Sunday, April 26, 2009
Black people in contemporary Belgium
Belgium hosts the capital of the EU and is a small country right in between the Netherlands, France, the UK and Germany. The Netherlands, France and the UK have large black communities. There is a small but vibrant Afro German community. So what about black people in Belgium?
Although many black people live in Belgium, very little is known of Afro Belgian communities. The reason is that Belgium is a multicultural and multilingual country from its off set in 1830. The only 3 Belgian things about Belgium are its politically confused and chaotic capital (Brussels), its football team and its royalty. The people of this country are either Flemish or Francophone. The black communities too.
The Flemish people speak Dutch and the Francophone speak French. Therefore we can’t talk about the Afro Belgian communities. Belgium consists of two main ‘nations’ (or ‘tribes’ if you prefer), geographically divided and with each their own black communities: the Afro Flemish and the francophone Afro Belgian.
Brussels, Flanders & Wallonia
The flag of the Bilingual Brussels Regional Authority
The capital Brussels is a special case. The city is right on the geographical divide between Francophone Belgium and Flanders. While over half of its population is of foreign origin, the city is officially bilingual French/Dutch and all its street signs are in both languages (10% of all Belgians live in the capital). To find a job in Brussels being bilingual is an advantage, but in reality French is the predominant communication language. Dutch is important as an official language for the city administration, but only around 20% of the city population is really bilingual Dutch-French. Brussels has large minorities of North-Africans (predominantly Moroccan), Congolese, Rwandans, Burundians, Spaniards, Portuguese, Italians, Turkish, Greeks, Poles and many more. The overall majority of these people speak fluently French next to their mother tongues.
Except for the Turkish neighborhood, there are no mono-cultural ghetto’s. More and more Belgian youth have a very mixed ancestry, whatever the language they choose to speak most commonly. However, Brussels is a Francophone city experiencing most cultural and social influence from France. French speaking Belgium tends to refer to itself more as ‘Belgian’, than Flemish/Dutch-speakers do.
Besides the capital, Belgium consists of 3 other linguistic areas (see map). The north is the Flanders and is officially Dutch speaking (Blue, 58% of all Belgians live in this area). The south is Wallonia and is officially French speaking (Green, 32% of all Belgians live in this area). Some rural eastern parts of Wallonia have German speaking populations who have their own political representation (Purple and dark green parts on the map). Some towns around Brussels and on the linguistic borders have special status as bilingual entities.
Immigrant populations in Flanders, Brussels and Wallonia either have the Flemish-Dutch or the Belgian-French culture and language to refer to. The media of both language groups is totally divided. The school system and social-cultural policies are managed by two independent governments within the state of Belgium. Therefore Belgium, as a socio-cultural reality, doesn’t exist. It’s either Flemish or Francophone-Belgian. Immigrant populations and their children have to choose sides.
The Flemish Flag
Most Africans who migrated to Belgium during the last decades came from the former Belgian colonies in Africa (Congo/Zaire, Rwanda or Burundi). For linguistic reasons most of them decided to settle in the French speaking parts of Belgium. The Belgian colonial authority had been a Francophone one. French was still the most important language in their countries of origin.
During colonization Belgium was a Francophone country. Flemish culture and language was considered as lower and insignificant. It took until the 60’s before the Flemish Dutch-speaking population felt respected and accepted in Belgium, as citizens with the same rights as the Francophone. Not only the capital and Wallonia were/are Francophone. The whole Flemish upper class bourgeoisie was Francophone too, and still is in virtually all Flemish towns. Not speaking French in Belgium before the 60’s was considered being illiterate and uncultivated. Things changed much since.
The first Africans settling in the Flanders came from Congo and Rwanda-Burundi during the late 50’s and early 60’s. Due to chaotic situations in their home country, and thanks to relations in Belgium they often came as young children and were adopted within Flemish families.
The first African families to migrate to Flanders arrived in the early eighties, and even more in the nineties. Still, today African communities in Flanders are very small, divided and scattered all over the region. The highest concentration will be found in the city of Antwerp. However, the first adult Afro Flemings, who may be born and grew up in the Flanders, are now expressing themselves through different organizations. They want to be accepted as citizens of the Flemish region.
Some found their way to the media, others into music and sports, some became intellectuals. Below I will give you a list of the best known Afro Flemings or Dutch speaking Afro Belgians in Belgian media.
