Fraiture, P.-P. (Hrsg.): Unfinished Histories

Unfinished Histories. Empire and Postcolonial Resonance in Central Africa and Belgium

Fraiture, Pierre-Philippe
440 S.
Rezensiert für 'Connections' und H-Soz-Kult von:
Fabian Krautwald, Institute for Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention, Binghamton University

In V. S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, the Belgian priest Huismans translates for the protagonist Salim the Latin motto of the nameless Central African town they live in after independence: “He approves of the mingling of the peoples and their bonds of union.” Salim bristles, “I was staggered […] Rome was Rome. What was this place?”1 Salim objects to evoking the grandeur of antiquity in a peripheral post-colonial outpost. His reaction, Huismans’s presence, and the town’s motto gesture towards the myriad threads that have tied Central Africa and Belgium together since the late nineteenth century. Pierre-Philippe Fraiture’s edited volume is a helpful overview of these relationships. The book brings together 16 scholars of literature, art, theater, museums, philosophy, history, and film. It is divided into five parts, which successively trace post-colonial connections, or “resonances,” between Central Africa and Belgium in institutions of knowledge such as Tervuren’s Royal Museum for Central Africa, in the international sphere, in the persistence of imperial practices, in inter-African exchanges, and in the growing diaspora.

Over the last decades, the colonial past has attracted increased attention in Belgium. However, Unfinished Histories breaks new ground by bringing together perspectives from the former metropole and all three former Belgian colonies – Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Rwanda – although only two contributions address Burundi at length. In his introduction, Fraiture rightly emphasizes that independence was only the “beginning of decolonization” in both Central Africa and Belgium (p. 11). In contrast to the high hopes for political independence, this process has been characterized by continued physical and epistemological violence, which has prevented Burundians, Congolese, and Rwandans from attaining full “cultural autonomy” (p. 11). The volume seeks to understand the underlying issues for this failure by focusing on the “emergence of critical voices” who struggled against this process, ranging from novelists and playwrights to musicians, artists, and filmmakers (p. 12). In Belgium, Fraiture mainly sees “oblivion and indifference” to the colonial past until the 1980s (p. 14). In Central Africa, post-colonial instability and economic crisis at first prevented intellectuals from fully addressing the colonial past. This situation only changed with the centenary of the Congo Free State in 1985, which encouraged “a more dialogical environment” between Central African and Belgian thinkers, exemplified by joint projects such as the oral history collection Tango Ya Ba Noko (p. 16).2

Over this period, language affected the resonance of colonial memories in all four societies. Catherine Gilbert illustrates that the paucity of references to Rwanda in Belgian school books is rooted in Belgium’s nationality politics, particularly the lack of translations of growing scholarly findings in French and English into Dutch (p. 83). Language policy also had contradictory effects in Central Africa. While Belgian colonizers’ focus on vernaculars was based on racist motives to deprive the colonized of a medium of critique (p. 149), Albert Kasanda and Chantal Gishoma show that the fostering of languages such as Ciluba and Kinyarwanda by writers such as Emery Ngoyi and Alexis Kagame enabled local peoples to appropriate modernity through their own idioms (p. 147, 234).3

While Unfinished Histories underlines the importance of intellectuals in transforming images of colonial history, the volume also points to the need for future research to focus more on popular memories within former colonies and metropoles. In the former colonies, some of the most “critical” engagements with the colonial past were often not advanced by elite thinkers but by ordinary men and women. Fraiture notes this in his own chapter, underlining Bakongo’s infamous nickname for the explorer Henry Stanley as Bula Matari, meaning the crusher of rocks (p. 366).4 Similarly, Kasanda spotlights the popular discontent in the Congo over post-colonial rulers’ choice of French as national language through the Ciluba idiom Mfwalansa ki mfwalanga to, that is, “learning and speaking French is not enough to earn a living” (p. 152). Bambi Ceuppens draws our attention to another potential source of popular memory in the mbwakela-coded lyrics of Congolese rumba, which have allowed generations of performers and listeners to shroud their criticism of past and present potentates in layered allusions (p. 320). And as Sarah Arens concludes, to understand how post-colonial legacies live on in Great Lakes agriculture, it is vital “to focus on those voices left out of the official colonial archive” (p. 226). In this respect, an under-studied subject remains how religion became a vehicle for both spiritual uplift and popular remembrance of colonial violence.5

In the former metropole, the resonance of colonial memories was also not limited to elites. While several authors attest to a colonial “amnesia” in Belgium until the 1980s (p. 16, 85, 121), the country’s private and public life was arguably replete with recollections of empire. By 1959, almost 89,000 Belgians resided in the Congo alone, many of whom brought their experiences back home after independence.6 As Yvette Hutchinson shows, school textbooks until the 1970s glorified the heroism of Belgian colonizers. Effigies of King Leopold II, complete with purportedly devoted African subjects, became ubiquitous (p. 123). Matthias de Groof makes a similar case for cinema, which allowed new generations of Flemings and Walloons to see themselves as (post-)colonial masters (p. 342). To understand the resonance of colonialism in Belgium, it therefore seems necessary to study more closely memories of imperial glory, especially on a familial and material level, and to embed them in an analysis of Belgium’s divided post-war politics.7Unfinished Histories provides an indispensable and useful starting point for such inquiries.

1 V. S. Naipaul, A Bend in the River, New York 1989, p. 62–63.
2 Didier de Lannoy, Mabiala Seda Diangwala, and Bongeli Yeikelo Ya Ato (eds.): Tango ya ba noko – Le temps des oncles: Recueil de témoignages zaïrois, Bruxelles 1986.
3 However, Gishoma should have noted that one of the prominent posthumous critics of Kagame that she cites, Ferdinand Nahimana, is a convicted genocidaire whose scholarship prior to the Rwandan genocide was already influenced by extremist ideology (p. 232, 237, 239). See Hervé Deguine: Un ideologue dans le genocide rwandais: enquête sur Ferdinand Nahimana, Paris 2010.
4 For a pioneering study of naming as remembrance, see Osumaka Likaka: Naming Colonialism. History and Collective Memory in the Congo, 1870-1960, Madison 2009.
5 On such an “ancestral” reading of Kimbanguism, see Awo Yayra Sumah: “Kintwadi Kia Bangunza. Simon Kimbangu in Belgian Congo,” PhD dissertation, Columbia University, 2022.
6 No statistics on the turnover of Belgians in the colonies exist, making it difficult to ascertain how many people had access to family memories of colonialism. The 1959 figure of 89,000 people amounted to just about one per cent of Belgium’s populace. But if we take the figure of 17,000 in 1930 as baseline for the following 30 years, it is likely that hundreds of thousands of Belgians had direct memories of Central Africa by independence. See Guy Vanthemsche: Belgium and the Congo 1885-1980, Cambridge 2012, p. 59–60.
7 On potential models for such an approach, see Markus Wurzer, The social lives of mass-produced images of the 1935-41 Italo-Ethiopian War, in: Modern Italy 27 (2022), 351–373; Britta Schilling, Imperial Heirlooms: The Private Memory of Colonialism in Germany, in: Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 41 (2013) 4, p. 663–682.

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