Where I’m at: just back from Pointe Noire, Congo’s second largest city and economic capital
What I”m doing: catching up from a couple crazy weeks
Why I’m posting: showing that Congo’s not just Brazzaville after all!
I haven’t posted much lately, and one might think that’s because little has happened. Oh on the contrary, dear friends! Lots has happened…stuff you might even care about this time! Stuff relevant outside of Brazzaville!
Sort of. The last couple weeks, anticipation reached fever pitch (non-malaria levels) around here as Brazzaville prepared to host an international summit (heads of state) for the 3 tropical forest basins of Congo, the Amazon, and Borneo-Mekong. Unfortunately, the planning ahead of time was…well, if you can’t say something nice, don’t post it on the web (but send it in a cable back to Washington!). Let’s just say that the last-minute planning of this summit produced a rather anti-climactic ending. It’s unlikely that “Brazzaville 2011” environmental summit will be mentioned in the same discussions as Rio, Kyoto, Copenhagen, Cancun, etc. It might make the blooper reel, especially some of the mishaps. Again, I’d be wise to keep most of this off of my blog, but I’ll post two quick anecdotes, both available publicly because they took place on the summit’s final day, where the heads of state (all but one regional to Congo) gave their speeches. The coup de grace would theoretically have been President Sassou’s (Congo-B) speech. But the first half of his speech was hijacked by extremely loud dance music being played somewhere in the parliament building, making it hard to hear him. The second half was hijacked by an effort to either combat the music or lend power to Sassou’s words because the microphone was turned up…causing all of the electricity in the building to fail. We half-expected dead presidents on the floor when the lights came back on.
Anyway, the summit, as well as two other international conferences that were held here in the last week+ provided some international focus on the country. Additionally, the continuing efforts by the U.S. to engage African Union members on Libya, including the Ambassador’s and my private meeting (reported publicly) with President Sassou last week, brought focus to Congo-B, which was one of the 5 heads of state on a special Libya committee for the AU.
But the big news for me over this period was not international news, but international flavor, which for the Congo, can mostly be found in the port town of Pointe Noire. Pointe Noire is the second largest city in the country (less than 1 million people), but far and away the economic capital due to its deepwater port, importance to the oil sector (which money provides almost all of the annual budget here), and near-total lack of transportation between it and the capital of Brazzaville, only 550 km away, but inaccessible by road and almost inaccessible by train (the train is a 100-yr old relic of colonialism that has not been maintenanced and is a death-trap). Thus, “go west, young man, and seek your fortune there” rings particularly true in this country. Pointe Noire has the money, the excitement, the international crowd, and most importantly, the beach (not to be confused with “the beach” in Brazzaville, which is really just a sand bar along the Congo River where the port is, which receives all the traffic from Kinshasa).
So on a business trip last week, I got to visit Pointe Noire for the first time. There’s mixed-reaction in Brazzaville to the following statement, but I’d generally agree that it does have the feel of a beach town. It certainly has the smell of sea air. But being there presents a weird feeling, at least as a white person from an oil-consumming country. The city is mostly on a small peninsula where a view from a hotel room (like the ones attached) might show off-shore drilling on one side of the water and a harbor filled with oil tankers on the other. And knowing that this is one of the most corrupt governments in the world, that scene feels a bit like exploitation.
But lest our (my) conscience pang too much, my trip included visits to school lunch programs and a chocolate factory (!) financed by an American NGO. The NGO is responsible for feeding over 180,000 children across the country each day, which is pretty impressive, especially considering most of the children would not have eaten otherwise and definitely would not have attended school otherwise. It’s not perfect, but it’s a start.
Anyway, that’s a quick rundown of some of the highlights of the last couple weeks. We also spent a nice day at riverside camp in Maty (which I wrote about before) yesterday, grilling out and swimming. Oh, and I played in a golf tournament a few weekends ago (which I’ve conveniently chosen to not discuss in length….ugh).
All in all, life goes on in Brazzaville! Not a bad place to visit afterall. Hey, that’s a great slogan (and my closing quote for this post): “Visit Congo: not that bad afterall!”