THE ''Noirauds'' or ''Blackies'' - a group that marks Belgium's annual carnival season by charitable  fund-raising in black face paint - have changed their colours.

From now on, they announced, they will collect funds for underprivileged kids in Brussels' bars and bistros adorned with the colours of the Belgian flag.

The group hopes that, with red and yellow stripes alongside the traditional black, their costumes will no longer attract comparison to racist ''blackface'' caricatures.

Not only they accept that the dark face, tall hat and white ruff outfit - traditonally supposed to represent the garb of an African gentleman - was ever offensive. They just want to avoid criticism.

''We'be been thinking of evolving for a a few years,'' former Noiraud president Albert Vermeiren told AFP.

The group wants to ''avoid arguments'' or ''hurting the feelings of those who feel the black make-up isn't up-to-date''.

In recent years the group, whose honorary chairwoman in Paola, the former queen of the Belgians, has come under increasing scrutiny and international criticism.

The tradition recalls America's now notorious minstrel shows and echoes the  ''Black Pete''   character who  helps St Nicholas celebrate Christmas in Belgium and the Netherlands.

But it has been criticised in Belgium - the former colonial power in Congo, Rwanda and Burundi and home to a growing population of African descent.

And four years ago, when Belgian foreign minister  Didler Reynders took part in the Noiraud collection in the costume, he was criticised by foreign activists and celebrities.

The volunteers themselves say the face paint affords them anonymity as they pursue their charitable goals, but that the  red-black-yellow compromise would be more ''festive''.

The group's new leader Lugc Rentimeesters, said he pushed through the change despite reluctance from traditionalists, and his predecessor admits there are grumbles.

''Frankly they are those who say  'Why back down?'  but it's a minority. It's a shame, but on the other hand its important that we be welcome when we go the restaurants,'' Vermeiren said.

The first public outing in its new patriotic colours will come, when Brussels revellers will give their verdict.

And an important supporter will join in.

Brussels symbolic champion. the urinating  Mannekin Pis child statue, will no longer be blacked up for the occasion, but support a miniature version of the new look face paint. [Agencies].


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