Ya Kid K. She was part of Technotronic and she wrote and sang the international mega hit ‘Pump up the Jam’. The girl appearing in the video is a lip-sync-model, not her. The video of ‘Get up’ is her first public appearance. Born in Congo (1972), raised from age 11 in Flanders. She’s Leki’s older sister.
Tatiana Silva. She was Miss Belgium 2005. It is also hardly correct to say whether she’s Flemish. She would define herself as ‘Belgian of Cape-Verdean origin’. She is perfectly bilingual and born (1985) and bred in Brussels. She released a song in English, the video was shot in Ghent (Flanders).
Eric Baranyanka. TV-presentator on the children channel Ketnet and front singer of the ‘Ketnet Band’. He was born (1959) in Burundi and moved to Belgium as a 3 year old child, he grew up in the Flanders.
Maya Albert. Her grandfather was Rwandan. She is a theater actrice and was born (1975) and bred in Flanders. She is most famous for a role in Thuis (Home) from 2003 till 2008. A very popular Flemish soap serie. She played the role of Aïsha, a Morrocan teenager.
Uwamungu Cornelis. A Flemish standup comedian of Rwandan origin. Born (1981) and bred in Belgium.
Elodie Ouedraogo. She's a Flemish athlete, having won silver on the 2008 Peking Olympics with the 4 X 100m relay race (in a team with Kim Gevaert) and she won a bronze medal at the wolrd championships in Osaka 2007. These are just some of the few medals won by the Belgian Olympic Team. She is bron in Brussels and is originally from Burkina Faso.
Ronny Mosuse. Popular singer song writer and free lance actor. Born (1971) and bred in Belgium. He’s father was Congolese. Ronny Mosuse was part of the band The Radios with which he had the global hit song ‘She Goes Na Na’. He’s the bass player in The Clement Peerens Explosition a popular Flemish rock act. He sometimes appears in the comic Flemish show, In de Gloria.
Sandrine Van Handenhoven. R&B singer. She was in the finale of the Flemish Idol (2004). She released an album in 2008 and appears on different TV-shows. Born (1984) en bred in Flanders.
Kimberley Gibbs. I don’t know much about her but she’s a young rising star in the world wide R&B network. She actually grew up in Maasmechelen, Belgium. As far as I know she has roots in Curaçao. But she definitely grew up in Flanders and made her debut there.
Kay Styles. A Flemish hip hop and R&B star. He was born in 1981 in Ghana and moved to Belgium with his mother at age 5. He grew up in Leuven. Real name: Kwasi Kyasi
Leki. Real name: Karoline Kamosi. Rapper and R&B singer. VJ on TMF, the Flemish music channel, where she hosts the hip hop/R&B show Cool Sweat. Born in Congo (1978), grew up in Flanders. She’s Ya Kid K’s younger sister.
Jean-Bosco Safari. Aka Kid Safari, real name: Jean Vijdt. Singer song writer born in Rwanda (1954), raised in Flanders
Afro Flemish ‘Intelectuals’ in the media
There are very few politicians of African descent in Flanders. Most politicians of foreign origin are either of Moroccan or Turkish ancestry. There are two local black politicians I know of
Marie-Cecile Ngamp, SLP (Social Liberal Party), Brussels, chairwoman of the Afro Flemish Center (Afro Vlaams Centrum)
Wouter Van Bellingen, SLP, member of the local government in the town of Sint-Niklaas. Became famous in a rather strange way. He is the local officer who inaugurates marriages in his town. Some racist couples refused their marriage to be inaugurated by a black person. This got into the media and became a big hype. The media discovered a soft spoken well educated black man who handled the situation with humor and diplomacy. He defied all stereotypes.
Ngo Kabuta, professor at the university of Ghent. Teaches KiSwahili and TshiLuba. Not really famous but sometimes invited on TV as a representative guest of the Afro Flemish community.
Gilbert Nyatanyi, was born in Rwanda, came as a small child to Belgium. Grew up in West-Flanders. Studied law and worked as a lawyer. He became famous as Gilberke ‘the black reporter who speaks West-Flemish dialect’. He interviewed some sports men and women while speaking West-Flemish dialect, which was perceived as hilarious for the Flemish audience. He made some more TV appearances as Gilberke in very popular Flemish shows such as ‘In de Gloria’ and ‘Alles kan beter’. He released a book in 2007, ‘Symfonie van zwart in wit. Zwarte Afrikanen in België’ (‘Symphony in Black and White. Black Africans in Belgium’). He recently moved ‘back’ to Africa, working for an international law firm in Tanzania.
