A new Tembo for an old museum

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By Christian Nielsen

As Belgium’s revamped Africa museum prepares to re-open its doors, Christian Nielsen checks out its glistening new restaurant. 

Photo: ©Christian Nielsen

Friday 16 November 2018

There are signs that Belgium’s infamous Africa Museum is about to come out of its chrysalis. The spacey glass atrium that popped up beside the original exhibition halls houses the brand new Tembo Bistro on the first floor. We gave it a shot for Sunday lunch.

The museum itself is scheduled to reopen, after five years of renovations, in early December. But the restaurant is already partially open for business (lunches only). It has an almost spooky presence about it, nestled behind a solid sequoia in a nook of Tervuren Park – the centrepiece of a Flemish town a short tram ride from Brussels. The view from the dining room is unbeatable; be sure to get a table by the all-glass walls facing the original museum halls.

As regulars to Belgian brasseries and bistros, we have come to expect a bog standard offering of staples like stoemp saucisse (bangers and mash), moules frites (mussels and chips), and carbonnade (stew). But, thankfully, Tembo is a little more adventurous than that, tapping into the ethnic roots of the museum. I went for the moambe and rice, which is a popular spicy stew in many parts of Africa, and my dining partner took a goat’s cheese salad; both squarely aimed at soaking up the hangovers we both sported. Shameful at our age, but when the kids are away… These were washed down with a passable Chenin blanc as a house white.

An open buffet-style brunch was also on offer at the time of our visit. The menu may well change once the bistro is in full swing, including an evening service, so there’s probably no point going into the details yet. It’s a good excuse to go back.

Frozen in time?

The tram line out to Tervuren was built by King Leopold II for the 1897 Universal Exhibition, which was also the origins of the Africa Museum. The story goes that Leopold imported scores of natives from his privately held African domain, the Congo Free State, as some kind of living, human zoo. Seven of these Congolese died during their stay. A plaque beside the church in Tervuren town centre memorialises them. According to the Africa Museum website, Leopold II saw the facility as a propaganda tool for his colonial project, “aimed at attracting investors and winning over the Belgian population”.

Before closing in 2013, the museum’s vast halls were a taxidermists’ heaven with row-after-row of stuffed African animals in ‘natural’ poses, as well as caverns of geographic samples and Congolese ethnographic and artistic objects. The old museum was often criticised for its clumsy telling of Leopold’s colonial history, which is widely known to be marked by avarice and exceptional cruelty.

One quirky story along one of the museum’s corridors recounted the King’s fascination with the Welsh journalist and explorer Henry Morton Stanley who famously said ‘Dr Livingston, I presume’ upon finding the missionary in the depths of Central Africa. The King commissioned Stanley to explore new territories which, it transpired, he intended to annex as his own personal territory.

Leopold’s nearly two decades of recorded abuses in the Congo caused a major international scandal, forcing the Belgian government to demand he relinquish control of the colony to civil administration in 1908.

An exhibit hosted by the museum in 2005, called ‘The memory of Congo’, tried to present a “less one-sided” view of the Belgian colonial era. Many expect the newly revamped museum, which had previously been described as “frozen in time”, to go even further in telling that story.

After many a trip taking two small boys to see the (live) tarantulas and eerily life-like crocodiles at the old museum, it will be a fascinating trip down memory lane once it reopens. We’ll keep you posted.

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The human wrongs of the Holocaust

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By Khaled Diab

A new museum in Belgium seeks to make the Holocaust relevant for contemporary visitors by placing it in the wider context of human rights.

Wednesday 6 February 2013


The original Kazerne Dossin. photo: ©Khaled Diab

Located half way between Belgium’s two largest cities, Brussels and Antwerp, prosperous Mechelen, which was once the capital of the Low Countries, has for centuries played a pivotal role in the economy and the arts.

During the Industrial Revolution, the first railway line in continental Europe connected Mechelen to nearby Brussels. Just over a century later, when the Industrial Revolution gave way to industrialised devolution in Europe, the extensive rail network running through Mechelen led the Nazis to choose it as the location for an infamous transit camp for Belgium and Northern France.

