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Belgium reckons with its 'brutal' colonial past — by upending the institution that glorified it

Pierre Kompany's grandfather worked for a diamond company in the Kasai region of the former Belgian Congo in the early 1900s, collecting money from local villages in a job that would give the family its name.   

"He would collect payments from all the shops in the village that sold European products," Kompany said.  

"At the end of the month, people were saying, 'Company is coming.' And … the name stuck. He was Mr. Company."

More than a century later, at the age of 71, Mr. Company's grandson has just been sworn in as Belgium's first-ever black mayor.

A former refugee from Congo who arrived in Belgium in the 1970s to work as a taxi driver, Pierre Kompany was elected mayor of Ganshoren, a community of 20,000 people northwest of Brussels.

Despite his historic accomplishment, Kompany is actually much less famous than his soccer-playing son, Vincent, the current captain of the Manchester City club and a former captain of Belgium's national team.

But Kompany's election is, indeed, a milestone in a country accused of allowing racism to fester by wilfully forgetting its colonial past.

Millions of Congolese died under the rule of Belgium's King Leopold II, who ran the Congo Free State as a private enterprise in a brutal drive to exploit natural resources at the turn of the 20th century.

"You have a lot of people in Belgium [who] don't know what happened there," Kompany said.

It is not a required subject on the school curriculum. And when it is taught, it is often a sanitized version. 

Distorted history

The Royal Museum for Central Africa just outside Brussels has long been accused of complicity in perpetuating that distorted history. 

Now housed in one of Leopold's Versailles-like palaces, its roots date back to 1897, when the king built a special tramline so people visiting the World Fair in Brussels could also visit his own exhibition showcasing his colonial exploits. 

He even built a "human zoo" of grass huts inhabited by 267 Congolese brought over to be a part of the display.

Part of King Leopold II's original exhibit at the colonial museum. (Wellcome Collection)

There is perhaps no greater symbol of Belgium's failure to address the dark chapters of its past than the museum, which has maintained its colonialist perspective for all these decades.  

"We have one gallery, for example, with the names of the 1,600 Belgians that died between 1876 and early 20th century in the Congo Free State," director Guido Gryseels said. 

"There's not a single mention about the many Congolese victims of colonization."

Until now.

Gryseels is the man behind a five-year renovation that he insists will "decolonize" the museum in form and message, delivering a more honest narrative to the Belgian public, which got its first look this past weekend.

"That the Congo was not the story of bringing civilization, that it was not a story of eliminating the slave trade, that it was a story of brutal capitalism, looking for resources, looking for profits."

Museum director Guido Gryseels has led the revamping of the museum's look and message. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Leopold's private agents were given free rein in his African empire. They used slave labour to satisfy Belgium's hunger for rubber and other natural resources. Those who fell behind in delivering their quotas could be punished with the loss of a limb, or worse.

That these horrors still feel somehow veiled from ordinary Belgians seems extraordinary.

Gryseels says it is an emotional issue for many Belgians, who will have had relatives who worked in Congo in one form or another over the years, in particular after the Belgian government took over from the king in 1908.

"Many people are very nostalgic about the past," he said. "For many Belgians, our museum is a symbol of the times when Belgium was still a major power, in 1961, one of the richest countries in the world thanks to colonialism. And, of course, now it's gone down." 

Immigration from Belgium's former colonies, which also included Rwanda and Burundi, was not actively encouraged before or after Congo gained its independence in 1960. 

But the Central African community here numbers well over 100,000 people. Whether to engage with the museum as it tries to reform and rebrand itself has been a difficult question for many.

Artist Aimé​ Mpane was initially reluctant to contribute a piece for the museum's revamped rotunda. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Artist Aimé​ Mpane won a competition to design an installation for the main rotunda of the new museum. 

It will serve as a contrast to statues still in place from the old era, portraying colonizers as civilizers, including a golden piece depicting African children cowering at the feet of a cross-bearing missionary.

A statue of a missionary and a young boy at the museum. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Mpane's piece, titled New Breath, is a giant latticework head sculpted from wood and placed over a crown etched on the floor of the rotunda.  

