Matonge district of Brussels, home to Swahili, Hindi and Lingala

Article published on Feb. 15, 2013
Article published on Feb. 15, 2013
A stone's throw from the European parliament, with its suited and booted men and women, lies a kingdom of imposing African women, urban gangs, African beats, busy call centres and Western Unions. The black district of Brussels takes its name from the business centre of the Congolese capital

Matonge originated in the late fifties with Maisaf (La Maison Africaine aka 'African House'), a student residence. It developed in the sixties and seventies following Congo’s independence from Belgium and the flow of migrants that followed. A melting pot par excellence, Hispanics, Indians, Pakistanis, Europeans and more than forty African nationalities 'live civilly' in the eccentric neighbourhood. Colours and noises of all kind bombard the senses, the smell of dried fish - and at regular intervals that of marijuana - gets into your nostrils, impossible to avoid.

Bright fabrics and synthetic hairpieces

This is a journey into the European Kinshasa; a multicultural gem embedded in the Europe of institutions. Among bright fabrics and synthetic hairpieces, a group of Congolese girls talk about how the 'district of foreigners' is a small village in the heart of Brussels. 'Here everyone knows everyone and everyone knows what you do,' they say. The Matonge district of Kinshasa is a lively district which is full of musicians, and which in some ways resembles its Belgian twin. On the wall behind the counter of a call centre DVDs hang from nails, mainly bollywood films and African television series. 'I'm Italian from the Congo,' says Boris, a resident of the neighborhood. 'I lived in Italy before coming to Belgium since I had visa problems.' There are about 41, 000 Congolese (of nationality or origin) currently residing in Belgium. In December 2011, they were angered by the re-election of president Joseph Kabila. The Matonge, base camp, turned into a trench. Demonstrations, shattered windows, damaged cars, and police charging on horseback and stinging sprays.

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At strategically located street corners, dealers wait for potential customers while police patrols meticulously scrutinise the urban landscape. In Matonge, drug exchanges occur rapidly. 'There are those who crumple garlic or onions into tin foil, instead of pot,' Momo tells me. The customer only notices it once they have turned the corner and it is too late. According to the Norwegian institute for water research (Niva) about 350 kilos of cocaine are consumed in the old continent every day, while marijuana remains the most widely used illicit drug. The fourth national health interview survey (Nhis) conducted in Belgium reveals that 14.3% of respondents aged 15-64 years have used marijuana in their lifetime.

Dreams of Pakistan

In a grocery store I meet Rashid, a Pakistani who in the company of an Indian friend and a boy from Bangladesh. All three share the Hindi language in common, and they sit and chat and joke among themselves. A couple of Africans enter calling Rachid 'papa', 'a sign of respect', he explains. 'I've been here since 1999; my wife is Pakistani but was born in Belgium. My brother has a shop a few metres down and speaks French better than I do. I am from Rawalpindi. My dream is to return to Pakistan to live. Even if it shouldn’t be said, I find life less difficult in my country.' We talk about Raja Pervez Ashraf, the prime minister arrested for corruption a few days ago on 15 January, before I take my leave of him.

Just outside the grocery store, the historic Vendôme cinema is situated on the border between Matonge and the commercial district of Brussels. The cinema welcomed the premier of the talked-about 'docu-thriller' The Brussels Business, a dip into the dark universe of the 15, 000 lobbyists who work in the European capital. There is a full house for the premiere of the film; tonight in Matonge, elegant officials and lobbyists parade to the rhythm of Swahili, Hindi and Lingala.

Images: in-text © Santosh Thatal; main in Matongé © Bibbi Abruzzini