Brussels has a strong claim to the title of the cosmopolitan Capital of Europe, not just due to its position as home to the major seats of government for the European Union, but also because it is one of the world’s most genuinely multicultural cities.
The place to kick off exploring exotic Brussels is unquestionably the African neighbourhood of Matongé, just a few minutes walk from the designer boutiques that line Avenue Louise, but a million miles away in terms of culture. Guide books rarely devote more than a few lines to Matongé, but its restaurants offer panoply of African cuisine – from the Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Cameroon and Ivory Coast. Pretty much all the Matongé restaurants double as bars and dance venues, opening their doors at midday and not closing till sunrise.
“Africa is present in every single street of Matongé, which has become a showcase of the continent in the heart of Brussels”, says Nicole, the owner of a small beauty salon in Matongé, Brussels. And despite the cold and grey that define the city, the streets of Matongé are always full of life. African culture is lived out here: street markets, call centres, people meeting in hairdressers, having tea and spending the whole afternoon there. Daily life is shared, and not lived only by individuals. Outside Matongé, the street markets become large malls, call centres have long disappeared, and if you want to go to the hairdresser, it is usual to request an appointment in order not to have to wait.
The name Matongé reveals the historical background of the neighbourhood. It is named after the commercial district and marketplace in Kinshasa, which was known also as Camp Renkin in Kalamu, Kinshasa. Jules Renkin was the first Minister of Colonies (1908-1918) and took the economical and juridical tasks of the colony over. He gradually reformed the Leopoldian free trade economy into a capitalist economy.
The Belgicains, Congolese students and diplomats living in Belgium, thus named the neighbourhood after the hottest nightlife area in Kinshasa, referring to the typical lively African atmosphere in the Matongé quarter in Brussels.
First the area emerged around Belgian colonial institutions and later it became the central meeting place for Mobutu-supporters and officials during the Mobutu era, for the Belgian and Congolese security services and for former colonials.
In 1968 the disco “Marie Galante” opened their doors. After four years it re-opened as „The Mambo‟ and it quickly became the most known place of the Matongé quarter. This “boîte” can be called the anchor point of African-Congolese music in Belgium. However the core of the Matongé in Brussels is built on the foundation of the Maisaf. It abbreviated from “La Maison Africaine”, which means “African House” and was constituted by a missionary Monique Vanderstreateten-Wayez for the immigrated students of Congo in the sixties and seventies. Until the end of the fifties the Congolese presence in Belgium was relatively limited. For example in 1947 the National Institute of Statistics in Belgium stated that there were, ten Congolese in Belgium. In a first stage with the Expo of 1958 many Congolese students came to Belgium, but it was not absolutely seen as a long-term settlement.
The Congolese community first consisted mainly of Congolese students, African diplomats, businessmen, boys that followed their moving “masters” and mixed race children.
The combination of these two catalyst institutions, La Maison Africaine and the Mambo, in the Matongé quarter formed the basis for the development of a commercial and intercultural character of the neighbourhood. This development gave opportunities to affluent Kinois to start businesses in the quarter. In a second stage after the independence of Congo, permanent African residents arrived in the neighbourhood and opened African-Congolese shops and businesses.
The easiest way to get to Matongé is to exit at the metro or bus stop at Porte de Namur and ask or follow the crowds.