by Naila A. Smith, PhD
I recently visited Brussels, Belgium, a small country in the west of Europe, nestled between France, Germany, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. Belgium is often called the “battlefield of Europe” due to its central and strategic location which led to several invasions during World War I and II. Notably, today, Belgium is the site of the headquarters of the European Union (EU), and is a multicultural hub with Flemish (Dutch), French, and English as its three official languages.
On my trip, I visited Matongé, a predominantly Black neighborhood located in the Ixelles municipality which lies just on the outskirts of Brussels city center, sandwiched between the wealthy European Quarter and the exclusive shopping street, Avenue Louise. The area is named after a vibrant district of the same name in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a former Belgian colony.
The history of Belgium’s colonization of the DRC is short and brutal. Leopold II was a monarch in Belgium from 1865 to 1909. During that time he made Congo Free State (now known as the DRC) his personal colony in the name of “civilizing” the people. His savage brand of civilization resulted in the murder of over 10 million Africans and mutilation of millions more. In 1908, other European rulers deemed Leopold II’s reign too cruel and Belgium took over the country, renaming it Belgian Congo.
In 1960, after a period of armed conflict, the area formerly known as “Congo” won its independence becoming known as the Republic of Congo. It was during this time that Congolese migration to Belgium increased and Matongé grew in size and importance to African migrants.
Notably, in Matongé, there is a square named after the first Prime Minister of the Republic, Patrice Lumumba. Lumumba was an African nationalist and pan-Africanist, who led the Congolese National Movement from 1958 to 1961 until he was assassinated in a U.S.- and Belgian-sponsored plot.
Today, immigrants make up about 16.6% of Belgium’s total population of 11.5 million people. The majority of the immigrant population consists of EU migrants and the three largest non-EU immigrant groups are from Morocco, Turkey, and the DRC.
Matongé has also changed over the years. The area is now populated with immigrants from all over the African continent, such as Rwanda, Burundi, Mali, Cameroon, and Senegal. About 6.3% of immigrants to Belgium are of African descent, though most are from the DRC.
One of the first things I noticed when we got off the bus at Porte de Namur and entered Matongé was the Black beauty supply store. The next thing I noticed were the food markets selling fresh produce of tropical foods like green bananas, plantains, and root vegetables. There were several such stores along Chaussée de Wavre, one of the main streets in Matongé.
As a Jamaican immigrant to the U.S., who has lived in white, rural America for over half a decade, the easy access to cultural food, hair products, and Black hairdressers struck a chord with me. For anyone who has ever visited immigrant neighborhoods anywhere in the world, these common markers are signs of placemaking, creating a home away from home.
Many restaurants and bars featuring cuisine from Congo, Senegal, Rwanda, and other African nations also line the streets of Matongé. On the weekends some venues offer live entertainment such as drumming, adding to the vibrancy of the area. For instance, L’Horloge du Sud (The South Clock), is one popular spot known for its crocodile steaks and cultural and music events.
Other notable sights in Matongé are Vendôme, an Arthouse cinema that seeks to promote cultural diversity and, according to its slogan, “Cultivate Emotion!” There is also Kuumba – Flemish African House, a cultural center that seeks to bring together African and Flemish cultures through workshops on African dance, percussion, language, as well as exhibits, films, and live music and poetry. Here, you can also book an experienced tour guide to show you the neighborhood.
Another sight to behold, nestled on the corner of Chaussée de Wavre and Longue-Vie streets, was a statue entitled Au-delà de l’espoir (Beyond the hope) by Freddy Tsinga, a Congolese artist. This piece is the first art by an African artist to be installed in a public space in Brussels. It depicts a mother holding up her mutilated child. The statue is made out of bronze and iron. Except for the child and mother’s face and feet, it is made out of the shell casing of bullets fired from the scene of conflicts, mostly from conflicts in the DRC.
Unfortunately, armed conflict in the motherland is not the only worry for Black people of immigrant origin in Belgium. Because anti-Black racism is a global phenomenon, racism in Belgium is prevalent. Black Belgians face systemic discrimination, which has led to disparities in education and employment outcomes: immigrants and their children are overrepresented in the lowest levels of educational attainment and in the lowest paid jobs. Black people in Belgium also contend with interpersonal experiences of discrimination and police violence. These long standing experiences have fueled protests in recent years, calling for the removal of statues of Leopold II and improvement in the social and economic conditions of Black people in Belgium.
A small part of that improvement includes increased representation of Black Belgians in social, cultural, and political life. There is some evidence of this change. For instance, Stromae, a popular singer, rapper, songwriter, and producer, born in Brussels to a Rwandan father and Flemish mother, has taken his unique blend of hip hop and electronic music global. There is also Vincent Kompany, the famous Belgian footballer who is a former Manchester City and Belgian national team captain, who now manages a Belgian football team. And, finally, Vincent’s father, Pierre Kompany, a former student activist who was detained in a military camp in the DRC by Mobuto Sese Seko, was elected as Belgium’s first Black mayor in 2018. Kompany, and other Black Belgians like him, continue to work to resist oppression, assert the dignity of their humanity, and create a space and a home for themselves in Belgian society.