Africa in Words Guest: Rianne Walet
I am a cultural heritage student from the Netherlands. From September 2013 till February 2014 I had the privilege of doing an internship with the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool. For five lovely months I became a member of ISM’s education team. While working on several projects, I found out how important it is to teach people, both young and old, about Africa as the amazingly varied and culturally rich continent it is.
One of the projects I had the chance to be involved in, was the development of the exhibition Brutal Exposure; the Congo which runs till 7 September 2014. The exhibition evolves around pictures taken by missionary Alice Seeley-Harris during her time in the Congo, Central Africa, in the early 1900’s. They show the brutal exploitation of the Congolese people by Belgian authorities, supervised by King Leopold II of Belgium, who was the colonial ruler in that time. Led by greed, the Belgians forced the Congolese inhabitants to grow and collect rubber and other natural resources. The suffering of an entire people was the result. These pictures have travelled all around Western Europe in the 1900’s and made a huge group of people aware of the cruel treatment of the Congolese and the insanity of colonialism, making it the first known human rights campaign ever. Now, modern day visitors have the same opportunity to see the images and learn about a terrible history which has left its mark on the Congo till this day. The phrase ‘a picture says more than a thousand words’ has never been so true.
From my point of view, the most important aspect of this exhibition was not to scare visitors with these often shocking pictures. The goal was to make visitors more aware of this history of the Congo. It also gives them the opportunity to learn more about how the crimes committed in that time still affect the Congo, and even Africa as a whole, to this day. Seeing and understanding are two completely different things, which is why the exhibitions team designed a learning room dedicated to teaching the visitors about the Congo as broadly as possible by using documentaries, books and digital information. The exhibition shows terrible events which happened in the Congo, but there are also positive sides to this story. A lecture by Mr. Vava Tampa of Save the Congo has taught me that this country has enough natural resources to provide the entire African continent of energy and food. Ms. Petronelle Moanda of the Congolese Association of Merseyside spoke beautifully about her pride to be Congolese and her ideas for the future of her country. One of her quotes has a prominent place in the exhibition: ‘It is a blessing to be Congolese and nobody can become Congolese by might, greed or power!’ It is a reminder of the strength of the Congolese people and the opportunities this rich country may have in the future. This is something which we should not forget.
This internship has opened my eyes to the importance of teaching both ourselves and others about the African continent. This involves ‘difficult heritage’ like Transatlantic Slavery and colonial histories like the Congolese history, which still plays an important (yet sometimes hidden) role in modern day Africa and Europe, but also showing people the often unseen positive sides of Africa. These are the histories which date back millions of years, the richness of African nature, resources, art and music and of course the varied cultures which have been spread all over the world. But to me, the greatest lesson of all is to learn about Africa as a continent of opportunities and development which is the achievement of its resilient inhabitants.
Link to the Brutal Exposure exhibition: