L'afrique C'ést Chic
If you'd like your slice of Brussels with a side order of plantain and a swig of rum punch, then you may want to saunter over to a very African corner of the city.Conor Creighton pays a visit to Matongé. Photography by Steve Ryan
The Matongé in Kinshasa is a wild, sweaty marketplace selling every kind of animal, vegetable and mineral. The Matongé in Brussels is exactly the same. And though traffic jams are common here – it is the tight, congested heart of the EU after all – the jams in the Matongé aren’t caused by heavy traffic; just a couple of friends from the Congo or Cameroon stopping their cars to have a chat. You may be in the very lap of the European dream, but this slice of Brussels is all Africa.
“Hair and food,” says 20-year-old journalism student Andrea Lulendo, as she steps out from a salon to give us a crash course on the area. “That’s what you come to the Matongé for. The important thing is to have an open mind.”
I’m guessing what that means in practice is to not get impatient if what you order at a restaurant looks nothing like what arrives on your plate – or if it comes half an hour late. There may be a bustle on the streets here, but that doesn’t mean anything’s happening fast.
THEY WILL COOK YOU THE FINEST MEAL YOU’VE PUT PAST YOUR LIPS BUT YOU’LL NEVER GET THEIR SECRETS
The neighbourhood started out in the 1950s when the Belgian empire was breaking up. Back then it was just a small residential area in the heart of the Ixelles district. But soon enough the African population outgrew the local one and the area was rechristened Matongé. Today, a quarter of Brussels’ inhabitants are of African descent, and Matongé is their playground.
But it’s also a neighbourhood to take a load off and relax in – attracting Europeans, Asians and others to share the same platters of food and mumble away in their own customised English beneath the boom, pop and fizz of African jazz. It’s only when you spot the black, yellow and red flag flying high over a building that you remember you’re in Belgium.
One of the main streets is the Rue Longue Vie (the “long life”), and it’s where Matongé gets spicy. A row of bars with names like Cap à Fric and Soleil d’Afrique manage to capture a beach-side atmosphere only a couple of blocks from the European Parliament. These bars are run by mothers who brook no quarter when the young lads out front get loose on the rum and drop a glass on the floor. They’re the real bosses around here and no one forgets that twice.
They’re also the best cooks. Kokob is an Ethiopian restaurant that operates as a gallery, concert venue and impromptu cultural centre. At its heart are two Ethiopian ladies, Baraket Salomon, 33, and Heria Janal Abdulshukur, 50. They will cook you the finest meal you’ve put past your lips but you’ll never get their secrets – you’d have to surgically remove the recipe from their brains.
“No no, you’ll go and start an Ethiopian restaurant on the next street if we tell you,” says Baraket. I wonder how long my freckles and red hair would let me get away with that one!
The Matongé quarter is indeed, as Andrea puts it, “a friendly place and an opportunity for African countries to show off their culture”. Django Reinhardt and Johnny Hallyday may set Belgian feet a-tapping, but in Matongé these home-grown singers may as well be cleaning products. Here, if it’s not West African hip-hop, it’s the laid-back sound of Fela Kuti or a cappella strains of Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Depending what song comes next at the various barber’s, your hairdresser will either sing or break into dance. Pray that it’s the former if the clippers are hovering next to your ear.
There’s a pattern to a typical day in Matongé. While the rest of Brussels is gathering over 8am boardroom meetings and contemplating what jogging route they’ll take on their lunch break, this area is hitting snooze for another hour. Since it comes to life a little later than its neighbours, breakfast isn’t really an option. Lunch is though, and it’s long and lazy. Porte l’Amour is home to 26-year-old Safia Beidou’s restaurant. She’s from Niger and sells typical African fast food. Basically, that’s fried chicken, fried fish, fried plantain or fried cow’s stomach. You can take your pick from either “tigadigue” (peanut) or “piment” (spicy) sauce. The time from ordering to eating is short, as the food only needs to be reheated. However, getting through the many family members and friends congregating at the counter takes a little longer. If you get sucked into a conversation about food, you can kiss your quiet lunch goodbye.
Outside on the streets, there’s a buzz as the hairdressers get to work. You get your “do” in the early afternoon, then come back in the evening to show it off. When we visit, all the boys are getting waves, while the girls are getting extensions and braids.
Getting a wave is like a sophisticated interrogation technique. We watch as hairdresser Alex Madesu gives us a demo at his salon. You paint your hair in a white relaxant cream and sit there until your head burns hotter than a stove. Then, once the pain is getting unbearable, you grit your teeth for another 10 minutes, before washing it out with a giant sigh of relief. A wave kills your hair into a style. You’re left with small ridges that look like map contours – and that’s how it stays. The hair won’t grow back unless you shave it off. A look like this can last for ages so, as Alex explains, if the barbers don’t introduce another hairdo or branch out into hot-towel shaves, it’ll put them all out of business.
Ndayizeme “Jimmy” Jumaine, 40, has a better business strategy for his shop. His barbers are volunteers, with the profits going back to charitable projects in Africa. The only haircut Jimmy does is called a “marine”: skintight on the back and sides with just a little patch of glory remaining on top.
“If you want a good marine, you have to get it cut every week,” says Jimmy, smiling like a man who could sell rainwater to the Irish.
Girls’ braids last a bit longer than a week but can take hours to do. It becomes a bit of a group activity, with anyone who’s hanging out in the salon getting involved. They tag in and out while someone runs off to fetch more plantain. Threading braids burns carbs like nothing else.
“When is Ryanair going to start flying to the Congo?” asks one of the girls at the CeleStine salon. “Tell your boss. Tell him to fly to the Congo. He’ll make good business,” says another. They all agree Ryanair could make a packet flying Sub-Saharan routes, and we promise to do our best to pass on the tip.
Is Matongé the most exciting neighbourhood in Brussels? Just ask the European Parliament bureaucrats who turn up for dinner after a long day climbing through red tape and culpability. Around here, you can eat like kids and laugh from your belly. Whether you’re African or not, it’s a place you can dip into, get your fingers sticky and forget about the legislature and the restrictions of the city around you. And assuming you don’t wind up in Alex’s barbershop getting your hair burnt into the latest fashion, a groggy head will be your only regret come morning.