Sunday, February 12, 2012

Leopoldville 1930s – Leisure in a time of Depression

One of the challenges in writing an illustrated history of Kinshasa’s architectural heritage of the 1930s is that not much was built during the Depression.  In addition, from the standpoint of this blog, many of the few relevant images have already been shared in previous postings. Consequently, this piece will attempt to tie earlier vignettes with new information and perspectives.
Roadster in Leopoldville in 1937

Much of the development that did take place was promoted by the public sector, either the municipal Comité Urbain or the colonial government.  This was a time of art deco designs that included Parc De Bock (1930-34) and the Zoo (1938) (See Feb. 6, 2011), as well as the Mediterranean-inspired public (covered market), which opened in 1930 (See Aug. 5, 2011). These facilities were part of the Neutral Zone, designed to separate the growing European town from the African settlements (cités).  
Parc DeBock -- 1937
Leo Marche Coupole -- 1930s
Institut Tropicale Princess Astrid

Other public art deco-inspired infrastructure included the Clinique Reine Elisabeth (See Jan. 17, 2012), the Institut de médecine Tropicale Princesse Astrid (See Aug. 5, 2011), the main railway station and the monument to the late King Albert 1er.  The Force Publique erected its main supply depot on Ave. Prince de Liege (Ave. du Camp Militaire, previously aka Haut Commandement and then Nelson Mandela), leading from Kalina to Camp Leopold II.

The Gare Centrale shortly after completion
The Force Publique Depot looking north up Ave. Prince de Liege towards Kalina
A welcome development for the European community in 1931 was the opening of the Funa Club sports complex on the south side of the new Ndolo airport (See May 23, 2011) in what would become the second Neutral Zone, further segregating the European city from the African townships.  Located on the Funa River, the Funa Club was a private undertaking along the lines of the Cercle de Léopoldville (See Mar. 19, 2011), and was eventually purchased by the Comité Urbain as a public facility in 1944.  The art deco complex included an Olympic size swimming pool, tennis and volley ball courts, petanque, a bowling alley and a restaurant.  The Funa remained popular after Independence but has since disappeared under encroachment from the adjacent cité.  Google Earth shows what appears to be an industrial building on the site.
The Funa Club Pool
Satellite view of the former Funa Club (lower left)
The Leopoldville airstrip was relocated from Kalina to Ndolo to make way for the new administrative district
In 1931, as well, Father (Tata) Raphael de la Kethulle (See Feb. 6, 2011) began to develop a sports ground for Africans at St. Pierre parish in the cite, using school children’s labor to clear the swampy ground.  Over the next several years, the site was further developed (along with St. Pierre church and school), culminating in Stade Reine Astrid in 1937 and the adjacent Parc Sports General Ermens in 1942.
A football team in Leopoldville -- 1930s
 Another popular sport was cycling.  The first city-wide bicycle took place in December 1935 with Governor Ryckmans issuing the prize. The following March, a major biking event was organized at the new Velodrome in Kintambo. Promoted by the Vélo-Club de Léopoldville; other teams were supported by Kaiser, Orban, Nogueira, and Ollivant – the first two were bicycle dealerships, the last two major import houses selling bikes.  Curiously, the Vélo-Club was sponsored by the Singer sewing machine agency.  Joining in the marketing opportunity, the Chanic shipyards and Righini garage (See June 28, 2011) provided transport so Congolese could attend the race, while the Cohadon tire company (See Mar. 5, 2011) ensured that the racecourse was lit with electric lights. 
The bicycle team of the Association des Anciens Elèves des Frères des Ecoles Chrétiennes (ASSANEF)
Kinshasa Velodrome in 2008 -- St. Francois Church on left
Cosmo-Kin edition Nov-Dec. 1933
 With an increasing European and African population, the range of media available began to expand.  Two competitive newspapers; l’Avenir Colonial Belge and the Courrier d’Afrique were on the scene in the 1930s.  l’Avenir had been published since 1920, while the Courrier d’Afrique appeared in January 1930 to provide a clerical counterpoint to the “liberal” tendencies of l’Avenir.  An insouciant upstart in this clash of the culture wars was Cosmo-Kin, a multi-lingual weekly that appeared in 1931 and chronicled the city’s jazz-filled nightlife and cultural offerings.  In July 1933, the catholic missionary establishment published the first edition of the Croix du Congo, a publication designed for the evolué (educated Congolese) community.  The paper was published by Sodimca, which produced and printed the Courrier d’Afrique.

