Monuments in the Belgian city reveal a troubled colonial heritage

Monuments in the Belgian city reveal a troubled colonial heritage

HALLE, Belgium (AP) – For a long time, few people in the small Belgian town of Halle paid much attention to the monuments. They were just fixtures in a local park, a tribute to great men of the past.

But these are very different times, and yesterday’s heroes could be today’s racist villains.

And so it was that three weeks ago a bust of Leopold II, the Belgian king who was held responsible for the deaths of millions of Congolese, was splashed in red paint, bearing the inscription “Murderer”, and later fell off his pedestal.

A light sandstone statue formally known as the “Monument to the Colonial Pioneers” has stood nearby for 93 years. It depicts a naked Congolese boy offering a bowl of fruit in thanks to Lt. General Baron Alphonse Jacques de Dixmude, a Belgian soldier accused of atrocities in Africa.

These monuments, and others across Europe, are being scrutinized as never before, no longer a collective blind spot on the public’s moral conscience. Protests that swept the world after the death of George Floyd, a black man killed by Minneapolis police last month, draw attention to Europe’s colonial past and the racism of the present.

Eric Baranyanka, a 60-year-old musician who came to Halle at the age of 3 as a refugee from the Belgian colony of Burundi in Belgium, said that he always found the statue of Jacques ‘demeaning’.

“I was so proud of who I was. It completely contradicted that image, “he said.

But Mayor Halle Marc Snoeck seems to be more representative of his bourgeoisie. He said he “never really noticed” the monuments until an anti-colonial group drew them to the attention of the city of 40,000 people about 15 kilometers (10 miles) south of Brussels decades ago.

“I am part of an older generation and I have heard little about colonialism, the Free State of Congo and Belgian Congo during my studies,” said 66-year-old Snoeck, noting that he learned how Europeans brought civilization, not exploitation and death, in the heart of Africa.

Statues of Leopold, who reigned from 1865 to 1909, have been defaced in half a dozen cities, including Antwerp, where one was burned and had to be removed for repair. It is unclear if it will ever come back.

But Leopold is not the only focus. Snoeck found it remarkable that protesters were not targeting the statue of Jacques, whom he called “possibly worse.”

The mayor said the statue is known locally as “The White Negro”, due to the color of the sandstone depicting the Congolese youth offering the fruit to the Colonial-era Belgian who condoned the murders, rapes and maimed workers in Congo or was responsible. Free state.

Lovingly raised by a white foster home in Halle, Baranyanka said that he had experienced prejudices in Belgium for only about ten years.

His 98-year-old foster mother Emma Monsaert remembers others in the city who asked her if she would really take up a black childhood in the 1960s: “I said, ‘Why not, it’s a child after all.'”

But at school, Baranyanka discovered how others thought about race.

A teacher poured salt on his head, he recalled, saying it would make it whiter. When he wanted to play a part in a piece of the 17th-century fairy tale “Puss in Boots”, he was denied a role, with a teacher telling him, “Mr. Baranyanka, at that time there were no blacks in Europe. ‘

He is lucky to have had a close circle of friends that still exists today. As a teenager, he often spoke to them about the monuments, his African roots and Leopold’s legacy.

“They understood, and they were grateful that I explained it,” he said.

On Tuesday, Congo will celebrate 60 years of independence from Belgium. On the occasion of the anniversary, the city of Ghent will remove a statue of Leopold and perhaps take a healing step forward.

Eunice Yahuma, a local leader of a group called Belgian Youth Against Racism and the youth section of the Christian Democrats, knows the troubled history of Belgium.

“Many people don’t know the story because it’s not told. Somehow they know, “Let’s not discuss this because it’s grim history,” said Yahuma, who has Congolese roots. “It is only now that we have this debate that people are going to investigate it.”

The zeitgeist is different, she said.

“Black people used to be less pronounced. They felt the pain, but they didn’t discuss it. Now the youth are very outspoken and we give our opinion,” Yahuma added.

History teachers such as 24-year-old Andries Devogel try to enrich their lessons with the context of colonialism.

“Within the next ten years, they expect us to emphasize the impact of colonialism on today’s society, namely that colonialism and racism are inextricably linked,” said Devogel. Isn’t contemporary racism the result of a colonial view? How can you exploit a people if you are not convinced of their second-class status? ”

The colonial era brought wealth to Belgium, and the city of Halle took advantage of it by building a railroad yard that provided jobs. Native son Franz Colruyt started a company that grew into supermarket giant Colruyt Group with 30,000 employees – including a foster father of Baranyanka.

Halle has escaped the violence witnessed in other cities by the protests, and officials would prefer to draw attention to the Gothic church, St. Martin’s basilica, as well as the famous bell and gueuze beer fields.

Baranyanka, who will soon be performing a musical show of his life called “De Zwette”, “-” The Black One, “recently returned to the park and its monuments.

Despite the hostility and humiliation he felt as a youth, he did not consider their destruction the right way.

Vandalism does not yield anything, perhaps just the opposite effect. And you see that suddenly such racism flares up again, ”he said. “It is causing polarization again. This “us against them” thing. ‘

Devogel, the teacher, says the task of education is to “bring children into contact with history.”

“Otherwise it will remain a brass bust without meaning,” he said of the Leopold II monument. “And you will never realize why it is so deeply offensive to all these people.”

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