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Belgian Congo - Expo Liege 1939

Belgian Congo at the Exhibition Expo Liege 1939
© Daniel
Architect(s) : Lacoste et Devignée

Composed of a large hall of honour in the centre of two long wings reserved for the different sections, the Palais du Congo Belge unfurled its openwork façade on the banks of the Meuse. In the axis, right in the river, a gigantic "totem" of a happy imagination, signalled it. All the architectural details and decorative motifs were clearly inspired by indigenous art. The most characteristic feature of this building was the originality of its polychromy: the English red of the pillars blended very well with the "Belgian flag" tones of the woodwork on the main façade.

The other façade was enhanced by a very rich blue tone, dotted with gold stars, the insignia of the Congolese flag. The "totem pole" with its warmly coloured masks completed the exotic atmosphere of this happy achievement.

There were two reasons why the Belgian Congo had to take part in the Exhibition in a grandiose way. On the one hand, it is clear to everyone that water plays an essential role in the exploitation of our colony, and the programme would not have been completely fulfilled if this issue had not been dealt with in a special section. On the other hand, it once again provided an opportunity for active propaganda with a view to strengthening the colonial spirit among our compatriots. No opportunity should be lost to highlight the importance of the Congo in the economic development of our country.

This participation was manifested by the construction of a vast palace on the right bank of the Meuse, near the Coronmeuse bridge. It is interesting to note that, in addition to the exhibition itself on the theme of water, a large place was given to the attractive techniques of indigenous art.

In order to build and present this exhibition, the collaboration of personalities who, through their experience of Africa, could not fail to provide valuable assistance to the Ministry of the Colonies, was called upon.

The Colonial Commission created for this purpose, chaired by Mr. Paul Tschoffen, former Minister of the Colonies, included many civil servants, qualified representatives of colonial groups, study organisations and private companies. By the same royal decree, the Executive Committee of Participation was set up, composed of about ten personalities and chaired by Mr. C. Camus, Director General of the Ministry of Colonies.

The subject matter was essentially included in classes 22 and 23 of the General Classification. It should be mentioned here, however, that among the exhibitors in other pavilions and mainly in other classes, a good number were keen to highlight their products or activities relating specifically to tropical countries. This concern has been noted in other chapters.

It deserves to be encouraged and perhaps it would be advisable that in future exhibitions the organisers take care to reward exhibitors who make an effort in this direction with a special mention. It is fortunate that our producers are thinking more and more of directing their prospecting towards our colonial market which, as we know, offers very interesting prospects. There is no doubt that, in the near future, the place occupied by the Congo in our outlets will be of such importance that it alone will enable us to keep many of our industries alive. In addition, our Colony will be able to supply us with many of the raw materials that our factories need.

Let us now turn to the description of the Palace, which included a main hall flanked on each side by a vast gallery. On the river side, dominating a large terrace, stood a 40-metre high trophy: shields, spears and gigantic masks were piled up in a vast column up to the great bulwark hovering above the water.

The hall of honour dedicated to Leopold II, the brilliant founder of our colonial empire, gave a glimpse of indigenous art and crafts. Wickerwork, statuettes, fetishes and weapons were displayed.

The left wing was devoted to the following sections: medical hydrology, ground and surface water studies, the National Parks Institute, tourism, fisheries, climatology and meteorology.

The MEDICAL HYDROLOGY section had as its themes water as a useful factor and water as a harmful factor in the Belgian Congo. Two large dioramas were made for this purpose. One represented a ravine in Matadi in its wild state, i.e. with all the natural excavations and slopes where water and piles of plant detritus remain, facilitating the hatching of harmful germs, especially mosquito larvae. The other represented the same ravine drained by Europeans, with a regular slope, to ensure that the water runs off completely without the slightest stagnation, and consequently no longer presents the same dangers. This set was completed by photographs and scientific documentation on the parasites having their natural habitat in the soiled water of the colonies (eggs and larvae of mosquitoes, amoebas, intestinal worms, etc.).

The SURFACE AND GROUND WATER stand was furnished with maps of Katanga and north-eastern Congo showing the location of thermo-mineral springs, panels showing the exploitation of salt mines and documents relating to the main waterfalls of the Colony.

