A statue of King Leopold II looms over a walking tour about Belgium’s colonial past and the Congolese diaspora in Belgium. “There was an exhibition at the Africa Museum five or six years ago, and it was basically just apologetic about Belgium in Congo,” said tour guide Annekien Van Vaerenbergh.
In October 2004, Maggy Delvaux soaked herself in gasoline, struck a match and set herself alight in the heart of Luxembourg’s capital.
“I made two mistakes in my life,” read the letter she left behind. “I was born black and I was born a woman.”
“My mother is a symbol, an idea — and she died for one,” said Ylhan Delvaux, her son. “People asking the right questions are now her legacy.”
Maggy Delvaux, who was Congolese-Belgian, moved the family to Luxembourg when her husband, Olivier, changed jobs. The move was also an opportunity to distance her family from the racism they had experienced in Brussels.
Her protest — which she staged to shed light on institutionalized racism — did not prompt a reaction in either country. The silence startled her family.
“There was no response, and it raises questions,” said Delvaux, who has spent the past 13 years trying to come to terms with his mother’s death. His father, Olivier Delvaux, is still involved in a case she brought to court in Luxembourg, accusing the government of racism.
For Ylhan, the tragic episode also highlights Belgium’s failure to confront its disturbing colonial legacy. Here, as elsewhere in Europe, a sense of collective ignorance and apathy has muzzled attempts to reckon with the country’s past.
Decades after Belgium ended its colonial rule in Congo in 1960, and a century after the atrocities committed in Congo Free State — a region exploited by King Leopold II as a source of wild rubber, palm oil and ivory under a brutal rule that killed at least 10 million Congolese — Belgians are slowly beginning to confront this troubled history.
Within the Belgian education system, the debate on whether the mass murder committed at the hands of Belgium’s colonialists constitutes a genocide continues. But through art, culture and advocacy, Belgians are slowly paving the way for an uneasy reconciliation with the past.