Chika Unigwe. She was born and raised in Nigeria. She did a bachelor in Nigeria but did her Master’s degree at the University of Leuven and completed a PhD at the University of Leiden, in The Netherlands. She became famous after releasing her first novel, De Feniks (The Phoenix), in 2007. She was the first Belgian person of African descent releasing a book in Dutch. This is strange, because Chika wrote the book originally in English and translated it afterwards. She received quite some media attention though. She is married with a Belgian and has 4 children. She currently lives in a small town in northern Belgium. http://journal.afroeuropa.eu/index.php/afroeuropa/article/view/76/70
Zana Etambala. Professor of history at the Catholic University of Leuven, he teaches colonial history (1500-1960) and has been invited several times on TV to give his opinion about Congolese matters and Belgo-Congolese relations. He was born in Congo but came as a young child to Belgium and was adopted in a Flemish family.
French speaking Afro Belgians
Flag of Wallonia and the Francophone community of Belgium
Most Africans who migrated to Belgium after World War II came from francophone Africa. Therefore they chose to settle in the French speaking parts of Belgium. Consequently there are more black people living in Brussels and Wallonia than in the Flanders (i.e. the northern part of Belgium).
Most Belgians of African origin live in towns and cities. The biggest concentration can be found in Brussels which has a commercial and cultural black African neighborhood. This neighborhood has not to be mistaken for a ghetto. Although many Africans live there, they do not form a majority. The area is famous for shops selling African products. From vegetables to cosmetics. There are also many African barber shops and hairdressers, and several African cafés and pubs. This commercial area is called Matongé and has the same name as a vibrant neighborhood in Kinshasa, capital of Congo (ex-Zaire).
However, nowadays you can find African shops and hair dressers in every town in Belgium. Although most Afro Belgians can trace their ancestry back to Congo, Rwanda or Burundi, many other francophone Africans (from Cote d’Ivoire, Senegal, Cameroon, …) live in Brussels and other cities in Belgium. Many of these francophone Afro Belgians were born and raised in Belgium.
Although Morocco is technically speaking in Africa, black Belgians and Moroccan Belgians do not consider themselves to be part of the same ‘African community’. Moroccan Belgians see themselves as part of the Muslim and Arab world, even when they are ethnically Berbers. That is why I will not include Belgians of Moroccan descent in my list of famous francophone Afro Belgians below.
Just as most people of African descent in the whole world, Afro Belgians seem to be very well represented in the entertainment business. Note that the cultural world of the French speaking world is concentrated around France. A lot of francophone Belgians move to France to make it. France tends to consider ‘French’ any successful French speaking artist; whether Belgian, Swiss, Canadian, or any other. For football players I refer further down to my post about Afro Belgian Football Players. The list below is focused on the most important Afro Belgians who made it in the media: musicians, actors and other TV people, besides 2 politicians.
Viktor Lazlo. (real name Sonia Dronier) Difficult to say whether she is Belgian. She was born in Bretagne, France (1960) from Caribbean parents (Martinique-Grenada) but became the first black TV personality in Belgium. She presented the Eurosong Festival when organized in Belgium in 1987. Besides that she was a singer and had some French and English hits.
Marie Daulne. World famous with her musical project Zap Mama. Recorded several albums, collaborated with US artists Common and The Roots among others. She is a much loved artist in Belgium. She was born in Congo, and raised in Belgium by her Congolese mother (her Belgian father was killed in the first year after her birth).
Baloji. Born in 1978 in Lubumbashi, Southern Congo, he came with his father to Belgium as a 3 year old. He leaves home at the age of 16 and starts to rap in the group Malfrats Linguistiques, later Starflam. This group releases some albums and has a considerable success in Belgium and France. In 2004 he leaves the group. Last year he released his first solo album, Hotel Impala. This album is full of references to the relations between Congo and Belgium, his life story and personal quest for identity.
Soul ID. This is the name of a band, better known abroad than in Belgium. Three Belgian singers of Congolese and Rwandan origin sing together with a band of mostly Dutch musicians. This is neo soul, they call themselves Afropeans!
