Fireside Chat with Congolese


As the snow was lying on the ground in Brussels, I was living in the African quarter. I was occupying the antique idyll of a female EU official. While the EU official was travelling in exotic India, I was tasting the exoticism of her African neighbourhood.


I was looking through a large, antique window into a small walled garden. What pleased me most of all was the fireplace. I had never been to Africa, had never had anything to do with Africans, but now the crackling fire and the snow-covered little garden evoked a fantasy in me. I gave the fantasy a name: “Fireside Chat with Congolese”.


The African quarter is small: you can cross it in ten minutes. It's called "Matongé", after a place in the Congo, the former Belgian colony. About 4000 people from Brussels have Congolese roots.


I was looking for respite from the Europe quarter, which appeared to me to be the most boring place in the world with its culture of correctness. Matongé and the Europe quarter, the African and the European cattle pens, directly abutting one another. To the left of the Rue de Trône, office blocks rear up, while to the right of the Trône stand narrow unornamented tenements.


I headed off every evening. I found out that the African community hasn't been dominated by the Congolese now for a long time. A lot of people in Matongé speak better English than French and many were from Ruanda. I got to know a Tuareg from Niger, a Nigerian from Antwerp, Sengalese in “Le Dakar”, Cameroonians and Burundians. Many Africans no longer live in Matongé since the incoming Europeans have wrecked the rent prices.


One Saturday I came across the “Passage d’Ixelles”, a shabby shopping arcade with two dozen tiny hairdressing salons; stores everywhere with artificial hair and pre-packed braids of human hair. On Saturday the hairdressing salons were full: the cult of hair mesmerised the African women the entire day.


The hairdressers worked behind glass. I often didn’t understand what was going on there. Behind a pane sat a skinny black princess, bending forward. She had a white towel over her shoulders, heavy, long locks hanging over her face. She sat there without moving, no eyes to be seen. The hairdresser had a big needle and was sewing with brio around the customer's head. Was I seeing right? Was she sewing into the scalp? Was that maybe not a woman at all? Was I looking at a doll? Suddenly the putative doll raised its head. The princess looked at me from white pupils.


Late evening, I used to increasingly hang around in “La Callebasse”, a poky bar in the narrow angle of a corner house; exclusively Congolese. In the beginning I used the change of local to feed the fire in the open fireplace at home. The chimney smoked terribly and my European guests reproached me. I quietly cancelled the fireside chat with Congolese.


In “La Callebasse” something similar took place anyway. On my first visit I saw a young Nubian woman there, sitting between two sweetly-smiling Belgian uncles. One of the uncles disappeared, the other was her husband. The Nubian's posture alone spoke of unaffected pride. She nodded me over to her table. She warned me, without having been asked, about African women. Then she prophesied with a knowing look: “If you've once had an African woman, you'll never touch a white woman again."


Another time the landlord told me that eurocrats are always ending up in his Congolese men’s bar. I asked him if he didn’t find this breed boring. “Bored, rather”, he answered. He was the more precise.   


A few days previously, a female Flemish EU official had come in: good-looking, about 30. "She wanted cocaine and an African", he explained, "and both at the same time at that". He had the Africans, but not the cocaine, so she left. The landlord couldn't have had any idea how much boldness his story gave me. The next day I went over into the Europe quarter much more light-heartedly.