In A Nutshell
Printed in 1931, Tintin in the Congo by Herge is today more famous for its racism than its whimsical adventures. The book’s black characters are drawn as thick-lipped savages who worship the white Belgian boy Tintin. In 2012, a case for banning it was heard in the Belgian courts (who ultimately ruled in Herge’s favor). Today, many shops will only sell it with a stark warning attached.
Yet in the Democratic Republic of Congo, no such qualms exist. Far from being insulted by the book’s content, many Congolese have embraced it, seeing it as a source of national pride.
The Whole Bushel
In 1931, Belgian cartoonist Herge published a book that would start a legend. Featuring young reporter Tintin and his dog Snowy, Tintin in the Congo became an instant classic, beloved by millions. Unfortunately, it’s depiction of race was unenlightened, to say the least. Congolese are shown as having big fat lips and expression of child-like wonder. They call Tintin “mastah.” They say things like “white man very good!” and bow before him.
Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t sit well with modern readers. In 2007, Bienvenu Mbutu Mondondo launched a lawsuit to withdraw the book from Belgian shelves, calling it tantamount to hate speech. Other countries banned it, and thousands of articles were written about Tintin’s racist attitude toward the Congolese.
Yet there’s one country where the book’s popularity refused to diminish: DR Congo.
While plenty of Congolese admit the portrayal of their ancestors was racist, just as many see no problem with it. In a journey across the country in the early 2000s, journalist Tim Butcher recorded encounters with many people—young and old—who wanted to talk to him about Tintin. In his eyes, the book remains popular because it reminds locals of a time when DR Congo was connected to the outside world, a place respected instead of feared.
Others have reported similar attitudes. Tintinologist Michael Farr has claimed it is the hardest book to buy in Francophone Africa because it’s always sold out. In 2012, Reuters did an interview with Kinshasa store owner Auguy Kakese, who said of the book “it’s humour, it’s not racist.” Across the country, selling Tintin trinkets to tourists is a lifeline for many families.
While none of this changes how uncomfortable the images can be to view now, it does at least give them some context. Tintin in the Congo was written at a time when Belgium saw civilizing Africa as its mission, and it reflects the values its author was brought up with. As Kakese noted in his interview, “for those who say it’s racist I say that in the comic strip, you never see images which show him trying to kill the Congolese.” That, at least, is a much better attitude than that of Tintin’s real-life Belgian contemporaries.
Show Me The Proof
Featured photo via Wikipedia
BBC: Tintin in the Congo not racist, court rules
BBC: In pictures: The unlikely Tintin fans in DR Congo
New Statesman: Herge fans in the Congo
io9.com: Why was Tintin creator Herge accused of being a Nazi Collaborator?