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Women and Migration

 | 
Deborah Willis
, 
Ellyn Toscano
, 
Kalia Brooks Nelson

Part one. Imagining family and migration

3. A Congolese Woman’s Life in Europe: A Postcolonial Diptych of Migration

Sandrine Colard

Texte intégral

Fig. 3.1. Identity photographs of Léonie Ngoie, ca. 1960–90. Unknown photographer. Personal collection of Léonie Ngoie. © Léonie Ngoie.

1My mother saved a stack of identity pictures detached from all the official documents she had possessed in her life.

2Her beautiful, barely changing face was like an imperceptibly developing movie of her life. Sometimes, the portion of a stamp on one of the photographs was still readable, and on the oldest, one could decipher ‘Congo’ or simply a few letters that did not form any comprehensible words. The official classifications, descriptions, identifications, evaluations and migration documents of which she had been the subject had vanished, and only her round face and eyes looking straight into, or askew from, the camera remained. Under all these different geographical and temporal latitudes, the same person had indefatigably persisted.

I.

3My mother recalls the shock of her arrival in Europe with a profusion of details. The autumnal cold, the frenetic pace of passers-by, the surprise at discovering that white people could occupy menial jobs. She had reached her twentieth birthday a few days before the proclamation of independence of her country, Congo, on 30 June 1960, and remembers it as the only night of drunkenness of her entire life. Almost exactly three months later, she touched ground in Belgium under the sobering low grey skies of the ex-metropole, where, against all odds, she remained for the rest of her life.

4Her journey had been undertaken, together with a few well-educated Congolese (and even fewer well-educated Congolese women) to pursue her studies in Europe. In the wake of a poorly prepared decolonization, it was vital to train the young generation who would step in for the Europeans swiftly. The education of African women had been a very late and half-hearted concern of the Belgian colonial administration, and my mother was part of the spearhead of a very restricted number of young professional women. If, for a moment, her encounter with a very much admired young politician, Patrice Lumumba, had almost deviated her route to the USSR, it was nevertheless in the orbit of the former metropole that she would continue to evolve.

  • 1 Antoine-Roger Bolamba, Les Problèmes de l’évolution de la femme noire, preface by M. Robert Goddin (...)

5The remarkable and profound shift that underlay her situation can be clearly seen when one lingers on the colonial literature and discourses that were circulating just a decade prior. The ‘backwardness’ of Congolese women was then a regular complaint of the authorities and young Congolese intellectuals alike. When my mother was just nine years old, an assertive, Congolese-penned book was published on the problematic situation of the ‘the black woman’ s evolution’, prefaced by the Minister of the Colonies himself. It deplored that Congolese women were stuck ‘at the point of departure of civilization’, that they had ‘no instruction’, were ‘primitive and full of ancestral prejudices’, and finally, that Black women were ‘by atavism, little persevering in their studies.’1 My mother swam against the current of these condescending notions. At the age of six, her father chose her from among her four sisters to be enrolled in a new ‘model’ boarding school for young girls, where she would be raised by Flemish nuns with an iron fist until her eighteenth birthday; upon completion of her studies there, she entered a nursing school where she finished the only girl of her otherwise allmale class; in 1960 her good marks caused her to be noticed by a priest who recommended her for a fellowship to study in Belgium.

6This success in overcoming the obstacles that loomed over Congolese women’s lives oozes from two small portraits that my mother had preserved from her youth and pasted in an album. Both showing her in her white nurse’s uniform, they were taken upon her return to her homeland, after her Belgian studies had concluded. The first is taken from such a distance that all that is recognizable is a white silhouette, detached on the skyline of the city. She poses on the rooftop of the hospital where she worked at the time, the Sendwe clinic, in her hometown of Lubumbashi. Up there, the wind that blew on that day made her dress ripple, but the hands held in the pockets, the buttoned-up shirt, and the feet delicately slanted in white shoes gently maintained the order of her attire. Her placement on the roof singles her out and detaches her from the masses in the busy streets of the city below, lifting her towards the sky that occupies the upper half of the image. As unassuming as her demeanor is, from her position she rises as on a pedestal; she is aligned with the proud ‘monuments’ of the city in the background, the iconic slag heap and chimney of Lubumbashi’s famous mine. Just as the mine had been a formidable ladder for the social ascent of men — responsible for the creation of the small local bourgeoisie — the nursing career opening up in front of my mother promised the same upward mobility, and the way that snapshot was staged by a female colleague testified to the mutual recognition of their climbing the social ladder, up to the summit of the town.

Fig. 3.2. Portrait of Léonie Ngoie on rooftop of the Sendwe Clinic, Lubumbashi, Republic of the Congo, ca. 1963. Unknown photographer. Personal collection of Léonie Ngoie. © Léonie Ngoie.

Fig. 3.3. Portrait of Léonie Ngoie on rooftop of the Sendwe Clinic, Lubumbashi, Republic of the Congo, ca. 1963. Unknown photographer. Personal collection of Léonie Ngoie. © Léonie Ngoie.

7Their landing in Belgium had been a humbling descent. If the medical system had been the pride of the colonial authorities, they had confined Africans to permanent auxiliary roles within it. The Belgian Congo’s diplomas were not recognized as equivalent to those of the former metropole, and my mother had to start her training from scratch. This social downgrade was aggravated by the racism of Belgian society. If she had grown up subject to the inferiorizing policies of the colonial state, the de facto apartheid that existed in Congolese cities had limited my mother’s interactions with Europeans to the nuns, missionaries and some professors who were responsible for her education. Now a visible minority in white society, her solitary presence exposed her fully to the crudest prejudices towards Africans. In the streets of 1960s Belgium, a Black person was still a walking curiosity. The strict colonial mobility policies had made the presence of Africans a rare occurrence in the metropole, and subsequently the provincial mindset of the average Belgian person was almost entirely shaped by imperial propaganda. In the wake of an ill-digested independence, this ignorance was doubled with a patronizing expectation to see these ungrateful Africans fail.

  • 2 Frantz Fanon, Peau noire, masques blancs (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1952), p. 122.

8For my mother, these experiences were never more stinging than during her clinical internships. In the words of Frantz Fanon, the ‘weight of the negro’s melanin at the first white gaze’ was saliently felt at the contact of white patients.2 The reactions varied from goggle-eyed and distrustful looks, children screaming at her approach in pediatrics services, to patients bluntly refusing to be taken care of by a Black person and punctuating their stance with racist epithets. With the indestructible optimism and gentle but steady combativity that characterize her, my mother remembers those years as bittersweet, with her love of learning being nurtured and some of her lifelong friendships being formed, but also with the feeling of out-of-placeness that would never completely leave her. None of these experiences predisposed her to choose Europe as home. If her studies had brought her to Belgium, meeting my father would be her reason to stay.

II.

  • 3 Pierre Bourdieu, Un art moyen. Essai sur les usages sociaux de la photographie (Paris: Editions de (...)

9Of all the photographs that my mother preserved from her life, those of her wedding with my father have pride of place in a thick, fully filled, imitation leather burgundy album. The banality of hiring a photographer for the occasion, of the ritual sequence of images and of their eventual ‘enshrinement’ in an album was nevertheless exceptional in 1969 Brussels, because the couple was interracial.3 In the French parlance of the time, the young bride and groom formed a ‘mixed’ couple. My father was a white Belgian, and just nine years after the independence of Congo from Belgium, this kind of ‘mixed’ matrimony was still out of the ordinary. In the photographs, the rather bold short pistachio wedding dress worn by my mother and the miniskirts and multicolored attire of some of the female guests suggest a post-1968 opening of minds that did not yet commonly extend to interracial unions. The small number of guests certainly reflected my parents’ wish for an intimate wedding, but it was also the result of the frowning that this union caused among my father’s circle. On some snapshots from the day, passers-by are captured in the background, observing my parents exiting the hall while their friends cheered. A man in a black suit and dark glasses sternly crosses his arms in a spectatorial attitude, and an elderly lady stops her walk to give a sidelong look, jaws slightly open; they seem to reflect the incredulity that a Black bride and a white groom elicited. My aunts, who all married at eighteen and bore a child almost every year thereafter, had deterred my mother from following their example, urging her rather to enjoy her single woman’s freedom. She had dutifully followed their advice, and waited until meeting a young doctor whom she loved before choosing to marry at twenty-nine. Living on a different continent and absent on the wedding day, her parents’ surprise at this ‘transgressive’ union had probably been soothed by the relief of seeing their daughter finally stepping into line at such an ‘old’ age. Living just a few kilometers from the city hall, her in-laws were also absent, because they disdained what they could only conceive of as a ‘doomed’ union. My Belgian grandparents were part of a generation that had been deluded by racist antiquated notions that made incomprehensible the marriage of their son with an African woman. Furthermore, my grandfather had been for a time the doctor of the Belgian royal family, the guardian of national cohesion and of the country’s colonial ‘respectability’.

Fig. 3.4. Wedding day of Léonie Ngoie and André Colard, Brussels, Belgium, 1969. Unknown photographer. Personal collection of Léonie Ngoie. © Léonie Ngoie.

Fig. 3.5. Wedding day of Léonie Ngoie and André Colard, Brussels, Belgium, 1969. Unknown photographer. Personal collection of Léonie Ngoie. © Léonie Ngoie.

