In the case of Belgium we focus on the construction of a Belgian nation state in the aftermath of its colonial past in the Congo. Initially called the Congo Free State, the colony remained a personal possession of King Leopold II from 1885 until 1908, following which it was taken over by the Belgian government and renamed the Belgian Congo. Without reflection upon past colonialism, of which the case of the Belgian Congo was of exemplary brutality, the long and important tradition of postcolonial subjectivities cannot be grasped.
We turn to Belgium as an example for the absence of reflection upon the colonial past in contemporary public discourse. Despite the work of many historians on the topic of Belgian involvement in the Congo, this narrative is rarely heard outside of academic circles, and it remains on the margins of the official narrative of a modern European history. This “hidden knowledge” has helped to shape a general sense of Africa as something negative, or of African experiences as positions of “absolute otherness” (Achille Mbembe, 2001).
It was only in 1998 that the book, King Leopold’s Ghosts, by Adam Hochschild, became a bestseller, drawing much media and public attention to debates about the omitted parts of the official Belgian historical narrative on colonialism. Even though some important works on colonialism had been published in Belgium a few years prior (such as the works of Jean-Luc Vellut and Daniel Vangroenweghe), a wide-open critical reflection dealing with the Belgian responsibility for the atrocities that were mainly committed during King Leopold’s direct rule over the Congo is still missing. Yet, even after 1998, the official narrative regarding colonialism hasn’t changed much.
Decades after Belgium ended its colonial rule in Congo in 1960, and a century after the atrocities committed in Congo Free State — a region brutally exploited by King Leopold II — Belgians are slowly beginning to confront this troubled history.
The Congolese community living in Belgium takes up a very active role in this: In 2010, several African associations in Flanders, Brussels and Wallonia established “The Collective for Colonial Memory and Anti-Discrimination” (Collectif Mémoire coloniale et Lutte contre les discriminations – MCLD) that has two main agendas of work: the colonial memory and the fight against discrimination. Both themes are central for the Belgian population of African descent. The Collective for Colonial Memory and Anti-Discrimination engages on issues related to colonial memory and history, establishing links between Belgium and the populations in Belgium resulting from the African migrations, more specifically from former colonies: the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi.
Annually since 2015, Womba Konga, also known by his artist name Pitcho, organizes the multidisciplinary festival “Congolisation.” The term Congolisation is a contraction of the words “Congo” and “Colonisation.” The idea is to focus on the contribution of the Congolese diaspora in the Belgium cultural landscape. The emphasis is on building the future together, on creation and unity and the festival connects various artistic initiatives of the Congolese diaspora in particular and sub-Saharan in general.