Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Leopoldville 1919 - Founding of Plantations et Elevages de Kitobola (PEK)

The Belgian Minister of the Colonies announced in 1918 that the government was planning to sell the agricultural research station at Kitobola in Bas-Congo near Thysville (Mbanza Ngungu).  The following year, Jean Buzon, a former agent of the Congo Free State who became the first President of the Chamber of Commerce in Boma in 1905, put together a deal which secured the concession for his Compagnie Coloniale Belge and its subsidiary, the Plantations et Elevages de Kitobola (PEK).  The farm had been established during the Congo Free State period, piloting experimental rice cultivation and cattle ranching.  Kitobola is located at the base of the Bangu plateau near the Protestant Kimpese and Tumba Catholic mission stations, respectively.
The rice fields at Kitobola

The Compagnie Coloniale Belge used PEK as its brand, most likely because the larger Compagnie du Congo Belge (CCB) of the Société Générale shared the same acronym. PEK established an office in Kinshasa, with its headquarters in Brussels.  Initially, the company built a two-story building at the end of Avenue Van Gèle on the road to Leopoldville.
The PEK office on Ave. Van Gele
The PEK building (L) viewed from north side of current Supreme Court. Monunment du Souvenir Congolais at right.
King Albert 1er leaving the store -- July 1928

Notwithstanding its agricultural base located mid-way between Leopoldville and Matadi, PEK became one of the principal retailers serving the European community in Leopoldville.  The main store with its Flemish facade, which opened on the prestigious Ave. Beernaert (Ave. Equateur) in 1928, was visited by King Albert during his trip to the colony in July.  Earlier that year, the Buzon created another holding company, Mutuelle Belgo Congolaise, with PEK as the majority shareholder.
The PEK store shortly after completion -- 1928
The interior of the PEK store -- cashier's desk between the stairs
The PEK store interior
The PEK store mezzanine -- pith helmets, lingerie and shoes
The PEK store -- another view of the stairs and mezzanine
The PEK store -- late 1930s
In the 1940s, the original PEK building on Ave. Van Gele became La Rotonde, a popular restaurant and hotel.  However, during the building boom of the 1950s, the property became too valuable for such land use. 
La Rotonde on Ave. Van Gele -- 1940s
The Mutuelle created the Cie. Immobilière Van Gèle and contracted with architect Claude Laurens (See Aug. 15, 2011) in 1954 to design a commercial-residential building on the site, the “Residence Van Gèle”.  At the same time, Laurens also designed the refurbishment of the PEK department store on Ave. Beernaert.  The high-rise was completed in 1956.  The Colibri bistro, which opened in the building in 1956, is reputed to be the oldest bar in Kinshasa.
"Residence Van Gele" on Ave. Lukusa -- looking west (Cohydro building in background)
Interior of the Hewa Bora Airways office (note octagonal skylight)
I grew up knowing about PEK, but we never shopped there.  The SEDEC store on Ave. Bousin (Isiro) was more to our pocketbook.  When I returned to Kinshasa in 2001, the PEK building was the main office of Hewa Bora Airways, one of the more reliable domestic airlines (reliable is always relative in the land of “Air Peut Etre”).  When I returned to Kinshasa in June 2011, Hewa Bora had moved its offices to Blvd. 30 Juin and the venerable PEK building was now Bingo Royale Casino.

The Hewa Bora Airways building -- 2004
The PEK/Compagnie Coloniale Belge building as Bingo Royale Casino - 2009

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