In the Belgian Congo last week massed tom-tom drummers practiced a welcome tattoo. Prosperous Negro shopkeepers climbed up wooden ladders and draped the Congolese flag (a golden star on a blue field) from lampposts and triumphal arches set up along Boulevard Albert I, the spanking concrete highway that bisects the capital city of Leopoldville. In far-off mission churches, encircled by the rain forest that stretches through Belgian territory from the Atlantic to the Mountains of the Moon, choirs of Bantu children rehearsed the Te Deum. African regiments drilled, jazz bands blared in the bush, and on the great brown river that drains the middle of the continent Negro captains tooted the raucous steam whistles on their swiftly gliding paddle boats.
The toots and Te Deums were all in preparation for the arrival this week of the slim, spectacled young man who is King of the Belgians and, as such, the sovereign lord of 14 million Congolese. It will be his first state visit to his African Empire.
The Congo is King Baudouin's richest, widest realm. It is eighty times the size of the mother country, and half again as populous. Booming Congo exports provide the dollars and pounds that make the Belgian franc one of the world's hardest currencies. Belgians drink Congo coffee, wear shirts made of Congo cotton, wash them with soap made from Congo palm kernels. Without the mighty Congo, little Belgium might go broke; with it, a nation of 9,000,000 still counts as a world empire.
Middle Way. The Belgians are determined to hang on to their African treasure house. The task may not always be easy. The Congo lies between the all-black Gold Coast, where 4,500,000 Negroes are close to independence under Prime Minister Kwame Nkrumah, and unhappy South Africa, where Boer Prime Minister Johannes Strydom seems determined to enslave 9,000,000 Negroes for the benefit of 2,500,000 whites. Caught between, both geographically and psychologically, the Belgians are contemptuous of both black and white "extremes." They fear that South Africa's apartheid may spark race disorders that could spread north; that Nkrumah's black nationalism could get out of hand and spread the dread cry southward: "White man, get out."
The Belgians like to feel that they have devised "a middle way," making possible black-white partnership. Their program is: full speed ahead in economics and education, dead slow in politics.
So far, the evidence is that the Belgian way is working. The Congo, under hard-working capitalism, has become a tropical cornucopia in the heart of a poverty-stricken continent.