The INSTITUT DES PARCS NATIONAUX exhibited some of the means used by animal and plant organisms to fight against the lack of water. It presented several specimens of protopterans in aquaria and a protopteran in cocoon appearing in a dried out soil section. The protoptera is known to be widespread throughout Congo and is particularly abundant in the swamps, streams and lakes of Albert National Park and Upemba National Park. It is one of the most famous animals in Africa. It is a survivor of a very ancient fauna from the primary era and has both fish-like gills and real lungs. This allows it to live in muddy waters. During the dry season, when the water recedes, it sometimes remains trapped in pools that are drying up. It then sinks into the mud and folds in on itself at the bottom of a gallery. The mucilage secreted by the skin dries out on contact with the hardened earth and forms a cocoon. In this cocoon, the protopteran is lethargic and breathes exclusively through its lungs. When the rainy season returns, the mud soaks in and softens: the animal frees itself and soon resumes its normal life in the pools reconstituted by the floods.

The stand also included xerophytic plants (aloes, sansevières, euphorbias) which concentrate moisture reserves in their stems and leaves and are examples of latent life that takes refuge, during the dry season, under the surface of the soil.

From the point of view of TOURISM, among the many sites worthy of attention and where water plays a preponderant role, the choice fell on Mikeno and Lake Kivu.

Although only two niches had been specially reserved for this section, it should be borne in mind that, in fact, the tourist propaganda extended throughout the Palace. The numerous dioramas and photographic panels lining the other booths, executed with remarkable care, did not fail to draw attention to the natural beauties likely to interest the tourist.

The problem of FISHING is of considerable importance to the indigenous populations, since fish is a major part of their diet and, in certain regions, fishing constitutes a real indigenous industry practised with a view to supplying the centres.

A vast diorama provided the atmosphere of daily scenes from the lives of many of the "river" fishing communities. Fishing instruments (nets, traps, etc.) completed the display.

Finally, questions of CLIMATOLOGY and METEOROLOGY were the subject of a special study. Maps showed the annual rainfall in the Colony and in Ruanda-Urundi. The number of months of the dry season was also shown for each region.

In addition, the two typical aspects of the vegetation whose nature and development result from the rainfall regime were represented. On the one hand, the regions with abundant rainfall and a short or zero dry season, characterised by the equatorial forest, dense, luxuriant, populated by large trees covered with lianas, - on the other hand, the zones with a longer dry season and lower rainfall, characterised by the savannah, a vast grassy expanse where a few small trees grow here and there, next to termite mounds.

Finally, a large map of the Belgian Congo and Ruanda-Urundi indicated the location of some 460 meteorological stations, the most important of which were used for general climatological observations. In addition, a typical weather shelter, made of indigenous materials, such as is found in almost all observation posts, was displayed in natural size. A number of devices were placed there: ordinary and recording rain gauges, thermometers, hygrometers, evaporometers, etc.

The right wing of the Palace was reserved for the following five sections: hydrography and hydraulic works, water transport, urban and rural works, use of waterfalls and energy supply.

The sections of HYDROGRAPHY and HYDRAULIC WORKS had collaborated to give an overview of what had been achieved in this double field respectively with regard to the Lower River or maritime reach, the Upper River and its tributaries, and the lakes, in order to bring out the characteristics and navigational conditions specific to each of these parts of the network of waterways of the Colony.

A general map of the maritime reach, as well as plates giving the flow of the Congo compared to that of other rivers, slopes, speeds and floods, mainly characterized the regime of the Lower River. The difficulties encountered by navigation in the divagant region situated downstream of Fétish-Rock, the works carried out to improve the passes, and the results obtained, were illustrated by maps and plates indicating, on the one hand, the main modifications in the route and, on the other hand, the main problems encountered by navigation, the main changes in the navigation route since 1890, the digging of the Nisot channel in 1924, the cube dredged, the material used and the progress made in the anchorage offered by the channel, and finally the closure of the false Mateba channel by means of a metal sheet pile barrier.

This section was completed by a diorama of Matadi, the large seaport of the colony.

For the Haut-Fleuve and its tributaries, a map showed the extent of the navigable network and the classification of the rivers according to the minimum mooring offered to boats.

The "chenal", the section of the river between Leopoldville and Kwam-mouth, was the subject of a hydrographic study, the results of which were reproduced schematically on the map and on special plates.

For the ports, the representation included a diorama of Leopoldville with the Stanley Pool and the French bank in the background, models of Port Francqui and its quay wall, as well as the port of Bukama with the railway bridge over the river. Some photographs showed the various types of quay walls built in other important ports.

The work done to improve and assist navigation was illustrated by models showing the different types of obstacles encountered: underwater rocks, sandbanks, snags (tree trunks carried by the current), as well as the methods used for locating rocks, marking the navigation route and removing snags.

Finally, it was felt that it would be interesting to show the public the successive phases of the invasion by the papyrus islands of the navigable channel in Lake Kisale (upper reach of the

This important participation ended with a stand dedicated to the work done on Lake Tanganika. The map of the lake was complemented by a diagram showing the variations in its level and the probable time when its only outlet, the Lukuga River, was formed and the resulting drop in the lake level.