Dieudonné Kabongo. Actor, standup comedian, musician. He was born in Congo (1950) moved to Belgium as a young man. He became Belgian in 1970. He lives in Brussels. He became famous after winning the Festival du Rire de Rochefort in 1984. He tours the whole French speaking world with his hilarious one man shows where he confronts stereotypes of colonization, whites and blacks.
Stromae (Paul Van Haver). Hip Hop producer, singer songwriter, rapper. He's of Belgian-Rwandese descent but was born and raised in Belgium. He produced several tracks for french hip hop icon Kery James before breaking through with world wide hit "Alors On Danse" (2009).
Olivier Mukuna. Journalist and reporter. He has Congolese roots and writes polemic articles. He got the media attention with his book Egalité Zéro in which he asks direct questions concerning the case of Afro French humorist Dieudonné (has been condemned for anti-Semitism due to a sketch) and racism within French media.
Afro Belgian Politicians
Gisèle Mandaila. Born in Congo (1970). Moved to Belgium with her parents as a 11 year old. Grew up in Brussels. Studied at the Brussels University and is a politician on the local Brussels regional level in which she represents the FDF (Front Démocratique Francophone), a center right party. She’s considered by the French speaking media as a representative of the Congolese community in Brussels.
Bertin Mampaka. He was the first black person to be elected to the Brussels-City council. Today he’s member of parliament for the Brussels Region, and member of the local Brussels-City government. Born in Congo (1957), educated in Belgium. Lives and works in Brussels. One of the leading people of the CDH party, a francophone center party (was of Christian signature but has now adopted the label ‘humanist’).
Afro Belgian Football Players
Just as in all European countries, blacks or very well represented in the world of sports.
I will list you the best Afro Belgian football players of the moment. I will not make a distinction between Dutch-speaking or French-speaking blacks. Football is beyond cultural difference and language. Football players have international careers, use different languages, also within Belgium. The Belgian Football League is one of the last Belgian institutions standing.
Although Belgium exports many great international professional players who have good reputation abroad, the Belgian national team seems to lose every international competition. Most Afro Belgian football players now play in teams abroad.
Many players in Belgian teams are Africans (by nationality of their home country). I will not include them in this list. This list includes all Belgian professional players of African origin, whether they speak Dutch or French. These are the black players that can be listed for the national team.
Romelu Lukaku (1993) is just 16 years old, 1m92 tall, and plays already among the adults of RSC Anderlecht. He is a prodigy loved by the media and football fans alike. Although he's very young he is very down to earth and knows he still has to learn a lot. He plays a beautiful game! This is someone to keep an eye on. Romelu's parents are both of Congolese origin. He was born and raised in Northern Belgium and speaks Dutch.
Vincent Kompany (1986). Twice winner of the Ebony Shoe (a title given every year to the best black player of the Belgian Football League, Africans and Belgians of African origin) in 2004 and 2005. He won the Golden Shoe (Best player of the year in the BFL) in 2005. He currently plays for Manchester City. He grew up in Brussels and has a bilingual (French-Dutch) background.
Emile Mpenza (1978). Born and bred in Belgium, he’s a of Congolese origin. He recently moved from Manchester City to Plymouth Argyle. He has a French speaking background.
Axel Witsel (1989). Born and bred in Belgium. His father is from Martinique. He plays for Standard de Liège, one of the best teams in Belgium. Won the Golden Shoe 2008. He has a French speaking background.
Igor De Camargo is a Afro Brazilian who recently received the Belgian natianality and already played in the national league. Currently top player for Standard de Liège.
Gaby Mudingayi (1981). Norn in Congo, raised in Belgium. Is currently playing for FC Bologna in Italy.
Landry Mulemo (1986). Born in Congo, raised in Belgium. Has a Francophone background and plays for the Belgian top club Standard Liège.
Christian Benteke (1991). Also payer at Standard Liège. Born in Congo and raised in Belgium.
Faris Haroun (1986). Born and bred in Belgium. His father is originally from Chad. He plays with Germinal Beerschot.
Gunther Van Handenhoven (1978). Sandrine’s (R&B singer) brother. Born in Belgium, plays for KSV Roeselaere, married to Miss Belgium 2002. He has a Dutch speaking background.
Vadis Odjidja-Ofoe. Bron in Ghent. started his professional career at AA Ghent. Plays now for Club Bruges. His father is originally from Ghana.