Sikitiko (The King’s hand)

Filmmaker Pieter De Vos recounts the efforts of a group of activists to align history and truth.

If you happened to be strolling through the coastal city of Oostende, Belgium, you might chance upon a 1931 sculptural monument towering over the seafront, known as ‘De dank van de Congolezen’, or ‘The gratitude of the Congolese’.

“The Gratitude of the Congolese”

The bronze statues feature a crowd of people gathered on both sides of a tall marble pedestal. On its right side, the Ostendian fishermen. On its left side, naked Congolese. Both groups – composed of men, women and children – are leaning eagerly towards the pedestal and gazing adoringly at its summit, where an equestrian statue overlooks them both.

If you took the time to read the inscription on the pedestal, you would find out that the rider mounted on the horse portrays what the city of Oostende describes as its “glorious protector”, a Belgian king called Leopold II. If you retained a particularly inquisitive mind, you might feel compelled to delve a little further and read the explanatory plate accompanying the monument.

But the explanatory plate, you might find, explains little to nothing. Who was this Belgian king, this “glorious protector”, this Leopold II? What does he have to do with the Congolese? Why are the Congolese overfilled with such an abundance of thankfulness towards Leopold II that, surely in the attempt to lift themselves from the burden of its boundlessness, a monument was made and named after their gratitude?

It’s a taxing moment for your particularly inquisitive mind, restlessly racking itself in search for readily available answers. On one hand, if Leopold II’s legacy hadn’t been negligible, you would have probably heard about him in history class, or anywhere else, for that matter. On the other hand, if his legacy had been negligible, there wouldn’t be a pompous monument to remind posterity of it.

You inadvertently weigh up how much you care about the matter, with everything going on in your life, you automatically reach for the phone – what time is it? – and then you suddenly remember about that appointment you had with that acquaintance of yours in…oh no! Two minutes!

The missing hand

As the name of Leopold II is already anticipating its slip in the most undisturbed recesses of your memory, you pass the monument, hurriedly headed towards your appointment. But, with the corner of an eye, you glimpse a little yet significant detail you somehow hadn’t noticed before: while the rest of the monument is unblemished, a statue of a Congolese man is missing a hand. How so?

Yet another question your relentlessly inquisitive mind finds sealed to the knowledge it lusts for.

Hours later, after you conceded to the whole-hearted decision of researching the monument’s apparent riddles, among the previously unavailable answers, you probably found, and saw, Pieter De Vos’ short film “Sikitiko – The King’s Hand”.

Pieter De Vos is a brilliant young Belgian filmmaker, who manages a cinematic project called Docwerkers. While he jokingly says that he one day hopes to bring himself to make a film about women in volleyball, his work focuses on the injustices, which, he feels, have been less exposed to public knowledge. Including the ones happened many, many years ago, which were never fully acknowledged or vindicated.

Such is the case of the colonial abomination perpetrated in Leopold II’s name in the territory of which the king enjoyed calling himself the “proprietor”, though he never even set foot in it.

Leopold II and his reign of horror

At the end of the nineteenth century, that territory, 60-times larger than Belgium, had been called, from the king himself, ‘the Congo free state’.

In the attempt to slice himself a large piece of the ‘magnificent African cake’ as other European countries had done, during his domestic reign Leopold II had launched an extremely sly diplomatic operation which resulted in the Congo becoming, in 1884, his de-facto personal colony.

Despite Leopold II having presented his motives to other governments as purely ‘philanthropic’, in the want to bring ‘civilisation’ and ‘Christianity’ to the natives, and simultaneously liberating them from the evil of the Arab slave trade, an estimated 10 million deaths resulted from Leopold II’s atrocious personal colony and its immediate aftermath.

The king’s desire for exploitation, and that of his collaborating agents and functionaries, of the land and its people, knew virtually no bounds whatsoever. Much of the natives who weren’t killed were enslaved, or held prisoners, or hostages, or tortured, or starved, or mutilated, or whipped with the chicotte.

While it was not uncommon for newborns to be flung in the grass and left to die, men, women and children were forced in chains to work as porters, or servants, or concubines, or in the obtainment of ivory and rubber. The natives – children included – who didn’t meet their expected rubber quotas were either sentenced to death or would have their hands (or other limbs) chopped off.

The Bold Ostendians take the hand

That is why, in 2004, a group of activists, who call themselves ‘The bold Ostendians’, sawed a hand off one of the statues portraying a Congolese man ‘thankful’ to Leopold, in the attempt to give a more accurate historical depiction of what a Congolese man could have looked like at the time the monument was built.

