On fighting for colonial contextualisation, by CLCMD’s Kalvin Soiresse Niall

From the violent scenes witnessed at Charleston earlier this year, to the ongoing debate on Place Lumumba, public space and its iconology are increasingly becoming spaces of contestation. Collectif Mémoire Coloniale et Lutte Contre les Discriminations or CMCLD is the country’s loudest voice concerning the decolonisation of education, space, and the Belgian collective memory; and as such constantly seek to turn their words into affirmative action. Kalvin Soiresse Njall (1982) is a Belgo-Togolese social science secondary teacher, former journalist, novelist and co-founder of CMCLD. Although he no longer assumes an operational role at the non-profit, he remains a very militant activist for the cause.

Photographer Thomas Ost (c).

In a way, Mémoire Coloniale – or CMCLD, for Collectif Mémoire Coloniale et Lutte Contre les Discriminations – was borne out of frustrations. For starters, the anti-racism movement MRAX – of which I was part of as project manager and legal advisor – suffered from internal conflicts in 2010. Then, on top of that, the 2010 Assises de l’interculturalité’s roundtable event added insult to injury, when many of the promises made were not upheld and the Congolese community was accused of “colonial nostalgia” – if there even is such a thing. We were accused of refusing to move on from the past, and told to re-install statues commemorating colonial pioneers. This was the final straw for many of the afro-descendant groups within MRAX, and we took it upon ourselves to write an open letter denouncing this critique. This pretty much is how CMCLD came to be born in 2012, as an umbrella network of afro-descendant associations from Brussels, Wallonia and Flanders all working together for the first time.

“Belgian colonial history, which is often downplayed or even worse glorified, deserves more than just a few classes, and should be explored in depth so that younger generations can fully grasp how and why our society is set up as it is today.”

One of our overriding ambitions with Mémoire Coloniale was to enforce the collective goal of fighting racial discrimination and negrophobia precisely through the prisms of colonial history, collective memory and public space across all member groups. What connects the colonial histories and propagandas of the past with our current everyday realities? How can we create the conditions for a diverse society with a culture of solidarity, through the organisation and mobilisation of afro-descendant collectives? Bare in mind that we’re not only a sociocultural movement, but more importantly a political one too, which explains our preference for the word “militant” as opposed to “volunteers” or “members”. Ideologically, you could summarise our raison d’être as encouraging afro-descendants to connect their right to citizenship in Belgium to their colonial history and enforcing the notion that our roots are both in Africa and our host countries, regardless of what our official nationality may be. In comparison to Maghrebi communities, who mainly arrived as migrant labourers and entered the political sphere through unionisation; the first wave of African migrants in the post-war era were intellectuals with strong ties to the motherland, and thus little to no expectations of becoming full-fledged citizens in their host country. Very important, too, is our belief that colonialism and imperialism are not mere blips in the grand timelines of history and that, simply put, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s colonial history is Belgium’s history too.

“We all too often forget the crucial role played by public space on collective imaginations.”

Finally, CMCLD is an inherently pan-African movement, hoping for the unification of Africa. Not only do we focus on Belgian and European events, but we also strive to improve conditions in Africa too in the hope of shifting collective stereotypes and image, but also bring socioeconomic benefits for the African diaspora. In a way, you could say that we’re concerned with the concept of civilisation as a whole, and giving empty, political buzzwords like social justice, equality, citizenship and integration some renewed meaning. Or Belgium’s aggressively latent racism – linked to deep and profound colonial denial and the unofficial system of rule through “soft” apartheid (as Colette Braeckman explained in 2010) – which doesn’t even acknowledge that there are issues here in the first place. As such, we translate our carefully thought-out political rhetoric into real, concrete strategies through which we seek to enact social change. For instance, we want to re-introduce debate and constructive dialogue into all spheres of society, starting with education and schools. More importance needs to be placed on educating youths of all ages on general African history. Belgian colonial history, which is often downplayed or even worse glorified, deserves more than just a few classes, and should be explored in depth so that younger generations can fully grasp how and why our society is set up as it is today.

Another key battle of ours is public space. Indeed, we all too often forget the crucial role played by public space on collective imaginations as well as in shaping social mind frames. Something as perceivably innocent as statues actually strongly influence how we see the world: think of the statue commemorating the infamous King Léopold II at Trône / Troon, for instance, or the incredibly violent Nègres Marrons Surpris Par des Chiens at Legrand tram stop. Don’t get me wrong, by no means do we advocate for colonial statues to be destroyed, but rather contextualised. Each statue should be considered in its respective context and specific spatial reality, and either re-contextualised with additional plaques and installations or moved to a museum. Decolonisation can and should be done for us, by us: there are plenty of afro-descendant poets, writers, sculptors, creators who would be more than willing to share their take on the commemoration of colonialism. We’re proud to see that all of our militant activism is coming to fruition, igniting fires all across the country, and provoking various levels of power – from the federal, to the regional with our revisions of educations, to the communal with our reclaiming of public space. Taking a note from Frantz Fanon, we hope to set up the foundations for an ever-critical critical and considerable movement for future generations to come.