On fighting for (real) Congolese history, by Bambi Ceuppens

Bambi Ceuppens (1963) was born in Brussels and is active as a doctor in anthropology at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, researching, amongst other subjects, Belgian and Congolese colonial history and post-colonial popular culture in Congo. She recently curated the exhibition Congo Art Works at Bozar.

Belgium’s collective opinion about Congo has changed – although it hasn’t really. The events that occurred under Leopold II’s rule aren’t up for discussion anymore, with the exception of royal and ex-colonial circles. The main focus tends to lie more on the two historical transition periods: from the Independent Congo state to Belgian Congo, and the Congolese Independence paired with Lumumba’s assassination in the 60s. The entire period between 1908 and 1960 is mostly forgotten, and thus causes people to think that the Belgian colonial rule mustn’t have been all that bad – well, if you use Leopold II’s violence as a criterion, then no, it wasn’t. But a normal criterion would be a normal situation. Not one in which so-called prosperity in the form of hospitals, schools and roads are built by invaders who rule with an iron fist and trump public insurgency through the use of brute force. I’ve met journalists who were astonished that the Congolese community in Belgium looks at the colonial history in a radically different way. And that’s because these questions aren’t up on the public agenda, though they really should be. Just as much as all aspects of Congolese culture should be. 9 out of 10 publications on the country revolve around political issues, and nearly never about Congolese art or music, for example. Ask the average person which languages are spoken in Congo, and you’ll most likely get ‘Congolese’ as an answer (Kituba, Lingala, Swahili and Tshiluba are the national languages, whilst French remains the official one, a vestige of the country’s colonial past). This kind of basic knowledge isn’t available to a broad public, which is very unfortunate.

We pride ourselves in having the largest Central-African collection in the world, but when you look at the objects featured in it, you’ll see that nearly all of them stem from a colonial perspective.

I’ve noticed, amongst the younger generation of Belgians, a sincere interest in Congo; historically, politically and culturally. They’re much less personally involved in the history and the atrocities, and have a true curiosity towards the country. But the information they’re looking for is scarce, so it rarely goes further than mere curiosity. To actually offer a framework for education and debate on Congo you need scientific research paired with public interest and media attention. And while there is in fact a demand from high school teachers for a more profound program and understanding of Congolese history, they don’t have the instruments to teach it correctly. At the museum here, we do have several advantages: having internal experts, archives and documents paired with being a federal institution means that we can reach teachers and students alike on both sides of the country, and we do so by offering workshops and pedagogical publications, although it’s safe to say that that isn’t without its challenges either. We pride ourselves in having the largest Central-African collection in the world, but when you look at the objects featured in it, you’ll see that nearly all of them stem from a colonial perspective. We have to borrow objects from other collections if we want to include a Congolese perspective. And I’m not even going to start mentioning the female Congolese perspective, or the LGBT perspective. It’s a continuous work-in-progress, and a constant challenge, but it’s what any good anthropologist does: make the strange familiar, and make the familiar strange.