In order to investigate ways of stabilising this level within certain limits, a hydrographic study of the Lukuga was carried out. The results of this interesting study were presented.

A model and some views showed the work carried out in the port of Albertville.

The WATER TRANSPORT section had grouped, in main order, twelve models of boats in service in the Colony. The aim was to present units each offering a particular character in terms of their use, their field of action or their mode of propulsion. Alongside these modern units, two boats from the heroic era were exhibited: the "En-Avant" and the "Belgique", built around 1880.

In addition, a mechanised nautical carousel illustrated the various modes of navigation in use in the Congo.

The progress of the river fleet and of the tonnage exported from Matadi and transported by waterways was presented in another animated diagram. Yet another showed the increase in recent years in the number of tonne-kilometres of traffic carried by the various river transporters.

Finally, a map of the Congo showed the waterways, their connection with the railways and roads, as well as the major production centres and the main loading ports for the various products.

The stand of the URBAN AND RURAL WORKS was intended to show how the drinking water supply of the European and indigenous populations is ensured.

On a decorative panel, the methods of drawing water before the establishment of water distribution systems were contrasted with the current distribution systems. Whereas until recently, the population used to draw water from rivers, wells and even ponds near the villages, the creation of catchments, water treatment plants and distribution networks has made it possible to supply drinking water to homes in many centres. The supply of water to the blacks is also ensured by the numerous public water fountains and washhouses specially designed for the Colony. Reproductions of the various types of apparatus were on display and numerous photographs showed the importance of the work carried out in the field of water collection and conveyance, chemical and bacteriological purification and distribution to European and indigenous users. A model of one of the water supply and purification plants operated by the Régie was also on display. Finally, industrialists exhibited equipment for such installations.

The section on the USE OF WATERFALLS summarised the current status of this issue from the point of view of electricity production.

A map of waterfalls provided information on existing hydroelectric power plants, proposed capture projects under consideration, and the main areas of rivers rich in falls and rapids. There were also two dioramas, one of the Cornet Falls power plant (Katanga), the other of the Sanga power plant. A photomontage showed the main falls and another showed some of the interior aspects of the power stations in operation (N'Zoro and Solé-niama, Zizi, Piana M'Wanga, M'Pozo, Lufira, Sanga). Diagrams illustrated allegorically, on the one hand, the hydraulic energy reserves of the main countries of the world and the preponderant place - the first - occupied in this field by the Congo, - on the other hand, the considerable achievements accomplished in our Colony in the field of remote transport by high-voltage line of the energy produced by its hydro-electric power stations.

In addition, there were four models. The first, that of the Cornet Falls power station, showed the importance of the installations needed to power an 80,000 horsepower station. The second model reproduced the dam and water intakes of the M'Pozo power station (Bas-Congo), which supplies, in the main order, the Matadi port and Bas-Congo railway installations. The dam is of the so-called "gravity" type, fitted out as a spillway to evacuate heavy floods. The third showed an element of a Kaplan hydraulic turbine blade, with adjustable orientation. Finally, the fourth was a cross-section of the Cornet Falls dam, also of the "gravity" type.

We will conclude the description of the Palais du Congo Belge, which, as we have seen, housed a participation of considerable importance and interest, with the section of ENERGY AVAILABILITIES dealing with electrical distribution and the cold industry.

The elements of the section reserved for electrical distribution were: a plan and photographs of the various phases of the work of laying the sub-river cable anchored in the river between Léopoldville and Brazzaville, with a view to distributing electrical energy from the Sanga power station to the latter city; photographic enlargements relating to the various electrical installations carried out; and a diorama of an electrolysis plant.

The cold industry was represented by objects relating to brewery installations: a model of the Nathan Institute in Zurich with a demonstration of the patent used in tropical countries in this industry, a plan showing the application of this process in the Belgian colony and photographs of the installations of the Breweries of Katanga and Leopoldville.

One will have understood the importance of the effort made by the organisers of the Belgian colonial participation to ensure that it had all the brilliance and grandeur worthy of our beautiful Colony. The problem of water as it arises in the Belgian Congo was treated in all its aspects. Of course, there was no question of going into too much detail. This was not necessary, as it would have duplicated the entire Belgian section. It was enough to demonstrate that the role of water has long been a serious concern for our colonial leaders and, above all, to highlight the salient features of this issue when it comes to a tropical country. It is to the credit of the makers of this fine entry that they have succeeded in this demonstration, and it is worth noting that no other country at the Exhibition had dealt with the problem of water from this point of view, at least in its entirety.

© General Report - International Exhibition of Water Technology - Liège 1939