KINSHASA (Reuters) - Any Tintin fan would feel at home in the small wooden shed in a back street of Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital Kinshasa, where the shelves are crammed with brightly painted statues from the famous Belgian cartoon character’s adventures.
Friendly faces are everywhere - the tufted-haired Tintin, the bearded Captain Haddock and the bumbling policemen Thomson & Thompson - lovingly carved from wood and carefully painted in bold colors.
But with Kinshasa preparing to receive a flood of visitors for an international summit of French-speaking countries next month, some are questioning whether Congo should turn its back on the boy journalist, whose fictional adventures in the then-Belgian colony depicts Africans as dull-witted and childish.
Tintin’s relationship with Congo dates back to 1930 when his creator Georges Remi - better-known by his pen name Herge - first wrote “Tintin in the Congo”, in which the intrepid reporter and his little white dog Snowy tackle wild animals, hunters, diamond smugglers and warlike local chieftains.
Tintin statues - which can sell for anything from $15 to $1500 - are part of Congo’s roaring trade in the comic’s memorabilia, business that could receive a boost next month as delegates from 56 countries across the French-speaking world gather in Kinshasa for the Francophonie summit.
Tourists can find stalls and street vendors across the riverside capital selling the figures, and can even buy personalized paintings of the book’s front cover, with their names expertly added by the artist.
But it is Herge’s heavily stereotyped depiction of Africans as fat-lipped, childlike savages that makes Tintin a controversial cultural figure for a country trying to turn its back on a brutal colonial past followed by decades of dictatorship and conflict, according to professor Joseph Ibongo Gilungule, the director of Congo’s national museum.
“Tintin is an image created by westerners, and it proves the ignorance of these people, a lack of understanding for our values,” Ibongo told Reuters.
Ibongo wants more people to celebrate the rich cultures of the country’s estimated 250 ethnic groups.
His museum is a celebration of the masks, headdresses and clothing that have played an integral part in Congo’s traditional values, but few of the country’s 70 million inhabitants come to visit the museum.
Ibongo is not against preserving relics of Congo’s colonial past - he is trying to find money to rehabilitate the statue of controversial British colonial explorer Henry Morton Stanley, which lies forlornly toppled behind a shed at the museum.
Nonetheless, with so many people due to visit the country for the Francophonie summit in October, he believes Congo should find a better poster boy than Tintin.
“There are other strong images which speak positively of this country, its peoples... It would be more respectful to Congo and the whole of Africa if we spoke of images that value the Congo, and not Tintin,” Ibongo added.
Earlier this year a Congolese man studying in Belgium tried and failed to have the book banned on the grounds of racism. Some stores in Britain have banished it to the top shelves, where only adults can see it.
Even Tintin’s creator Herge later re-wrote parts of the story, toning down the more extreme stereotypes which sprang from Belgium’s colonization of Congo, which was brutal even by the standards of the day.
Auguy Kakese, an artisan who specializes in Tintin statuettes, acknowledges that it was Europeans who first suggested he carve the figures and most of his clients remain westerners. But he sees no harm in it.
“It’s humor, it’s not racist... 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,” Kakese said in his workshop, which employs 10 people and produces thousands of Tintin statues.
Although most of the statues Kakese sells are of the comic’s European characters, he does not shy away from depicting the Africans as well, despite them seeming uncomfortably stereotyped for modern tastes.
“We were a Belgian colony, if we work with Tintin now it’s to say that the Belgians are still our brothers,” he added.
A recent showing in Kinshasa of the Steven Spielberg-directed Tintin movie attracted a small but varied audience, everyone from Congolese to Koreans.
Although the audience were aware of the cartoon’s sometimes complex relations with Congo, none saw it as a huge problem.
“I really don’t think it is racist, it was just the whites wanting to interpret what they saw in Congo at the time,” Congolese Tito Biteketa said.
Christiana Finotti, an Italian expatriate, said she had bought a Tintin picture for her friend but acknowledged that not all her Congolese colleagues were comfortable with the association.
“Tintin in the Congo is still a little difficult, due to the style of Belgian colonialism, and due to the history... I think there’s been a reconciliation, but the reconciliation hasn’t been easy,” she said.
Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Paul Casciato