My feelings about the Belgian colonialists grow ever more mixed.
On one hand, the Belgians sucked. In terms of their colonies, they were basically meaner, dumber French. There was the whole Congo Free State thing, where they managed to wipe out half the population of the Congo in 25 years or so. Then fifty years of the Belgian Congo, which was better, but that's not saying much. Twenty years after the Congo Free State had closed up shop, the Belgians killed seven thousand workers in four years on the Matadi-Kinshasa railway. They didn't abolish the use of leather whips on Congolese workers until six months before independence.
It wasn't just the violence, though that's the biggest part of it. The Belgians treated the locals with relentless contempt. By the 1950s they'd allowed a small handful of Congolese to get high school degrees and to be considered "evolues" -- literally, "evolved ones" -- but Kinshasa was still a segregated town where Congolese had to get out of white districts after nightfall, and at independence there were less than twenty Congolese with university degrees in the entire country.
On the other hand, the Belgians did build some stuff. I saw a little of this in Bujumbura, and more in Kinshasa. But you can see it more clearly here in Lubumbashi, the former Elizabethville.
This town was gorgeous once. You can still see it, just a little. It's ten degrees south of the equator and nearly a mile up, so the climate is delightful -- warm mornings, hot afternoons, cool evenings. The architecture fits it: lots of buildings with porches and balconies and shuttered windows and atriums. It's a town of broad boulevards and sidewalks, a lovely railway station and post office. It must have been a garden spot, back when.
And it's not just the town. Eastern Zaire gets all of its electricity from four hydroelectric dams. The Belgians built them all. The railway? Belgian. The inter-city roads? Belgian too. As recently as the 1970s, it was perfectly possible to drive across the country from Lubumbashi to Kinshasa -- more than a thousand miles, by road. It would take three or four days, and you might have to sleep rough once or twice, but people did it. Today it's pretty much impossible; the road is very bad everywhere, and in some places has ceased to exist, and there may also be "security issues".
The Belgians had a vision for the Congo. They wanted to develop it -- build railroads and mines and plantations -- for themselves, with the natives kept firmly subordinate as a docile labor force. They didn't see themselves as having a civilizing mission, like the French, nor were they distracted by Christian sentiments or strategic concerns like the British. Their colonial vision was narrow, and pretty strictly commercial.
So it was even more doomed to fail than the French or British. But while it lasted, the Belgians built a lot of stuff. They did much of it with native labor that was unfree, or in the last generation before independence, semifree. But still: roads and mines and rail lines, and this beautiful town with the nice wide boulevards and the lovely buildings.
Elizabethville was built to be the capital of a mining province, but it was strategically placed so that only one large mine is nearby. Miners, who were of course natives, would not be in the nice balconied houses on the boulevards; they would live in planned villages out at the mines. Elizabethville was intended to be an administrative and commercial town, controlling the flow of wealth outwards to the world.
Lubumbashi today is... well, "run down" doesn't really do it justice. "Post-apocalyptic" is probably too extreme. But there's a lot of deferred maintenance.
The town has had ups and downs. There were a couple of good years earlier this decade, when commodities prices surged and it briefly became worthwhile to invest in the Congo again. Then the economic crisis hit. You wouldn't think someplace deep in the interior of Africa would be hit hard, but that's in fact the case -- the crisis caused metals prices to crash, and metals are almost all Lubumbashi has. Most economic activity right now is from "artisanal" mining -- a nice way of describing one or two guys going through mine tailings and filling bags with promising bits of gravel -- and as a commercial center for the surrounding region: villagers come here to sell vegetables and chickens and fish, and come back with sandals and jerrycans. There are a lot of boarded-up buildings.
Our hotel is a large three story building that occupies half a city block. It has breezeways and balconies, and a large atrium that's full of flowers. The big main staircase is polished granite, which seems oddly appropriate. The walls are covered with art made of hammered copper. It's a handsome building. Our team seems to be the only guests.
Okay, I'm still putting these pieces together in my head. More in a day or two.