AN AFRICAN MIST ABOVE ELSENE
Business is buzzing in the air all around the Porte de Namur, the entry gate of the Brussels’ district where Africans like spending their time. That is Matongé, at the Porte de Namur or the Gate of Love) as they have themselves renamed it. Black Africa colors the streets, fruit and vegetable stalls display their exotic commodities. Cassava, plantains, peanuts, peppers and other (assortment) smilingly invite you. In the Gallerie d’Ixelles loud African beats and rhythms force their way into your ears. From plastic garden chairs, glasses en bottles of the 75 cl Jupiler beer are emptied. The hairdresser’s salons go into overdrive, always packed with people and convivial chats filling the air. Colorful clothes shops, local restaurants and pubs complete the entire picture. Of course such an African neighbourhood did not fall from heaven…
A century ago, the neighborhood around Porte de Namur was the political center for Congo, the Belgian colony. The Norwegian Pavilion, the Ministry of Colonies, the Belgian Bank for Africa, Hotel Barbanson, where various colonial administrations had their offices… With all that we had the institutions in our district but no Africans around. That began to happen only after the world exhibition of 1958, but before then the Congolese were preferably kept away from Belgium to prevent them from acquiring and developing “crazy” ideas (liberalism, socialism, democracy) .
During the Expo ’58 a choir from Congo came here to sing. One Monique van der Straten, blessed with blue blood, cared for their reception. Obviously such an exhibition is just a temporary affair. Upon departing, however, Monique told the performers: ‘ He that wishes to come and study in Belgium next year is welcome ‘. And that was it! Barely a year later eight of them stood at her door, and 360 more days later there came another twenty. That was a bit too much for Mrs. van der Straten who decided to buy for them a building in Saint-Josse-ten-Node. But quickly that facility also became too small. She eventually ended up with her ‘ brood ‘ in Ixelles. Today you can find La Maison Africaine in Rue Alsace Lorraine which still houses about 72 students.
A quick development ensued. More and more shops and entertainment opportunities that respond to the presence of a thousand African students make the area flourish. Originally the name Matongé is a popular fruit that Congolese used to collect at the area where the first ‘ African ‘ district was later built in the Congolese capital Kinshasa. The area was formerly called Quartier Renkin after Jules Renkin the then Belgian minister in charge of Colonies. The district was renamed during the “zaïreanisation” under Mobutu.
Today the African character of the neighborhood is under pressure. Most Africans do not actually live in Matongé, the district is primarily a meeting and shopping area. Moreover, the neighbouring European District with its Parliament and several other institutions, is unmercifully making inroads. More and more Asians, mostly Indians and Pakistanis are taking over the businesses. So the question therefore is Yes Matongé, the Gate of Love, the African District, but for how long?
Less than a year ago as you strolled the streets of Matongé, at the junction of Chausée de Wavre and Chaussée d’Ixelles, you were welcomed by an imposing painting which shows the residents of the district massed together at the junction. They comment on the intercultural character of Brussels city, their fears and desires in their new homeland Belgium. The fresco is the work of the renowned Congolese artist Chéri Samba. He was one of the most critical artists of the Zairean regime under Mobutu.