"I [wanted] to create one big piece that will take the place of King Leopold II," he said. "That will replace this story, which links us all, with the good and the bad."

The work also features a plant that seems to grow from the top of the head, in place of a crown, and draws the eye upward. 

"There's always a link between what's on the ground and what's in the sky," he said. "And that's to show the idea of genesis, of rebirth. We can rise above our past and reach something that's ours."

Mpane's work, New Breath, in the museum's rotunda. (Lily Martin/CBC)

Mpane says he initially had doubts about taking part, despite reassurances that proper context would be provided for the colonial statues. 

"But when I started to dig a bit deeper into it, I realized we're really talking about our history and we must try to make sense of it. If we don't take part in it, who is going to do it?"

Return the artifacts

Others say true contrition for the wrongs of the past would require returning all the cultural artifacts taken from colonial Africa now lining the museum's shelves, from ritual masks and sculptures to tribal drums and a wooden canoe carved out of a single log.

The debate in Belgium comes in the wake of a report commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron that recommended the return of thousands of items taken from former French colonies without consent. 

The report, which was penned by the French historian Bénédicte Savoy and Senegalese writer Felwine Sarr, has sparked debate in other European countries including Germany and Belgium. 

The current Belgian king, Philippe, changed his mind and decided not to attend the Royal Museum's reopening this weekend in the wake of the controversy.

Activist Mireille-Tsheusi Robert says the museum should return its colonial artifacts to where they were taken from. (Lily Martin/CBC)

"I think that giving back these works of art is a question of law and justice," said activist Mireille-Tsheusi Robert, who came to Brussels at the age of three with her Belgian father and Congolese mother.

"The original owners whose objects were stolen are villagers, chieftains, whole villages — in short, a country."

Keeping the works of art sends the message: "We vanquished them," she said.

For now, returning the artifacts is a step too far for Gryseels, although he acknowledges the role of the museum in Belgium's failure to see itself as a multicultural society and to reflect the diversity of its population in its public institutions.

"For most Belgians, their first encounter with Africa is through a visit of our museum. If then, in this museum, you get the impression that Africans don't have a culture of their own, that the European view is superior, then you can't be surprised that that has an impact. So we take our responsibility." 

'Only ignorance'

To really change though, the country as a whole must take on that responsibility, many Belgians say. To carry it out of the museum and into mainstream society.

Kompany says he believes his election is a sign Belgium is headed in the right direction.

But he also says the country must work much harder to acknowledge the past if it wants to free itself from it.

"When it comes to history, there is no compromise," he said. "Only ignorance."

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'An absolute monster': Florida reckons with Michael's devastation as it hits Carolinas

The devastation inflicted by Hurricane Michael came into focus Thursday with rows upon rows of homes found smashed to pieces.

Search crews began making their way into the stricken areas in hopes of accounting for hundreds of people who may have defied evacuation orders.

At least seven people were killed by the hurricane — the most powerful to hit the continental U.S. in over 50 years — in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina, according to state officials. They included a man who was killed after a tree fell on a Florida home and an 11-year-old girl who died when a portable carport crashed through a roof in Georgia.

Though weakened into a tropical storm, Michael continued to bring heavy rain and blustery winds to the Southeast as it pushed inland. The storm was expected to move across North Carolina and Virginia and push into the Atlantic Ocean by late Thursday or early Friday.

Hector Benthall, right, gets a hug from his neighbor Keito Jordan after remnants of Hurricane Michael sent a tree crashing into Benthall's home on Thursday in Columbia, S.C. Jordan was the first responder to the accident that sent at least one person to the hospital. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

Over 900,000 homes and businesses were without power in Florida, Alabama and Georgia Thursday, with search-and-rescue efforts underway in those states. The Army Corps of Engineers was supplying generators to help get power to storm-ravaged areas and teams to start clearing debris and begin building temporary roofs.

"This morning, Florida's Gulf Coast and Panhandle and the Big Bend are waking up to unimaginable destruction," Florida Gov. Rick Scott said.

"So many lives have been changed forever. So many families have lost everything. … This hurricane was an absolute monster."

