Birds and Bureaucrats of Brazzaville: Travels in the Congo
How is the Republic of Congo addressing education and development?
- Staff of the president's office shadow our group, wearing colorful made-in-Paris shiny suits and matching ties. Here goes Peach, in earnest conversation with Tangerine.
- Kinshasa, a city of some ten million and the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, can be seen across the river. No two other capitals in the world are that close.
- Royal, the resident pet eagle at the Olympic Palace Hotel, ambles around the patio and allows himself to be patted. Moustapha says, "He has been here since the civil war."
- The wounds of years of civil war are still healing. Children don't look ill-fed and are decently clothed, but the economy is sluggish, and education dismally poor.
We take off from Washington, and a Turkish lady sitting next to me looks worried.
She is wiping surfaces around her seat with tissue reeking of disinfectant.
Fishing surgical masks out of her capacious hand bag, she tells me her doctor recommends them against swine flu.
Turbulence around Long Island — "please fasten your seat belts" is announced. The plane begins to shudder. The lady peers at the map and mutters darkly: "We are flying over the Bermuda Triangle."
We arrive at Brazzaville, the former capital of French Equatorial Africa, now the capital of the Republic of Congo. From afar, one building stands out — a tall cylindrical tower, formerly the headquarters of ELF, the French oil company. It is a beehive of government ministries, each occupying a slice.
Brazzaville is well laid-out in an elegant, if run down, French style. The wounds of years of civil war are still healing. Children don’t look ill-fed and are decently clothed, but the economy is sluggish, and education dismally poor.
Among the worst on Transparency International’s corruption index, the country sports an "Observatoire Anti-Corruption", evoking white-coated bearded scientists squinting through telescopes.
A sign left over on a downtown building that reads "Amitié USSR-Congo." Kinshasa, a city of some ten million and the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, can be seen across the river. No two other capitals in the world are that close.
Royal, the resident pet eagle at the Olympic Palace Hotel, ambles around the patio and allows himself to be patted. Moustapha, an elderly crafts seller wearing a blue caftan, uses chop sticks to feed him pieces of raw fish.
"He has been here since the civil war," he says. Royal keeps an eye on all comings and goings. When he wants attention, he cries "O, kwokwok, kwokwok". One of the goon-like drivers looks at Royal, perhaps thinking of roast eagle with pommes frites.
A colleague wishes to buy a rusty hatchet as a gift to his son. Moustapha asks for $400, saying "It is very, very ancient — 300 years old." My colleague offers $25. The seller says "$30," then pockets the cash, looking pleased with the transaction.
I share the government car with a foreign professor given to sudden expostulations. The driver is large, unshaven and sullen — no "Bonjour, comment ça va?."
Out of the blue, in the thick of traffic, the professor gestures and asks, loudly: "These streets look pretty clean. This country is a dictatorship, right?" I gesture vigorously to shut him up — does the driver understand English? Is he on some security service’s payroll?
Not long ago, a tourist spent a night in jail for having taken a picture of some downtown square.
Signs flash by. "Fondation Mère Thérèse" next to "Mitzi Night Bar."
Then, incongruously, I see a banner: "Fight Piracy: Artists deserve the fruits of their labor. Respect property rights." More to the point, a pest control store boasts about being "Le tueur des insectes et des souris [Slayer of Insects and Mice]."
Staff of the president’s office shadow our group, wearing colorful made-in-Paris shiny suits and matching ties. Here goes Peach, in earnest conversation with Tangerine. Mauve is on his cell phone. All are wearing improbably pointed shoes.
In every government office hangs a portrait of the president, holding out something for the golden, torch-carrying Roman God of trade and profit, Mercury, on his desk. Perhaps a treat?
The translator is coping admirably with technical expressions, "Ils benchmarquent." Win-win is "gagnant-gagnant", not to be out-done by "pérennisation," a French neologism for "sustainability."
We meet the "big boss," a senior member of the cabinet. He is Paul Robeson-like, huge and energetic. He used to fly the president’s plane, and before that, ran the Miami-Central America run for Eastern Airlines.
In a central park bordering a broad avenue stands an enormous mausoleum in honor of Savorgnan de Brazza, after whom Congo’s capital city is named. In front towers a statue of Brazza, looking like Lawrence of Arabia’s older brother.
Inside are murals of natives conveying Brazza in a long canoe. He is billed as an intrepid explorer. Brazza seems to have been a good egg (when compared to what was happening in King Leoplod’s Congo, next door, this was not such a difficult feat).
I no more expected to see a monument to this French version of Stanley than a statue of King George’s on Washington D.C.'s Mall. I am told that "Brazza was an active Free Mason, and Freemasonry is very powerful in Congo."
The civil war decimated an already weak education system. Searching for "Education, Republic of the Congo" on Wikipedia returns a "Not found" message.
Now that the country has begun to heal its wounds, there is a crying demand for quality education. Again and again I heard the message: "We are rich in natural resources, but very poor in human resources — we need to bridge that gap."
Various plans are afoot to turn oil revenues into improved education outcomes. Indeed, a major U.S. university may be helping to create a world-class management school in Brazzaville, which would serve a huge regional market stretching from Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo to Equatorial Guinea and Chad.