The quintessential African guy or gal somewhat has it at the back of their minds that they are out here for a season; the main reason to gather a place, a name and some funds to set up a cosy life back home one day.
Conversations tend to drift to that place of origin; where the weather is better, smiles are brighter and where family bonds are stronger. Meanwhile, they bide time here at work, study, marriage or even safety away from countries embroiled in conflict. In every European country where there’s an African population, you find nearby shops that cater to their specific tastes in food, music, clothing, jewelry and beauty products.
Matongé in Brussels has taken up everything to a whole new level. It’s like this city within a city where one can sink in and soak up the African culture as they shop, eat or even party. Created in the late 1950s by the foundation of Maisaf (Maison Africaine or African House), for many years it served as a meeting place for university students from the Belgian Congo, and unsurprisingly was renamed Matongé after the marketplace and commercial district with the same name in Kinshasha.
Fast forward to present day and you bump into more communities from other countries like Rwanda, Burundi, Mali, Cameroon, Senegal as well as those from Latin America, Pakistan, and India making it a symbol of multiculturalism in Belgium.
The easiest way to get to Matonge is to exit at the metro or bus stop at Porte de Namur and ask or follow the crowds.
And get here I have, with the mission to fix my hair.
The African girl’s hair in Europe is a tricky issue fraught with as many complications as there are styles. While back home, you can wake up and walk into a row of salons full of women all fawning and fluttering over you for your attention, swiping chairs clean for your comfort, waving coiffure magazines in your face for you to make a choice; here in Europe, you just may have that one ‘gifted’ hair person with whom you have to arrange an appointment way before the hair day. The appointment may suddenly be cancelled at the eleventh hour, or if it does fall through you may have to endure complaints and snorts the whole duration of the fix about your hair being “too short, too hard, too thick or too tangled and just why didn’t you apply relaxer or moisturizer before you came, to soften your hair?”
For this reason, I’m glad to be here. I just want to escape, even mentally into this place of warmth that briefly cures the pangs of homesickness. If I choose to have lengthy braids, I know that just like home, more than one woman will settle on my head pulling and tugging my hair in all directions. At the end of the day I will have a pretty head, feel the dull throb of a migraine and a week will pass before I can sleep properly, but I still come.
I still come though I know the room will be a little crowded and a little stuffy with ladies doing the same stuff to their hair that I’ve come to do to mine, a small child will be crying her lungs out with her mum desperately trying to appease her, a barber on one end will be shaving someone’s head and lingala will be blaring from the player.
The end of the hair fix comes and I dole out the payment, all the while brushing off stray hairs that have landed on my shoulders and escaped the aimed swipes of the hairdresser muttering her “Merci beaucoups,” amidst pleas to come again.
We walk around looking for something to eat. The choice of restaurants in Matonge is mind-boggling, but we settle down at Les Verseau for a Congolese meal of Poulet Maombe avec Riz et saka. It is flavorful and one can spice it up with the ground red pepper positioned next to the plate.
I amble back to my residence in the Netherlands knowing that in a couple of months I will be back.
How about you, have you been to Matonge?