DRC's colonial-era statues wait in graveyard

Up a hill, inside the heavily guarded compound of a former Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) dictator, lies a graveyard of Belgian colonial-era statuary. A horse-mounted King Leopold II is stashed under a tree and explorer Henry Morton Stanley lies on his back in the dust, knocked off his pedestal by Africans seeking to remove symbols of brutal European rule from their cities.

Statues of Leopold and Stanley and other colonial-era monuments dotted the capital, Kinshasa, even after independence in 1960. In the early 1970s, then-dictator Mobutu Sese Seko ordered them removed.

“We didn’t want colonial status, but our own nation,” says 49-year-old Jose Batekele, who works in the Mobutu compound, guarded by heavily armed soldiers.

Mobutu is now gone—dead in 1997 after being driven from power—and the statues rust behind the gates of his private offices, awaiting funds for a final restoration and installation in a local museum.

“They’re a piece of Congo, we can’t deny that,” says Batekele, who is seeking funds to salvage the statues.
“The problem is: How can we restore them? That will take money.”

Batekele doesn’t know how much that may be.

The oversized Leopold, who sits on a horse and stares off the hill toward Kinshasa, appears mostly unharmed, even after a member of DRC’s post-war, transitional administration put the statue in a Kinshasa square in recent years.

Angry Congolese stoned the statue and demanded it be taken down. It quickly was.

The long-bearded Leopold, who treated the Congo as his personal fiefdom for years until the early 1900s, is particularly despised here for his forces’ use of the chicotte—a short, hide-covered whip that tore skin from the backs of African workers on the king’s rubber plantations.

Stanley, the famed explorer who helped build a railroad here in the late 1800s, is in worse shape.

He was pushed from his pedestal, though his feet were still attached. The rest of his lower extremities were propped against a rusting engine block, and the torso lies on its back a few metres away in the dirt.

The collection includes the boat Stanley used to explore the mighty Congo River, just down the hill. It’s in pieces, rusted from exposure to the elements. It still bears the letters “AIA”, for his African International Association.

The only colonial-era monuments in the small collection that depicts Africans shows them either picking pineapples or being inspected by a European doctor.

Still, even without the colonial-era statuary, the capital that was called Leopoldville before independence isn’t bereft of monuments. A Buddha-like depiction of the rebel leader who deposed Mobutu, Laurent Kabila, sits in a roadside display.

Bouquets of flowers lay at the feet of a statue of Patrice Lumumba, independent DRC’s first leader.

Unseen are the iconic depictions of the widely reviled and deeply corrupt Mobutu—with black glasses, leopard-skin pillbox hat and scepter—that were once ubiquitous in Kinshasa. They were pulled down after his ouster and death.—Sapa-AP

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