member of the Mennonite Brethren church, so it is this mission that he applied to go to.

The Congo Inland Mission is now the Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission. Nowadays, the Mennonite churches in Congo are confessionally independent of the churches in North America, and have been for the most part since the 1970's. Francophone Africa - and Congo in particular - is now the home of a large part of the global Mennonite population. The Democratic Republic of Congo alone counts some 200,000 Mennonites today. Unlike the Belgians, the Mennonites prepared their local recruits to take care of themselves. The African churches send missionaries to North America these days.

By the end of WWII, the United Nations and the United States were pressuring Europe's colonial powers for change. Belgium had changed. The German economic miracle and the decline in the European coal and steel industry represented a shift in power in the tiny nation. Flemish nationalism, the conflict over Leopold III's collaboration with the Nazis and the schools issue that was to cause so much trouble in the late 50's were shaking this legendarily dull country to its core. Having a money-losing colony in Africa was just one more problem that the kingdom didn't need. Belgium began to discuss decolonisation. The Belgian administration began to realise how little they had done for the Congo. There were very few Congolese in the public administration, few local teachers and very few Congolese with advanced educations. In contrast to the French and British colonies in Africa, Congo had no functioning domestic economy and no locals to move into a post-colonial administration.

As a result of this sudden rethink, a handful of young Congolese began to move through the Belgian school system, getting solid western educations. Decolonisation became more important than religion, so in the 50's, Protestant missions began to receive subsidies from the government and assistance from the bureaucracy, especially when they used local teachers. This new state support for non-Belgian missionary work quickly opened up opportunities for the Mennonite church in Congo and led to a sharp increase in demand for mission workers. As a result Grandpa, in 1953 married with two children and unable to go to Columbia because of his Soviet birth, had the opportunity to go to Congo and work in missions there, as recounted in the last episode.

That is where the next chapter will pick up.

Posted 2004/02/23 23:20 (Mon) | TrackBack

I think you mean Leopold "seized" the land, not "ceased" it.

Posted by: Cosma at February 24, 2004 0:10

*sigh* One day, I'll get an editor.

Posted by: Scott Martens at February 24, 2004 6:41

The Africa Museum website promises that the exhibits will be redesigned to sweep away the remnants of colonialists attitudes. The partitions will also be removed to restore the building to something more akin to its original layout.

The museum even has an exhibition dedicated to instiutional self-criticism.

At a number of points in the Museum?s galleries the present arrangement is placed in its historical context. Text panels, films and photographs from the archives reveal the Museum in a critical light.

Posted by: David Frazer at February 24, 2004 13:09

I only saw the permanent exhibits in the main building. I'm glad to see that they're renovating with an eye towards setting the exhibits in a bit more context. What I saw tells me that this is cryingly necessary.

I'll be glad to go see it again when they're done.

Posted by: Scott Martens at February 24, 2004 13:29

One minor correction: Albert was not Leopold II's brother, but nephew.

Posted by: Peter at February 24, 2004 15:32

Thanks Peter. I made the change. I've fiddled with the text quite a bit today.

Posted by: Scott Martens at February 24, 2004 15:38

I lived on Elizabeth Lane (english version of the Flemish street) from 1982-1985. This street runs by the Tram station at the end route 44. As a 10 year old, I used to ride my bike through the Park van Tervuren. My brother onced climbed the thirty foot tall stone elephant across from the Africa Musuem when it had scaffolding on it. The original purpose of those grounds and buildings never occurred to me as I played blissfully among them. In a chance discussion with a friend, I mentioned growing up in a suburb of Brussels near this musuem. He gave my Adam Hochschild's book and I have not been been able to set it down. I feel a ghastly link to this awful past. Thanks for you story.

Posted by: tom moninger at August 6, 2006 7:19
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