The plea of Africa’s stolen children

Belgian colonialism separated 20,000 infants from their mothers and expatriated them by force

While still a minor, he went on a holiday to Switzerland with his family but couldn’t make it past the Belgian border. “I was not allowed to leave the country on a stateless passport”, says Georges Kamanayo who, now aged 72, recalls how he had to take a train back home all by himself, while the rest of his family went on their holiday. His two brothers weren’t his parents’ biological children either, but they had both been legally adopted. Plus they were white. Kamanayo was hardly an orphan who needed a family: he remembered his mother clearly, as well as his grandmother, back in Rwanda. He also knew that his father was a Belgian. He was the fruit of a mix that was too dangerous for a colonial system based on racism. Dangerous enough to have his identity taken away from him and tens of thousands of other children. “That sort of thing scars you for life”, he says now, as he keeps smiling. He is accompanied by Ray (not his real name), who is now retired but was one of the children that spent time with Kamanayo in a Rwandan orphanage in the 1950s, when Rwanda-Burundi and the Congo were under the Belgian crown’s colonial rule. They used to call it an orphanage, but no orphans lived there. They were the children of African mothers and Belgian fathers. They were half-castes.

Ray, who prefers not to disclose his real name because he refuses to become “a victim”, has decided that —as a retiree— he will now devote all his time and energy to see that justice is done. That’s why he joined Belgium’s Association of Mixed-race People, a small organisation that has been lobbying the country’s authorities since 2015 so that Belgium will admit to the kidnapping of about 20,000 mixed-race children in the African territories under the Belgian crown’s colonial rule and will address the problems that stem from that. Thanks to pressure by this small group of métis (“mixed-race people” in French), at the beginning of April Belgian PM Charles Michel formally apologised for expatriating tens of thousands of children after forcing their mothers to give them up to orphanages.

The association is chaired by François Milliex, himself a métis, who told this newspaper how creating the association has prompted the Belgian government to pledge to look into the personal situation of all those people —the exact number remains unknown— who were stripped of their identity over half a century ago. They have also persuaded the authorities to issue visas to the mothers and relatives who are still living and, more importantly, to grant them access to documentation (in many cases, of a classified nature) that might allow them to retrace their personal history, as most of them were given a new name.

Neither black enough, nor white enough

Such was the case of Georges Kamanayo and Ray. Both managed to retrace their steps back to their origins. Ray complains that “searching for and finding my parents was very hard, but at least now I know where I come from. Not knowing where you come from is being deprived of your identity and that is a human rights violation: you are brought into this world and they take away your roots”.

They were neither black enough to be with the blacks, nor white enough to join the colonial community. They were segregated shortly after birth, a discrimination that their mothers were also subjected to.

The pressure put on mothers by that racist, colonial society is made apparent in a film, Kazu ngu, le métis (2000) where Kamanayo turned his own personal history into a documentary. Kamanayo was sent to Belgium at age 13 and, after spending time at several institutions, he was taken on by a foster family in Antwerp. He remembered life in Rwanda perfectly well. When he completed his film-making studies, he travelled to Rwanda with the Belgian public tv network where he was employed as a camera operator in order to reconstruct his history. He met his mother, who had become blind following the war and the genocide. He was even able to meet up with his father, a prominent Belgian industrialist who was married when Kamanayo was born and had moved to France. He showed no regret in front of his mixed-race son decades later, but was reluctant to say much. “My father was married and had a son, so I was born out of wedlock, born out of two cultures, two colours. I was a thrice forbidden fruit. I was less entitled to exist than the relationship between my parents”, he remarks on the documentary film.

For his part, Ray arrived in Belgium and ended up with a Flemish family which he describes as “racist”. His mother was not able to have a second child and Ray is convinced that he was adopted “to be like a pet” for their firstborn. He believes that is why his foster mother began to hit him when she realised that Ray was a sociable boy who got on well with others and made new friends. Ray ran away at age 16, but was sent back to an orphanage, which he left again as soon as he got a chance to. He knew he wanted to study and went on to complete his degree in engineering with flying colours. Yet the racism he experienced during his career was even harder to bear than in his childhood and teenage years. They explain that “Belgium also used to segregate and we were denied entrance into bars and clubs, and we would be patted down in the street systematically”. Now Ray is retired and lives in Dakar, but he often travels to Belgium as one of the representatives of the métis association who deals with the authorities to persuade them to probe this hushed-up story in depth.

The métis were and remain a taboo in Belgium, the untold story of thousands of people that were discriminated against and were driven into a corner of the system, both in Africa and later in this Western European country. Ray and Kamanayo explain that they had a stateless passport which showed that they were “originally” from the Congo, but had no nationality. Many had to take the matter to court in Belgium before they were granted Belgian nationality.

Taboo and ignorance

One of the reporters who travelled to Rwanda with Kamanayo for the first time was Peter Verlinden, a specialist in central Africa and a professor at the University of Leuven. He worked as a communication manager and an advisor to Belgium’s Cooperation and Development minister from 1989 to 1991. Verlinden admits that the matter was hushed up after the colonial period and, like many other scandals during European and Belgian colonial rule, the story of the métis “was ignored rather than unknown by a segment of the general public, as well as politicians”. Ray and Kamanayo both recall how —when they began their lobbying efforts— their stories were met with sheer astonishment by politicians. And it still happens today.

In 1999 Verlinden wrote one of the first books that included colonial testimonies. He admits that there was no information and he never studied that period in history in the course of the two university degrees he completed. In fact, until this year Belgium still had a colonial African museum of King Leopold II that hadn’t been reformed to acknowledge and expose all the crimes, pillaging and exploitation committed by the system. “We simply weren’t aware of it, we didn’t ask ourselves any questions”, he admits. But he is reluctant to criticise the transition to the post-colonial regime and the lack of self-criticism which organisations and institutions still denounce today, like the UN’s group of experts who published a report in February warning that racism is still present in Belgium’s institutions, and highlighting the need to apologise and rewrite colonial history from a self-critical standpoint.

The need to be acknowledged

Kamanayo and Ray feel that, until a few years ago, the old colonial class still had plenty of power in Belgium, which prevented its shameful past from being uncovered. Verlinden doesn’t quite agree, but he will admit that high-ranking officials from the colonial period were working in the Foreign Affairs ministry in the 1990s. That’s why Michel’s apology was met with optimism by the association of métis.

“It’s a step in the right direction when the prime minister says mistakes were made, but it’s not just important for us, but also for white Belgians. They should be asked how they feel when they hear about all this; it’s their history, too”. In contrast, Verlinden believes that “it is dangerous to apologise for stuff that was lawful, acceptable and normal in people’s minds [in that time]”. Furthermore, he points out that the “official reason” given back then was that the children were being expatriated “for their own safety”. The Church, which ran the orphanages and also issued an apology a few years ago (although its actual role hasn’t been fully established), claims that the children might have been in danger as a result of the war of independence. Verlinden thinks this is credible: “My research shows that they were shunned by the black and the white communities alike”.

The witnesses interviewed by this newspaper regard that as nonsense. “Why would they have to protect us from our own people and families?”, Ray cries out while holding his head in his hands. This is why they believe that there is still much to do. Following the upcoming elections in Belgium of May 26 Kamanayo, Ray and Milliex will keep up the pressure to ensure that pledges made during the campaign lead to a global reflection. “This is not just a Belgian problem, but a European-wide issue. Mixed-race people are not being discussed about because they are looking to conceal Europe’s colonial past, as well as that of other countries, such as Canada. Spain, too, should be held to account for its past actions in Latin America”, is the plea of this film director who has moved back to Rwanda since getting back his identity.