Rumba at La Détente

I arrived in Brazzaville early on a Saturday morning, having jetted across the Congo River from Kinshasa in less than five minutes on the U.S. Embassy’s motorboat, not unlike Mobutu’s ministers in 1997 who fled the impending arrival of Laurent Kabila’s rebel troops in a fleet of speed boats, abandoning their fancy cars in the parking lot of the Intercontinental Hotel in Gombé, where they had been holed up. Everyone had told me that the contrast would be striking between Kinshasa and Brazzaville, between the world’s two closest national capitals, between the intensity and tension of one city and what people who’d been there before described as the calm and openness of the other. “Kinshasa is very dangerous,” one of my U.S. Embassy contacts in the Africa Regional Services office in Paris had told me before I left, “But Brazzaville, you’ll see, it’s like a French city!”

It was true that like many French cities on a weekend morning, Brazzaville’s centre ville felt sleepy. I could walk around freely or hop in beat-up green cab and get anywhere for a dollar. I had lunch that day at Mirabelle, a French patisserie and café, and on my way back up avenue Jean Jaurès, I stopped by the city’s main tourist attraction–in as much as Brazzaville has any tourist attractions–a massive marble and glass mausoleum and museum dedicated to Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, the Frenchman who claimed the Congo for France at the end of the 19th century. I was a little taken aback. Typically the story of African independence and development doesn’t include quite such an explicit chapter glorifying the colonizer (even though much of Francophone Africa maintains such close relationships with France and French investment that they’ve been given a  name: Françafrique).

A plaque at the entrance exlains that this vast, practically empty shrine, inaugurated in 2006 by then French President Jacques Chirac and the Congolese president Denis Sassou N’Guesso, who is still in power today, honors Brazza for his “humanism.” Inside there are poster-size photos of a dashing young bearded man, with fine features and an aquiline nose, and a large caption printed on the bottom: “D’un coup d’oeil on comprend les raisons de ses triomphes d’autrefois. Sa gloire est d’avoir accompli une oeuvre paix.” Which, translated, means: “At a glance, one understand his triumphs of the past. His glory is having accomplished a work of peace.” It sounds like a lyric in a hymn.

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Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza

When I looked at the three people employed in this mausoleum on a somnolent Saturday (a receptionist, a guard and a janitor), and felt the chill of enough air-conditioning to keep this space with two-story cathedral ceilings cool, I wondered if the money wouldn’t perhaps have been better spent elsewhere. One of the journalists in my training here in Brazza works for La Nouvelle République, the publicly-funded newspaper in this small country of four million with a president who has been in office for nearly 30 of the last 35 years. She told me they have no internet connection, and in fact, she said, they have no computers in the newsroom. The reporters and editors turn over their hand-written copy to typists who input everything on a few computers and, she explained still further, the paper doesn’t come out regularly anyway. It seems to come out when it can.

Social media training with journalists in a country where internet connections are iffy and computers are absent from newsrooms isn’t always easy (although the U.S. Embassy’s library in Brazzaville is comfortable, well-equipped and eerily reminiscent of the public library in my suburban hometown in upstate New York). But Facebook is hugely popular nonetheless with people logging on via their mobiles, and the culture of social networking is already widespread enough that the government, despite the lack of fully functional media, should probably be a little worried. Earlier in May, the president’s wife, Antoinette, celebrated her 70th birthday in Saint Tropez with 150 friends flown and yachted in, and news of the one-million Euro birthday weekend was allegedly leaked beforehand, when a picture of the invitation started spreading all over Facebook.

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La Bourgeoisie, a speakeasy (or a “VIP” as they say in French) in Poto Poto.

But what Brazzaville by day lacks in monuments or, frankly, in any interest at all, Brazzaville by night makes up for in grooviness. That’s the big idea of Distel, one of my local Congolese hosts in Brazza. He has a lot of theories about what’s wrong with the Congo and how to fix it, but he also believes in starting where you can, with reasonable goals: “What this city ought to be promoting is atmosphere!” he explained, grinning, as we drove from La Bourgeoisie, a packed neon speakeasy at the end of a dirt road in the poor Poto Poto neighborhood, to No Stress, a two-story lounge near the higher-end waterfront, where Raj, the heir to the city’s Indian-owned convenience stores, was celebrating his birthday. When we emerged, a pick-up truck full of standing policemen was stopped in the street outside the club and three other cops were lifting up and tossing a man into the back. “He’s inebriated,” exlained Distel. “They won’t hurt him, they’ll just scare him a little bit.” Sunday night in Brazza.

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La Détente in Brazzaville.

Distel’s atmosphere tour had actually started much earlier in the evening at the place that is cleary Brazzaville’s real Sunday night rendez-vous: Rumba night at La Détente in the Bacongo neighborhood. Rumba in the Congo is not, I discovered, Rumba in Cuba. It is langorous, slow, groovy. It is middle-aged couples getting all dressed up, the mammas in their tightly-fitted African-print finery and pointy heels, and the papas in sharp slacks and fine shoes, ordering big chilled beers at the club’s outdoor tables in the pleasant garden, checking each other out, and then getting up to dance to the blaring live band’s Rumba classics, holding each other tightly, moving slowly. La Détente means “relaxing” in French, and the evening was balmy and chilled-out, everyone decked out, but low-key. Just styling to the sounds of Rumba.

Despite its name, Brazzaville (the only city in Africa to have kept its colonial name after independence) didn’t feel anything like a French city. But nor do French city nights know how to groove like Brazza.

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