Not too long ago I was invited to run a one-week journalism workshop in Brazzaville, the ‘other’ Congo, the one Mobutu didn’t run into the ground.
I remember a sea of expectant faces, everyone utterly dressed up as is often the case in more formal settings across Africa. “It’s a sign of respect,” my Nigerian friend Sandie once told me. “We dress up even if it’s to come for coffee.”
That struck me as an eminently civilized approach to interpersonal relations.
But I digress. Three things struck me during that visit, three things I might quickly forget if I don’t write them down.
My most vivid memory is the color lime green, a silky, satiny suit worn by one of my students, a suit surely to be donned only on the grandest of occasions. I felt far less grand in my drip-dry blouse and suitcase-rumpled trousers, kicking up in hiking shoes that had somehow caked themselves in mud despite the dryness of the season.
I don’t remember his name but I do remember his voice, as silky as his suit. He was a broadcast journalist, the kind whose inflections you recognize long after you’ve forgotten his face. I could easily visualize him leaning back comfortably in his newsreader’s chair, his mellow cadences pulling me along, right into the story, however trite.
Which brings me to my second Brazzaville memory: an interminable official meeting, the kind that has yet to begin by the time it should have long ended. There we were, a hundred or more, gathered in an amphitheater to hear the Minister’s words of wisdom. As anticipation gave way to polite fidgeting we began looking around, concerned the Minister might never show. An hour into the wait someone thought to call the Minister’s office and all of a sudden people zipped across hallways, ran up steps, adjusted doors and windows. The Minister was on His way.
The way must have been long because by the time he arrived half the room was snoozing and the other half had spilled into the sun-soaked courtyard, greeting friends and making plans for the evening. I wish I could say the Minister was worth the wait. Perhaps he was – I just don’t remember a word he said. He did, however, make me feel extremely welcome.
In the wake of his endless monologue the other speakers, all lesser beings, felt constrained by time and slashed their own orations, whittling away the substance but retaining the courtesies, the welcomes and the thank yous.
As I think back I’m reminded of the immaculate civility with which I have always been treated in Africa, a genteel warmth that were it not for the sticky humidity would feel comforting in its embrace. People spend time greeting one another and enquiring about families before plunging into the meat of the matter, as though time were an elastic commodity that could bounce back at will. Better to run out of time for formal discussion than to rudely interrupt the niceties that set the scene.
My third memory of Brazza is Chinese. Most of my Africa travels took place before China became Africa’s patron saint and while I was aware of massive Chinese investment I didn’t expect to find myself in a quasi-Chinatown.
In my hotel at night – the kind you hope will withstand the weight of hastily-constructed walls and floors – I would re-emerge in search of dinner. Food at my hotel was a pasty tasteless event best experienced only once, and central Brazzaville, at least around my neighborhood, was apparently safe enough for a woman to walk around. Guided by hunger I would nip along the crowded street peering into every establishment – Lebanese, European bakeries and yes, many near-identical Chinese restaurants: self-service, plastic tablecloths, and a Chinese clientele, except for those gilded Congolese youth who saw an outing to the Chinese restaurant as something aspirational, toying with their cellphones throughout their meal. It could have been a cheap Chinese joint anywhere in the world – stir fries, fried rice, meat swimming in sauce – the kind of Chinese food you would associate with a mediocre takeaway but which, in its difference, was welcome.
Back in my room I circled the strange piece of furniture stuck right in its center: a beige leather (or perhaps high-quality plastic) chaise longue, pierced by gold-colored studs and topped with an extravagant leather cushion. Too padded and bumpy for use as a massage chair I let my mind explore its possibilities. The television set was behind it to the left so the chaise wasn’t designed for soap-opera watching. Nor was this one of those ‘by the hour’ hotels which would have easily defined this contraption’s use. I never did ask lest I appear stupid – uh, yes, what is that, a chair you say? To this day I do wonder what it was for – and why on earth it was placed exactly there.
I hardly saw the city itself, other than the main road to and from my workshop each day. It looked much as any African capital, its traffic loud and undisciplined, interspersed with pedestrians and the occasional feral beast in search of food scraps. It is a dusty city, a hot city, where a bit of shade is stolen from the branches of a tree or the occasional highrise. Here and there, rickety tables sell things, most anything really, including my old clothes and the latest model television. Also like many African cities it has an unfinished look, a sense of bankruptcy before completion, of half-built buildings abandoned until a future change in fortune.
Brazzaville, in case you don’t know (I didn’t) lies on one shore (the North shore) of the Congo River while Kinshasa, its far larger and wealthier brother, lies on the South. A murky stretch of water is plied regularly by ferries and people joke that immediate death will ensue for those who have the misfortune of falling in. Still, Brazzaville is the suburb, Kinshasa’s quiet poor relation, reserved but not unpleasant, bereft as it is of the insanity I have come to associate with large African cities.
As for Mr Lime Green, I suspect he has done well for himself. He was kind, intelligent and well-spoken – as were most of my students that week. There was so much sparkle in their eyes, so much hunger and hope, like young people everywhere on the verge of a professional breakout.
One of these days, back home in France, I may be watching an African news program and who knows, the newsreader might just be wearing a lime green suit.