Between 1942 and 1944, the camp, which was located in Kazerne Dossin, a 17-century infantry barracks constructed during the Habsburg era, deported 25,500 Jews (as well as 352 Roma) to Auschwitz-Birkenau, of which only 5% survived the Nazi’s Final Solution.

In 1996, Belgium’s Jewish community set up the Jewish Museum of Resistance and Deportation (JMRD) on the ground floor of one wing of the Kazerne Dossin. Last month, a larger state-of-the-art museum and memorial opened its doors to the public.

The two generations of museums owe their existence to two men touched personally by the tragedy of deportation. One was Nathan Ramet, an Auschwitz survivor who reportedly refused to speak about his ordeal until he decided to establish the JMRD, who sadly died a few months before the new museum was opened. The other was the then Minister-President of Flanders Patrick Dewael whose grandfather, Arthur Vanderpoorten, died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp for his anti-Nazi activities.

The €25-million cubic complex is a sombre white mausoleum-like structure which its designer, the celebrated Flemish architect Bob Van Reeth, says was built with a brick for each person deported from the site, while the museums entire volume is equivalent to the freight cars in the 28 convoys which transported the victims to their eventual death in Poland.

Inside, echoing the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, a wall rising the entire height of the building carries photos (or empty spaces where no pictures survive) for every single victim transported from Mechelen, in a bid to re-humanise them.

But with dozens of Holocaust museums and memorials around the world, including in nearby London and Paris, how does Kazerne Dossin intend to stand out?

“Naturally, we can’t tell the story of Auschwitz here. We focus ourselves on the Belgian story,” Sarah Verhaert, the Kazerne’s spokeswoman, told me.

And the Belgian story is retold through photographs, newspaper clippings and other material from the time, as well as interactive personal testimonies from a number of survivors.

Caricatures and newspaper clippings from the time illustrate clearly that Judeophobia was not just a German ill but infected significant strata of Belgian society, as it did much of the West, though there was also great opposition to it too.

With its own ready supply of home-grown antisemites, a natural question arises of whether or not any Belgians actively took part in the Nazi persecution. The issue of collaboration remains, in fact, a touchy one in Belgium, even today – but the museum does not shy away from addressing it.

The accepted narrative is that only a tiny minority aided and abetted the Nazis out of ideological conviction, while others, such as the civil servants who helped draw up Belgium’s first-ever register of Jews, did so because they had no other choice.

“We have to challenge the myth that the Nazi occupation left no room for manoeuvre,” explains the museum’s curator Herman Van Goethem, a prominent professor of history at Antwerp university. “In the hierarchal context of the time, Belgian civil servants had a margin for administrative resistance without putting their lives in danger.”

This margin for dissent could help explain why only roughly half of the 85,000 Jews in Belgium at the time (many of whom were refugees from further east) were registered and how deportation occurred more smoothly in some places and with difficulty in others, such as Brussels.

“This museum has had to deal with a lot of sensitive issues, such as the role of the palace,” notes Verhaert. “At a certain moment, the palace had turned its head and looked away from what was happening.”

The part played by the Belgian monarch at the time, Leopold III, is particularly controversial. Although he defied the German occupiers at times and was kept under house arrest and even deported, his sympathies seemed to lie more with the Nazis than the Allies, whose expected entry into Belgium to push out the Germans he regarded as an “occupation”.

That said the monarchy, as well as the Catholic Church, played a pivotal role in in extracting assurances from the Nazis that no Jews with Belgian citizenship would be deported, and Leopold’s mother, Queen Elisabeth, organised the rescue from deportation of hundreds of Jewish children.

But the most heroic, dangerous and defiant forms of resistance came from ordinary people, who harboured and hid Jews, at great personal risk. Some 1,500 of these everyday heroes are commemorated among the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. These include Yvonne Nèvejean, who helped hide some 4,000 Jewish children.

Jews also played an active part in the resistance, with many joining the Belgian underground. Perhaps the most audacious (and simple) example of this underground resistance was the daring rescue of Transport XX, one of the convoys from Mechelen. A Jewish doctor, Youra Livchitz, and his two non-Jewish friends, Robert Maistriau and Jean Franklemon, managed, equipped with little more than a makeshift red lantern, to stop the train to Auschwitz long enough for 231 of those on board to escape, half of whom were recaptured or killed.