In Florida, the town of Mexico Beach appeared to be "ground zero," said Brock Long, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

A reporter and photojournalist from the Tampa Bay Times ventured there in the dark early Thursday, finding the town of about 1,000 almost impassable. They reported seeing many destroyed homes, some with staircases leading to doors suspended three metres in the air with nothing on the other side, entire structures washed away. Refrigerators and toilets and piles of soggy furniture were strewn across properties.

Watch aerial footage of damage caused in Florida from Hurricane Michael's direct hit. 1:20

In Panama City, downed power lines lay nearly everywhere. Roofs were peeled away and sent airborne. Aluminum siding was shredded to ribbons. Homes were split open by fallen trees, hundreds of cars had broken windows and twisted street signs lay on the ground. 

The National Hurricane Center said the storm was centred about 40 kilometres south of Greensboro, N.C., as of 2 p.m. ET., moving northeast at 37 kilometres per hour. Top sustained winds were 85 km/h; the storm made landfall in Florida on Wednesday afternoon with top sustained winds of nearly 250 km/h.

Forecasters said it could drop up to 18 centimetres of rain over the Carolinas and Virginia before pushing out to sea.

Officials hoped the fast-moving nature would limit the impact of flooding in the Carolinas, where rivers in several counties rose dangerously as a result of Hurricane Florence last month.

"For North Carolina, Michael isn't as bad as Florence, but it adds unwelcome insult to injury, so we must be on alert," Gov. Roy Cooper said.

Floridians survey damage in the coastal township of Mexico Beach, which lay devastated on Thursday after Hurricane Michael made landfall on Wednesday in the Florida Panhandle. (Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times via AP)

The U.S. Coast Guard in Mobile, Ala., said its crews had rescued 27 people, mostly from damaged homes, while in Panama City, Fla., a Jayhawk rescue helicopter crew pulled nine people from a bathroom of a home after a roof collapsed Wednesday afternoon.

The coast guard said there were no reports of deaths from their missions across the Florida Panhandle.

'Do you think it would have floated away?'

A National Guard team got into Mexico Beach and found 20 survivors overnight, and more crews were pushing into the area in the morning, with the fate of many residents unknown, authorities said. State officials said 285 people in Mexico Beach had refused to leave ahead of the hurricane despite a mandatory evacuation order.

Mishelle McPherson and her ex-husband searched for the elderly mother of a friend. The woman lived in a small cinderblock house about 137 metres from the Gulf and thought she would be OK.

Her home was reduced to crumbled cinderblocks and pieces of floor tile.

"Aggy! Aggy!" McPherson yelled. The only sound that came back was the echo from the half-demolished building and the pounding of the surf.

"Do you think her body would be here? Do you think it would have floated away?" she asked.

As she walked down the street, McPherson pointed out pieces of what had been the woman's house: "That's the blade from her ceiling fan. That's her floor tile."

Mishelle McPherson looked Thursday for an elderly acquaintance she believes did not follow evacuation recommendations, in Mexico Beach, Fla. (Gerald Herbert/Associated Press)

Storm-related road closures included a 125-kilometre stretch of Interstate 10 in Florida as a result of what an official called "extremely hazardous conditions," as well as the Talmadge Bridge on U.S. 17 between Savannah, Ga., and South Carolina, which was closed because of the threat of high winds on the suspension bridge that spans the Savannah River.

Michael sprang quickly from a weekend tropical depression, gaining strength from the warm Gulf of Mexico waters to a Category 4 hurricane. It moved so fast that people didn't have much time to prepare, and emergency authorities lamented that many ignored the warnings and seemed to think they could ride it out.

Amanda Logsdon begins the process of trying to clean up her home Thursday in Panama City after the roof was blown off by the passing winds of the hurricane. (Joe Readle/Getty Images)

The Red Cross said 7,800 evacuees took refuge in 100 shelters across three states. It has prepared cots and supplies across the affected states for a greater number of people, given the expectation many homes will be uninhabitable for some time.

Based on its internal barometric pressure, Michael was the third most powerful hurricane to hit the U.S. mainland, behind the unnamed Labour Day storm of 1935 and Camille in 1969. Based on wind speed, it was the fourth strongest, behind the Labour Day storm, Camille and Andrew in 1992.

With files from Reuters and CBC News

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