MUD AND MOSAICS

Chapter 12

THE CONGO


A SMALL motor-launch took us over the mighty Congo river. There was no colour bar but there were some interesting differences. At the landing stage there was a notice: "Reduced fares for Africans". "Very considerate," I thought. On the boat, however, those with "reduced fare" tickets had special accommodation. There were no Africans apparently with "ordinary" fare tickets.

The French town, Brazzaville, and, the Belgian town Leopoldville glare at each other across the river. It took us half an hour to cross. Only half an hour, but in that time we were taken from one world into another. There was a small landing stage at Leopoldville and we passed easily through the Customs and Immigration authorities and set off for the Marist House where we were going to stay.

The Marist Brothers, who run schools in the Jesuit missions here, gave us a warm welcome and a good deal of fun at our first meal. They had two pet monkeys, one of which stole the quinine from the table and the other took Leo's bread and butter when he was looking the other way.

Leopoldville struck me as being a white man's town. The Africans live together on the outskirts. Opposite the Marists, the Sisters of the Sacred Heart have a school for European girls. It gave me some idea of how much the Belgians use the Congo, to see about two thousand white girls in the school. There was a handful of African girls too, but not many. Twenty-six big buses carry the day-girls to and from school every day ! Down the road a thousand boys were in a big school run by the Jesuits in which the Marist Brothers also teach. Most of the pupils were white boys, for it is only lately that the school has become slightly inter-racial. The school was a wonderful place. It even had its own Broadcasting Station which, before and during the war, was the only one in the Congo. It still had a two-hour programme every Sunday and was directly linked with "Radio Congo Belge".

We called on Monsignor Scalacs the Vicar Apostolic of Leopoldville. He is a member of the Society of Fathers of Scheut in Belgium. After telling us of his efforts to get priests and brothers from Belgium to take over his schools and release his missionaries for actual mission work, he went on to talk about the great secret society in these parts. It is called the Kibangi Society, and in spite of being outlawed is still very powerful. A few weeks before when the Bishop was blessing some bells for a church, the Kibangis came and held a public meeting, five-hundred strong, nearby, in order to be a nuisance. Kibangism is strongly anti-white and anti-Christian. It acts under a religious cover. The Vicar Apostolic predicted trouble from this and other secret societies. A strongly nationalist newspaper called "Congo" was also causing trouble.

I felt a tenseness and a sense of fear in the air. Young Belgians had come out to the Congo full of good will and sympathy for the Africans but they said the Africans soon showed that they did not trust them. Disappointment followed and frustration and finally antipathy. Trouble is brewing. The different standards of life are too brutally emphasised in this town of magnificent modern buildings where the European often lives at a level undreamt of at home. There was a small riot at a football match a week before my arrival, some cars belonging to Europeans were stoned. The Belgians were not used to this sort of thing. It seemed to throw them into a panic. They should take courage from a bit of our own troubled colonial history ! I think serious trouble lies ahead but instead of talking of liberal co-operation there is a lot of talk of getting out quickly.

If only people, ourselves included, could realise that it is our mental attitude, our superiority complex, which is so galling to the awakening African. Of course, we give all sorts of good things to Africa, including money, but we find it so hard to give the one thing which matters; recognition of the African's dignity as a man. Without this the gifts only make the bitterness deeper.

The Belgians have started a new housing scheme for the Africans on an immense scale. I went out to see what was being done at Leopoldville. The Africans' equivalent of our slums were being cleared out completely at the rate of thirty thousand houses a year. The old wretched African hut was going, and on the outskirts of Leopoldville, a new African town was being built. Mass production was in its glory and you could stand by and see the finishing touches given to a house every twenty minutes. Twenty-five new houses completed every working day. Churches, schools, police stations — all were going up at the same time.

I went into one of the finished houses. It had four rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom. Each room was a different colour, there was running water and all modern commodities. It would be the dream house for many a newly-wed couple in Europe. The cost was about £ 1,350 payable by rent. But the Africans did not want these houses. They would like new houses, but they wanted to build their own in their own way. Hundreds of the houses were still empty; but as the building of them continues. I supposed they were merely waiting for slum-clearance to take place “by order". I was told that in the south of the Congo the Government lays the foundations of the houses and then allows the buyer to build a house in the way he wants on those foundations.

In the afternoon we went to the University which is functioning although only half built. We consulted a map of the town to find our way and sailed along a fine road, but came to a dead end. Back we went to a cross roads and consulted the map. After three quarters of an hour of this kind of thing we again finished up at a dead end where huge scrapers and tractors were at work.

"Where is the road to the University?" we asked. "This is it! It will be ready by Christmas!"

The map had merely anticipated the road, and we finally found the long way round. The University, called the Lovanium, is inter-racial. It is a Catholic University, recognised as such by the Holy See and affiliated to Louvain University in Belgium. I was especially interested to see how the various African peoples got on together - apart from the usual White-Black difficulties. Members of many different tribes from the Congo seem to be reasonably happy together at the Lovanium. There were no fights. But the people from Ruanda-Urundi were kept at a distance by the Congolese, who appeared to make block against them. This was particularly true of the Batutsi, those tall regal looking "Aristocrats" of Urundi, who seem to get on more easily with Europeans than with other Africans. Europeans and Africans in general lived side by side but there is not yet any real intermingling of minds. That will come, please God, with time. There were already over three hundred students in the half-finished buildings.

At Leopoldville the Young Christian Workers built their own centre and it does them great credit. I attended a committee meeting, when a dozen Africans joined the three Belgians who help to run it. I had a chat with the Belgian Secretary who was quietly confident about the future of the Church in the Congo. He said that the African Christian Movement was going forward well, but he was not so confident about the position of the white people there. The Belgians were getting more and more frightened of African "Nationalism", and were being discouraged too by the Africans.

The Secretary found the evolution normal. He said that the Congolese were becoming more and more conscious of themselves as a people: and more conscious of the world and the African's place in it. The African was trying to place himself in the world he had newly discovered: he was a bit bewildered; an adolescent in the crisis of growing up. He had to assert himself, express himself, react against anything which he felt limited him in his aspirations. That certainly explains a good deal of what is to be seen and felt all over Africa today.

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