The first edtion of La Croix du Congo
A public library opened for the European community in 1932, although a privately organized library had organized as early as 1925.  Once College Albert 1er opened in 1937 (See Jan. 17, 2012), its collection quickly surpassed the public library.  The Jesuits at College Albert also started the first radio station, which broadcast a limited program for the European community.  In 1939, Jean Hourdebise’s Radio Congolia began broadcasts targeted at the Congolese population in the cités. Radio access for Congolese was later enhanced by installing loudspeakers at public places in the cité to serve a wider audience, and effectively developing a wider market for radios, which were within the budgets of middle class Congolese.
Leopoldville Library -- note busts of Leopold III and Astrid
Leopoldville Library -- 1930s
Loudspeakers installed in the cite to broadcast radio programs
Movies were another popular pastime.  As early as 1910, the first films were shown in Leopoldville.  In 1916, Henri Legaert opened the first cinema, screening films from France and UK depicting WWI battlefield scenes.  A certain Fabré operated a cinema and ice-plant in the 1920s. This may have been Cinéma Apollo Palace (See Mar. 24, 2011).   In 1932, Robert Notterdam, a former employee of the Union Minière du Haut-Katanga opened the first cinema showing “talkies” in the capital, but returned to Katanga the following year to open the Ciné Palace in Elisabethville (Lubumbashi). The Ciné Central was another popular movie house of the 1930s, located on Ave. Rubbens near the port, in the Rhodius Frères’ store (See Feb. 6, 2011).  After WWII, Hourdebise of Radio Congolia opened the first cinema for Africans, obtaining a half-acre plot from the government for this purpose.  Hourdebise later opened the Albertum Cinema on Blvd. Albert and the Roxy in Kintambo, where Nando’s is now located (See July 10, 2011).
Cinema Central
Ave Rubbens looking south towards Place de la Poste -- Rhodius Freres building on right
No exposé on leisure in Kinshasa would be complete without some commentary on the bar scene. Earlier posts featured the range of hotels and restaurants operating in the city over the years (See June 28, 2011), which included most of the bars catering to the European community.  The Brasserie de Léopoldville (now Bralima, brewer of Primus) was created in October 1923 with capital from the Banque de Bruxelles.  Segregation precluded Europeans and Congolese sharing a beer; but there was another justification for the new brewery, to provide an alternative to locally distilled alcohol or “lotoko”. 
Brasserie de Leopoldville -- 1930s
Guitarist in Kinshasa -- 1930s

Part of the justification for the paternalist, colonial rule was that it made a postive improvement in the African’s social development.  Consequently, any European role in encouraging Congolese to engage in vices was discouraged.  On July 23, 1932, a Decree authorized Africans to sell alcohol, but only to other Africans, which paved the way for the establishment of legal bars in the cité. Still, it seems that traditional forms of alcohol continued to appeal to Kinois.  In 1935, Jules Van Lancker, a influential rancher and plantation owner (See Feb. 3, 2012), urged that a solution be found to the felling of palm trees to extract palm wine, which was destroying the palm groves around Leopoldville.   Other factors were beginning to appear which would have a profound effect on Kinshasa’s night-life.  On New Years Eve 1936, Antoine Roger Bolamba, an evolué with significant literary talent, hosted a party of the Cercle de l’amitié where the newly popular Rumba music from Cuba was played on a phonograph.  Congolese music -- “Congo jazz” -- was on its way, but that is another story.

·      Abel, Richard. 2005, Encyclopedia of Early Cinema, Taylor and Francis.
·      Feuchaux, Laurent. 2000, Vie coloniale et faits divers à Léopoldville (1920-1940), in Itinéraires croisés de la modernité - Congo belge (1920-1950), Cahiers Africains.
·      Gondola, Charles Didier. 1996. Villes miroirs: Migrations et identités urbaines a Kinshasa et Brazzaville, 1930-1970, Collection Villes et entreprises.
·      Hunt, Nancy Rose. 2002. “Tintin and the interruptions of Congolese Comics” in, Landau, Paul S, Ed. Images and empires: visuality in colonial and postcolonial Africa, University of California Press.
·      Miracle, Marvin. 1969. Agricultural economics in Africa: trends in theory and method.


  1. Hi Mwana Mboka, thanks for this great blog. We also share your passion for Congo. We have a quarterly publication about Kinshasa and we would like to explore the opportunity for future collaboration. Please visit our publication at
    How can we get in contact with you?

  2. As a former TASOK alumnus I really enjoy your blog. I appreciate the effort you have put into making it so picture-heavy and historically detailed. Keep up the good work.


  3. I was born in Kinsasha in 1956. Moved when I was 2 and returned for another year at the age of 6. We spent endless days at the Funa Club. Your photo brought tears of joy to my eyes seeing it yet once again.

    Thank you for sharing these lovely photos. I miss Africa. It's true what they say. If you stand really still you can hear the earth's heart beating under your feet.

  4. From Canada but grew up in the Congo. love my history there. so happy to find this page. I too spent endless hours at Funa club. I miss Africa. please keep adding to this page. thankyou.

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  6. I'm Greek-English but was born in Leopoldville in 1956. I have such wonderful memories from that amazing country and it's people. Our family always spent time at the Funa Club and in the early evenings, my grandfather used to take me and our Doberman Pincer, Regina for an evening walk to a café which was next to the post office. They used to serve little animal shaped Marzipan animal figurines and I always got the little pink piggy. Those evening walks, the post office and piggies have travelled with me all these 55 years and the nostalgia that goes with it. Today, I was given a chance to see the Funa Club again from the picture in your site. Thank you so much.

  7. The gentleman with glasses in the photo "First edition of La Croix du Congo" is my grandfather, Camille Voet.