The bold Ostendians claimed they would return the Congolese hand if the Belgian government issued an official apology to the vast territories which were brutalized in the past by Belgian colonialism.

Unsurprisingly, that apology has not occurred. The hand, therefore, is still missing to this day. The bold Ostendians named the hand “Sikitiko”, which in Swahili means “We’re sorry”.

The hand is uncovered

Sikitiko is also the title De Vos chose for the much-awarded 9-minute short film in which he recounted this episode of activism that took place between 2004 and 2008. The year 2010, the year De Vos made the short film, was significantly also the fiftieth anniversary of DR Congo’s independence from Belgium.

De Vos was investigating Belgium’s recent anti-terrorism laws, and their repercussions on activists and journalists when he became more and more intrigued with the Bold Ostendians and the missing hand.

The interest was mutual. One day, after having already started filming Sikitiko, De Vos received a phone call from the Bold Ostendians. “I was in between shooting days, struggling to get Anaclara (the actress, his sister) to record a voice-over”, De Vos recalls.

The phone goes off. A voice says: ‘Pieter. We know about your film. We like it. Come to Matonge on day X, and you’ll be able to film the hand’ “. De Vos would then become the first to see and film the missing hand.

A talk with the director

During an interview with Pieter De Vos, Words in the Bucket asked him whether he thought the naked truth about Belgian’s colonial past would ever appear in explanatory plates accompanying the several statues of Leopold II which to this day stand undisturbed and mostly unexplained in Belgium.

At the moment, De Vos is doubtful. “I think we’re still a long way from there. Also because, if you look at Belgium and a large part of Western Europe today, you’ll see these right-wing nationalist movements coming into power, or influencing power. These people are not going to be the guys to acknowledge colonial past. To get to the point where that discussion is being had in a fair and serene way, we need to have a lot of other discussions at the same time”.

The first person to openly and publicly denounce the atrocities being committed in the Congo was an Afro-American journalist and lawyer called George Williams Washington. While reading the closing words of his 1890 Open Letter to His Serene Majesty Leopold II, King of the Belgians and Sovereign of the Independent State of Congo, one can’t help thinking that, whenever the Belgian government will be ready to officially acknowledge them, they’d comprise for an excellent explanatory plate to the monument made in the name of the ‘Gratitude of the Congolese’:

“Against the deceit, fraud, robberies, arson, murder, slave-raiding, and general policy of cruelty of your Majesty’s Government to the natives, stands their record of unexampled patience, long-suffering and forgiving spirit, which put the boasted civilisation and professed religion of your Majesty’s Government to the blush(…).

To history and mankind, I appeal for the demonstration and vindication of the truthfulness of the charge I have herein briefly outlined”.

 

He continues “All the crimes perpetrated in the Congo have been done in your name, and you must answer at the bar of Public Sentiment for the misgovernment of a people, whose lives and fortunes were entrusted to you by the August Conference of Berlin, 1884—1885(…).

To history and mankind, I appeal for the demonstration and vindication of the truthfulness of the charge I have herein briefly outlined”.

Categories
Films from the Bucket
Isaac K. Wilde

Isaac is an Italian soon-to-be social work student, with a targetless passion for whatever strives to bring meaning in his life and in the life of others. His previous academic studies have involved cognitive psychology and modern literature. He is currently teaching English, writing short stories, and being publicly dispossessed of his true name by an on-going feud with shyness, hence his writing on WIB with an otherwise unnecessary pseudonym such as Isaac K. Wilde.

    2 Comments on this post.
  • Elisa Zucchiatti
    4 November 2017 at 10:20 am
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    What shocks me is the total lack of acknowledgement by the modern Belgian institutions of one of the most horrific pages of colonial brutality. The Royal Museum for Central Africa makes no mention of the mass murder of 10 million people and slavery and mutilation of as many others in its brand new website. Nor is the greed, duplicity and cruelty of Leopold exposed in the museum’s “About our history” pages. Yet the scandal and controversy that ensued when facts were brought to light at the time made it one of the first international atrocity exposures of all time. How can modern Belgium accept this hypocrisy?

    • Isaac K. Wilde
      Isaak k. Wilde
      7 November 2017 at 3:24 pm
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      @Elisa Zucchiatti
      Thank you for your comment, with which I totally and sadly agree, and I join you in asking myself and others how the ethical ambiguity surrounding this page of Belgian history is deemed even remotely acceptable in Belgium’s present.

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