21st century relevance

In addition to shedding light on the Belgian page of this dark chapter of European history, the new museum approaches the Holocaust from what it describes as a unique perspective. “Kazerne Dossin is the first Holocaust museum that explicitly takes up human rights in its mission,” explains Herman Van Goethem, the museum’s curator.

Linking the Holocaust to the theme of human rights in general was chosen as a way of enabling modern audiences to better relate to this tragedy and to draw the necessary lessons from it.

The installations explore the dynamics of intolerance and exclusion, from bullying in the playground to discrimination against entire groups in society, and how this can escalate to mass violence. Segregation in the United States and Apartheid in South Africa are among the case studies highlighted.

“Visitors find the link that is made between the Second World War and human rights today to be very interesting,” observes Sara Verhaert.

But the connection has sparked some controversy. “The most common question that we get is, ‘Why haven’t you included the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’?” admits Verhaert. “But that is such a sensitive issue to address, especially here, which is a memorial for so many Jewish people.”

Although the atrocities committed in King Leopold II’s “Congo Free State” get a passing mention, questions have also been raised about why Belgium’s colonial ghosts have not been given greater prominence at Kazerne Dossin. Moreover, Belgium has no museums dedicated to its dark history in Africa. Though she admits that this is an unfortunate oversight, Verhaert notes that: “No country likes to be confronted with its war history and its colonial legacy.”

And her observation rings true in many instances. For example, though Washington is home to a centrally located Holocaust museum, the nearby National Museum of the American Indian has been criticised for failing “to confront the clash between foreign colonists and the native people they found here”.

Moreover, echoing a debate that is familiar elsewhere in Europe, Israel and the United States,  the question of whether it is valid to compare the Holocaust to other atrocities also played out over the decade it took to plan and construct Kazerne Dossin, with some leading politicians insisting that  “the unique character of the Shoah” must be preserved.

Herman Van Goethem finds such objections to be both unfounded and potentially dangerous. “The exclusive focus on the uniqueness of the Shoah can lead to us isolating it, placing it completely outside ourselves, and viewing it as a completely incomprehensible event,” he argues.

And the greater the distance in time and social reality grows, the harder it becomes for people to get their heads around the sheer scale and inhumanity of the Nazi’s Final Solution. “The younger generation find it all very hard to imagine,” notes Verhaert. “I conducted a tour and the multiracial group of young people found it hard to believe that there were some things that people were not allowed to do, that Jews were not allowed on the tram, or in the park or the cinema.”

Verhaert sees this as a good sign, despite the growth of discrimination and intolerance in some quarters of Belgian society. Kazerne Dossin, she believes, can help make upcoming generational more appreciative of how special the multicultural reality they live in today is, and the need to be vigilant in order to preserve it.


Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared in Haaretz on 31 January 2013.

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Congo’s colonial ghost

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By Khaled Diab

As we approach the 50th anniversary of independence, how successful has Congo’s post-colonial experience been?

28 April 2010

Preparations are under way in the Democratic Republic of Congo for celebrations to mark 50 years of independence in June. The Congolese government has reportedly set aside $2 million for the festivities. Guests of honour will include a high-level Belgian delegation, headed by King Albert II, who will be on his first official visit to the former colony.

With these festivities in the air, how has the first half-century of independence been for the Democratic Republic of the Congo?

While it’s difficult to sum up the past 50 years, one thing that can be said with some confidence is that they have been troubled – from the western-backed murder of independence leader Patrice Lumumba, through the long and repressive Mobutu dictatorship, to the Second Congo War, known as Africa’s World War, not only because of its being the deadliest conflict since the second world war but also because it involved seven foreign countries.

Today, a stability of sorts has descended upon the country with its elected dictator, Joseph Kabila, although fighting continues in a number of provinces of this vast country, particularly in the east.

Despite its enormous mineral wealth, the DRC is one of the poorest countries in the world, largely due to the uncontrolled plundering of its resources. With a per-capita GDP of around $100 per year, it comes close to the bottom of the well-being league, though its human development index is constantly rising.

In fact, Congo is a classic example of the fragile African state. So, what lies behind this fragility?

