We all knew someone, but only one person knew us all. Three live in their homeland, five do not. One is married, but wasn’t part of the two couples. Two are exes. Three are girls, five are boys. Of eight, 6 landed together in Brazzaville.
Brazzaville is the name of the capital of the Congo. It’s a name that in my head has always resonated with a movie-shaped idea of what European colonies in the African forest could have looked like. I imagined colonial buildings, trucks, street markets and a city engulfed by green.
Brazzaville was not, in many ways, what I expected.
Upon landing at the airport, the excitement was palpable. Happy thoughts of “We’re in the Congo baby!” were soon replaced by worry when we were rudely greeted by immigration officials.
“Ok. Clearly a country that doesn’t get too much tourism”
Even though we went smoothly through customs after that initial shock, our group clung onto the representative that was there to meet us. Everyone assessed their surroundings and took in the sense of the place we were in while the representative gave us instructions as to where to go and what car to get onto.
“Yes you can walk around no problem,
Nobody will trouble you,
There’s an exchange house right across the street, you can walk there.
You can go to the rapids for lunch, just grab a taxi as it’s far to walk.”
None of these were really answers we were expecting to hear; we knew it was safer than the “other” Congo but being presented with such freedom felt odd. All these answer were however true – the part that everyone forgot was that all this had to be done in French, as English isn’t a very-often-used language.
“Oui, c’est l’heur de parler en Francais. Mamma mia!”
As a group formed of guides, photographers, naturalists, and lodge managers, we decided that after a very long trip (inter-African flights have a habit of departing at 3am!), we would let ourselves enjoy the view of the Congo River from the hotel after a very long trip.
Here we discovered large sized beers called Ngok (one of the first discoveries) while we started to discover each other’s personalities: the birder, the one that’s always hungry, and the one that is always cold were the first three to stand out.
Upon chatting, we discovered that the group was divided into 2: those who had done (some) extensive pre-trip research about what to expect, and those who had left it all to the Universe. Tristan was in the first group, I in the second.
Upon calling on the rejuvenating powers of the Ngok o’clock, we decided to explore Brazzaville on a walk.
As we meandered through the alleys of the city, we came across a beautiful building, deciding to explore and find out what could possibly be open to public in a part of the city that seemed dominated by military building, we went in. This is how we came across the Pierre de Brazza Mausoleum, where we found out more about the history of the city and its name. Italian-born French explorer (what is it with the Italian blood that we can’t stay still?!) Pietro Paolo Savorgnan di Brazzà, then known as Pierre Paul François Camille Savorgnan de Brazza, was tasked to explore tributaries and rivers in Equatorial Africa. The different expeditions that lead him onto the Congo River eventually lead to the creation of a French protectorate, and the city that centuries later, still carries his name.
Remembered for his pacific approach and gentle temper, history has portrayed him as man who was actually liked by many Africans; this is perhaps the reason why the name of the city has remained unchanged through the centuries. In 2006 the remains of de Brazza and his family were returned to Brazzaville to mark 100th anniversary of his death. History has portrayed him in a certain way but even them a part of the modern Congolese society did not agree with the construction of this building, seeing it as reinforcement of colonial times.
We found the history of ancient explorers like De Brazza fascinating but the building felt odd and almost out of place, we later found out that the Mausoleum is now rumoured to be a centre of black magic, were shadowy African elite plots the future of the continent and casts powerful spells on its leaders.
I felt no mojo-jojo when I was there, but again, I own no countries.
After leaving the Mausoleum we continued our stroll towards the great views of the Congo towards the brand new “Route de la Corniche”. Although immaculately clean, we continued to pass many government and military buildings. We didn’t feel threatened, and military presence was sporadic. There is however a lingering taste of unsettlement in the air, a feel of yearning, anticipation and ambition that leaves an aftertaste for those who have experienced the disturbance that seeps in a country because of politics. In Brazzaville it feels there is more than meets the eye.
When we arrived to the famous bridge, we decided we had been walking long enough and that it was time to head back to the famous Mami Wata Restaurant where we had decided to have dinner. Walking close to the river is a must experience for anyone that visits Brazzaville. Kinshasa (DRC) towers on the other side of the river; while utterly green and farmed patches can be seen in all the floodplains the river can no longer submerge. Every patch is a commercial opportunity and hard working Congolese people know how to maximise their opportunities; a true testament to their resilience.
As we arrived to our dinner destination, we couldn’t collectively decide how we felt about the city. We did all however feel very lucky to be able to have dinner by the river where the African skimmers fly at night.
Brazzaville, for me, was the start of the mysterious feel of the country, a feel of secrets and whispers along buildings of well-maintained but old-fashioned architecture. If anything, Brazzaville added more to the unravelling mystery that the Congo was slowly becoming.