Matonge, a story of Congolese immigration

Between 42,000 and 43,000 Congolese (by nationality or by origin) today live in Belgium. Up until now very few studies have taken an interest in this population. Sarah Demart, a researcher at the ULg’s Center for Ethnic and Migration Studies, devotes her research to the Congolese diaspora through studying the Matogne neighbourhood in Brussels. A tremendous observation post from which to retrace their history, from the postcolonial tourism of the 1970s up until current immigration.

It is Monday December 5 2011, around 13.00. Some 80 people arrange to meet at the Porte de Namur, in Brussels. Four days away from the announcement of the provisional results of the Congolese Presidential election, supporters of the candidate Étienne Tshisekedi intend to demonstrate against ‘Belgian support for Joseph Kabila,’ the outgoing President.

Things start to get heated. The police force back the protestors to their starting point, in Matogne, the Brussels neighbourhood situated in a triangle formed by the streets of  Ixelles, Wavre and the Rue de la Paix. On December 6 another demonstration was set up. Then another, then another, and so on for close to two weeks, despite a police order banning the gathering of more than ten people. On certain days only a few dozen protestors demonstrated. On other days they numbered over a thousand. The results of the Presidential elections, made official on December 16, poured more oil on the fire: Kabila was re-elected with 48.9% of the vote, against 32.3% for Tshisekedi. The Congolese diaspora cried electoral fraud. Scenes of violence and misbehaviour followed one after the other. The Belgian authorities, for the most part, kept quiet.

A silence which speaks volumes concerning the ‘postcolonial scars,’ (1) according to Sarah Demart, a FNRS Postdoctoral Researcher at the ULg’s Center for Ethnic and Migration Studies (CEDEM).  ‘What had taken place? Nobody understood a thing. It was blamed on urban gangs, but that isn’t true. The events showed above all that we did not know the Belgian Congolese. We knew what the demands of the Turkish and Moroccan immigrants were, but not those of the Congolese. Everybody saw them as gentle, as pacifists. Then all of a sudden we became aware that there are problems. And that nobody really wants to talk about them.’

Over this fortnight Matonge became the symbol of ‘the riots,’ even if the incidents often occurred beyond its boundary lines. Thus adding to its reputation as a trouble spot area which has stuck to it since the beginning of the years 2000 and the appearance of urban gangs. But the ‘little North Africa’, as it has been nicknamed, has not always suffered from this negative image. In a text published in Revue européenne des migrations internationales (2), Sarah Demart paints a portrait of this Brussels territory, no larger than a postage stamp.

(1) Ophélie Delarouzée, in Le Soir, 6 décembre 2011, « La diaspora congolaise manifeste contre Kabila », p.18
(2) DEMART, Sarah, Histoire orale à Matonge (Bruxelles) : un miroir postcolonial, in Revue Européenne des Migrations Internationales (2012)

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