A key factor is a failure of leadership on a monumental scale. Political corruption, coupled with weak state institutions, has ensured that the main function of Congolese politics, like in many other African countries, is to serve the private ends of the ruling elite.

“The political class in Congo is shit,” Joseph Nzau, a 55-year-old Congolese professional based in Brussels, told me in no uncertain terms. “Politicians don’t have the common good in mind. They want to enrich themselves first and their clans second.”

Whereas political corruption may skim some of the cream off the top of the pie in countries with effective governance, in places like the DRC, it gobbles up the lion’s share of the cake, as attested to by the vast fortunes Mobutu and his cronies accumulated or squandered.

But should Congo’s political class cop the entire blame? Well, there are certainly other factors at play. The DRC is about the size of western Europe, but the country has a population that is smaller than Germany’s and yet is divided into some 250 ethnic groups speaking an equivalent number of languages. Governing such a huge and diverse land mass, with a relatively low population density, not to mention poor infrastructure and a state that is weaker than probably even the smallest European states, is no easy matter.

Much as apologists for Europe’s colonial legacy and those afflicted with selective amnesia would like to believe, the reality is that Congo’s colonial experience, as in so many other post-colonial states, has caused deep and lasting scars, and very much handicaps the modern state. “The situation of Congo today is a consequence of Belgian colonisation,” Nzau says, expressing a common Congolese perception.

But this link between European colonialism and the current turmoil in much of sub-Saharan Africa is not just a case of Africans looking for someone else to blame, as is so often claimed. In fact, the same link was explicitly made in last year’s European Report on Development. “The scramble for Africa … is a natural candidate for the historical origin of the fragility plaguing many sub-Saharan African countries,” the report stated.

But why should such a relatively short sojourn have such a profound impact? In the case of Congo, part of the reason is that there was a centuries’-long prelude. Prior to direct rule, most of central Africa was depopulated as a consequence of the European slave trade to the west and, to a lesser extent, the Arab slave trade to the east. This, for example, helped accelerate the eventual collapse of the once-powerful indigenous kingdom of Kongo (which had different borders to the contemporary DRC).

The ruler, Nzinga Mbemba Affonso, an early convert to Christianity, wrote regularly to the king of Portugal to complain about the effects of the slave trade on his subjects:

Each day the traders are kidnapping our people – children of this country, sons of our nobles and vassals, even people of our own family. This corruption and depravity are so widespread that our land is entirely depopulated. We need in this kingdom only priests and schoolteachers, and no merchandise, unless it is wine and flour for mass.

Undoubtedly, the worst chapter in Congo’s history was when the country became the personal property of King Leopold II, who wanted a domain to match his ego. The king infamously described Belgium as “petit pays, petits gens” (“small country, small people”) due to his subjects’ lack of appetite for empire – unsurprising given that they had been ruled for centuries by foreign powers, including the Spanish, the Habsburgs, the French and the Dutch.

Jealous that he did not preside over an empire like his cousin, Queen Victoria, across the Channel, Leopold spent years in search of a land that he could transform into his personal fiefdom. With the help of the dodgy Welsh-born American explorer and journalist Henry Stanley (born John Rowlands), Leopold set his sights on a part of Africa unclaimed by the other European powers which he eventually gave the name Congo Free State. During his private rule, an estimated 2-15 million Congolese died through forced labour and other forms of exploitation.

International outrage and one of the first major human rights campaigns in modern history led to the Belgian government taking Congo off Leopold’s hands and annexing it. Although the worst human rights abuses ended, the main priority of the Belgian Congo, despite Belgium’s earlier reluctance to enter the colonial game, remained the exploitation of the country’s mineral wealth for the benefit of the Belgian economy.

During the period of direct rule, the European institutions and structures that were brought in took little account of local culture and conditions. After independence, rather than reform the state, local leaders simply took it over, alienating themselves from the population.

The 50th anniversary of independence should give Belgians and Congolese pause for thought. In the coming half-century, the Congolese need to overcome the legacy of the past and take command of their future. For their part, Belgians need to recognise that their colonial legacy is not just an issue for historians but that it helped create the current mess.

This is the extended version of an article which appeared in the Guardian newspaper’s Comment is Free section on 21 April 2010. Read the full discussion here.

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