The Tram to Africa
Photographs by Monica Narula, text by Rana Dasgupta
Essay : Belgium, Brussels, museums, Africa, Congo, Zaire, Leopold, imperialism, war, photo essay, photographs
Friday, June 20, 2003 07:19 GMT
With the coming-of-age of the European Union, Brussels is turning into a new kind of city: a mega administrative centre, out of all proportion to the modest nation state in which it happens to lie. The functional architecture of international bureaucracy is taking over more and more of the city, and the working population is increasingly comprised of trans-border, 5-day-a-week commuters, for whom the territory in which the federation’s capital has been set up is a mere afterthought. There is some continuity with that earlier lover of bureaucrats, Magritte: his entire city has now become like a museum piece, an implausibly perfect art installation of the contemporary managerial ethos, with its mobile people and mobile phones, and its jargon of trans-this and inter-that.
The war in the Democratic Republic of Congo stretches into its seventh year. A monumental conflict dominating the fortunes of central African countries during these early years of the twenty-first century, it has so far killed more people – about four million – than any other since 1945. Congo’s fabulous mineral wealth, which includes not only gold and diamonds but also about half the world’s coltan, a substance vital for the manufacture of mobile phones, means that even as foreign forces withdraw, local factions still have everything to fight for. The “international community” looks on with furrowed brow; but, at a loss for effective solutions, it has preferred, for the most part, to remain on the sidelines.
Not far from the European Parliament you can catch what was once called the “tram to Africa.” The tram takes you to Tervuren, where Brussels’ Museum of Central Africa is laid out in an impressive Louis XVI-style palace dating from the days of Belgium’s occupation of the Congo – when the city was not a transnational superhub but an aspiring European capital. This is a different kind of museum piece. Fearsome humanity skulks in the outer reaches of the mind, revelling in witchdoctory and slavery, masking its features with the warped and cackling faces of nightmare, throwing itself from the Heights of Man into mad chasms of bestial miscegenation.
The great beasts, carnivores and herbivores alike, are frozen in pacific melancholy. They watch with all the patient wisdom of nature, for, on a timescale of eternity, the tragedies of humanity are insignificant.