10Hanging on the wall behind those responsible for officiating the wedding was the portrait of King Baudouin. It was the same image that had been ubiquitous in the former Belgian colony. A very popular figure back then, the monarch had been the champion of a flattering discourse that characterized the final years of colonial relations between Belgians and Congolese as an extended ‘family’ of which he was the benevolent patriarch. However, it is clear that this conceptual family was never supposed to translate into actual cross-racial unions, and the sheer hypocrisy of this national myth was proven by the unpopularity of my parents’ wedding. On their big day, my parents were not surrounded by any family members, only the friends my mother had made along the way, and the less prejudiced acquaintances of my father.

11As they left City Hall, my parents were cheered by their friends, who threw the ritual grains of rice over the newlyweds to wish them good luck in their life together.

12In one photograph my father offers his right arm to my mother, and with his left he brandishes their wedding certificate in the air as a sign of victory. They had triumphed over their families, over the royal portrait looking down at them in the wedding hall, and over the public opinion that was staring at this very moment from the other side of the street. Perhaps the gesture was also an expression of the conquest of their own fears of the audacity of their hearts’ sentiments.

13Twelve years and four children later, my mother unexpectedly became a widow. She was alone and far from her family, and if by then her parents-in-law had repented of their icy welcome, her decision to remain in Belgium to raise her children was still open to question. The album in which my mother gathered her wedding photographs is branded ‘King’, which is inscribed on its cover in golden letters, the letter K topped by a little golden crown. It is difficult to do away with the idea that my father had been the ‘king’, reigning supreme over the destiny of her life. A long time before her grown-up children and grandchildren had definitively anchored her in Europe, and before the country that she had left as a young woman had changed beyond recognition, she could have returned to the Congo, and could have continued her life among her compatriots. However, doing so she would have exiled herself once more from what had become her lifelong home, the souvenir of my father.

Notes

1 Antoine-Roger Bolamba, Les Problèmes de l’évolution de la femme noire, preface by M. Robert Godding (Elisabethville: Editions de l’Essor du Congo, 1949), pp. 12–13, 18.

2 Frantz Fanon, Peau noire, masques blancs (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1952), p. 122.

3 Pierre Bourdieu, Un art moyen. Essai sur les usages sociaux de la photographie (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1965), pp. 44–46.

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 3.1. Identity photographs of Léonie Ngoie, ca. 1960–90. Unknown photographer. Personal collection of Léonie Ngoie. © Léonie Ngoie.
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/7933/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 243k
Légende Fig. 3.2. Portrait of Léonie Ngoie on rooftop of the Sendwe Clinic, Lubumbashi, Republic of the Congo, ca. 1963. Unknown photographer. Personal collection of Léonie Ngoie. © Léonie Ngoie.
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/7933/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 92k
Légende Fig. 3.3. Portrait of Léonie Ngoie on rooftop of the Sendwe Clinic, Lubumbashi, Republic of the Congo, ca. 1963. Unknown photographer. Personal collection of Léonie Ngoie. © Léonie Ngoie.
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/7933/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 91k
Légende Fig. 3.4. Wedding day of Léonie Ngoie and André Colard, Brussels, Belgium, 1969. Unknown photographer. Personal collection of Léonie Ngoie. © Léonie Ngoie.
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/7933/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 240k
Légende Fig. 3.5. Wedding day of Léonie Ngoie and André Colard, Brussels, Belgium, 1969. Unknown photographer. Personal collection of Léonie Ngoie. © Léonie Ngoie.
URL http://books.openedition.org/obp/docannexe/image/7933/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 207k

Auteur

Holds a PhD in Art History from Columbia University, and a MA in Africana Studies from New York University. She is a historian of Modern and Contemporary African Arts and Photography, with a focus on Central Africa. Based on research conducted in Belgium, Kinshasa and Lubumbashi (DRC), her current book project examines the history of photography in the colonial Congo (1885–1960). She has also published on the ‘archival turn’ in African arts, and in particular on the work of contemporary Congolese artist Sammy Baloji. She has taught and lectured at Columbia University and Barnard College, and has co-curated the exhibition The Expanded Subject: New Perspectives in Photographic Portraiture from Africa at the Wallach Art Gallery (2016). Among others, Sandrine’s research was supported by fellowships from the Belgian-American Educational Foundation (BAEF), the Musée du Quai Branly, and the Pierre and Maria-Gaetana Matisse Fellowship Fund for 20th Century Art. Before joining NYU, Sandrine was a postdoctoral fellow at the Institut National d›Histoire de l›Art in Paris, affiliated with the ‘Globalization and Emergence of New Creative Scenes in Africa’ project.

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