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Records of YMCA international work in the Congo

Identifier: Y.USA.9-2-36


Includes correspondence, minutes, reports, financial documents magazine and newspaper articles and other records of the YMCA movement in the Belgian Congo, pimarily in Leopoldville (Kinshasa) and Stanleyville (Kisangani), and mainly concerning the political situation there and requests made by the Belgian Congo's YMCA for aid from the International Committee. The main correspondents include Robbins Strong, I. Grube Overgaard, A. Moliso, Charles Sturbois, Tewfik Wissa and Jean-Emile Fontannaz.

Much of this collection focuses on what was not accomplished by the Belgian Congo YMCA rather than primarily what was accomplished, for example the efforts to start a YMCA branch in Boma, which was ultimately thwarted for legal reasons. Also documented is the Congo YMCA's desire to implement a secondary school which would combine general and technical education, a proposal which was ultimately turned down by the International Committee of YMCAs. Other topics include the confiscation of the Y's building and the necessity to share it with other groups. There is discussion of the Belgian Congo Crisis and the destruction of the city of Leopoldville. Mention is made of the establishment of freedom to the Belgian Congo and also of the desire to eliminate all things Belgian, including the YMCA's attachment to the Belgian movement.


  • 1949-1969


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In the late 1940s, in order to begin the work in the Belgian Congo, the Danish YMCA promised an experienced secretary and committed to the supporting funds necessary for a five year period of establishment. This early dedication by the Danish YMCA encouraged the Belgian National Council to also step in and commit for later financial support. In 1949, the Danish YMCA confirmed that Mr. I. Grube Overgaard would be the chosen secretary and sent him to Belgium and to the Congo for preliminary visits. He arrived in Leopoldville to begin active work in November of 1949.

At the arrival of Overgaard there were already two native associations; one in Stanleyville and one in Leopoldville, which had been started by former Belgian YMCA members. These associations had no affiliations with any missions and their membership was open to members of any Christian church. Overgaard set himself up in Leopoldville in order to begin the establishment of a more official association. The relatively small and dispersed population of the area made an association building infeasible; initially, a boy scout hut and the office of the Y's general secretary served more than 400 members.

Because the government in the Congo could not legally recognize the Belgian National Council as responsible for work in the Congo, Overgaard proceeded to form the necessary local legal body, "Friends of the YMCA in Congo." In its constitution, this group stated its purpose to "assume charge of the development of the associations destined to develop the moral, physical, intellectual and spiritual qualities of its members both European and native living in the Congo." By 1951 the Leopoldville branch supported soccer, basketball, swimming, water-polo, tennis, dramatics, scout troops, women's group, study circles, courses for illiterates and courses in French and bookkeeping. While all of the activities were directed by Europeans, there was some effort to establish the native communities' assumption of responsibilities. In contrast, the branch at Stanleyville had only a scout troop and a study circle at this time. Due to the desire for a European to be placed in the Stanleyville YMCA, Overgaard visited the association at regular intervals supplying guidance and maintaining support. There was a request to form a YMCA at Boma, but the YMCA could not accept responsibility for it. Congo law at the time forbade natives to organize without European leadership and secretaries were not able to accept the post, nor was there funds to support them.

In the early to mid 1950s an attempt was made to open a secondary school in the Congo, intended to develop apprenticeship in several trades, train future YMCA leaders, raise the education level of YMCA membership and to train leadership for other associations. This project was turned down by the International Committee of YMCAs because it was decided that the Congo YMCA itself was not established enough to support a school and that YMCAs work with individuals might suffer because of this.

At the time of Overgaard's departure in 1958, a YMCA/YWCA building was inaugurated. Funds for the building were largely raised in Belgium and the Congo through the ladies of the YWCA but the building opened with a debt owed to the contractor. It was planned to pay off this debt with the income from the building, but the general situation in the Congo greatly changed in 1959 with the riots in Leopoldville that left nearly every building except the YMCA in the African section of the city damaged. It was increasingly difficult to raise money either in the Congo or in Belgium, so the Congo YMCA turned to other YMCA or YWCA sources. Robbins Strong, a secretary for inter movement aid and extension for the World Alliance of YMCAs, suggested that the International Committee of YMCAs supply the money to liquidate the debt on the building. Only a portion of this money was made available, but it was enough to keep it open.

In the late 1950s Belgium began to lose governmental control over the Congo. At this time nationalist riots, protesting elections that were being held to decide the parliamentary government, threw the country into chaos. The YMCA in the Congo attempted to separate itself from Belgium and establish itself with the World Alliance of YMCAs, but was never fully successful and funding became a major issue throughout the 1960s, greatly inhibiting program activities. Owing to the general insecurity of the country there was also an insecurity as to the safe arrival of any shipments to the Congo YMCA from outside agencies. A power struggle in the Congo soon took place between the Congo High Commissioner's office and the "Young Pioneers" of the MPR (Popular Movement of the Revolution) as to the ultimate control of a new centralized organization grouping all youth work on a national, provincial and regional basis. In 1967, after taking the two secretaries of the YMCA to the Young Pioneers headquarters for a 3 1/2 hour long interrogation, the Young Pioneers took the YMCA/YMCA building for their own use.

In 1968 the Young Pioneers were evacuated from the building, but the entirety of the building was not returned to the Y. A women's social service center run by the government was in the rear of the building, and another youth organization still also occupied the building. The YMCA's school operated part time with a class even in the restaurant. The auditorium was largely used for judo classes. Robbins Strong strongly suggested that nothing effective could be accomplished without the aid of a Fraternal Secretary. In addition to a secretary, funds were needed to put the building back into proper shape and to seed the program for growth.

After the proposed secretary, Tewfik Wissa, was unable to obtain a visa for the Congo, it was suggested that a Swedish secretary was found. The International Committee desired the Swiss National Committee to eventually take responsibility for this project. Jean-Emile Fontannaz started his work in the Congo YWCA/YMCA on October 1st, 1969 as a fraternal secretary of the Swiss Council of YMCAs. The development of the Congo Y after the involvement of the International Committee and the World Alliance of YMCAs ceased is unclear, and it is equally unclear as to whether the YMCA still exists in any form in the Congo.

(Historical information largely adapted and quoted from the collection.)


.1 Cubic Feet (2 boxes)


Correspondence, minutes, reports, financial documents magazine and newspaper articles and other records of the YMCA movement in the Belgian Congo, pimarily in Leopoldville (Kinshasa) and Stanleyville (Kisangani), and mainly concerning the political situation there and requests made by the Belgian Congo's YMCA for aid from the International Committee..

Processing Information:

Processed as part of Fast Processing Project II, March 2009, as collection FP053. Material has been minimally processed. Folder descriptions may be general and material has not been grouped into series.

Catalog Record ID number: 6412103

An Inventory of Its Records
Finding aid prepared by Lara Friedman-Shedlov and Melanie Doherty.
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Collecting Area Details

Contact The Kautz Family YMCA Archives Collecting Area