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The other Congo: Brazzaville calling for change

The small Republic of Congo and its capital continue to live in the shadow of a torrid political history and the bigger and more (in)famous Kinshasa and DRC on the other side of the Congo river. But Brazzaville's industrious and engaged young artists are determined to help their country finally step into the light, whatever the obstacles that might confront them.

I should have taken the direct flight. I’ve just arrived in Nairobi after various delays and I’m already tired and a little fed up. I find the gate for the Brazzaville/Kinshasa flight and I suddenly step into a different world. The air conditioning inside the overcrowded room has given up. The undulating sounds of Lingala and a few other languages that I can’t immediately identify fill the hot, heavy air. There are huge bags and suitcases strewn everywhere. There’s no way that many of them should have passed as hand luggage.

Most of the women are bedecked in colourful Congolese fabrics and patterns. Every so often they tap their heads with a closed fist to kill the hot itches beneath their head wraps. The men are almost all in suits and keep their jackets on despite the heat. An announcement tells us the flight is delayed, but I’m the only one who seems to mind. As a Congolese friend in Cape Town once put it, the Congolese are “un peuple qui bouge”, a people who move, and they, I assume, are used to all of this.

Eventually we begin boarding. The overhead compartments are quickly filled to bursting and many passengers have to carry most of their luggage on their laps as it won’t fit under the seats either. The cabin crew quickly grow tired of trying to tell people that this is not allowed.

A few hours later we touch down in Brazzaville and I hear some of the passengers who are carrying on to Kinshasa chant the old refrain of “Brazzaville la poubelle”, Brazzaville the dustbin, then they laugh and whoop and slap their thighs.

After a drawn-out role play with a fat immigration official, I’m met by an excited welcoming party arranged by my Congolese friend in Cape Town. They take me to their district of the city, Mongali, and we put plastic chairs on the side of the road, drink beer and watch the world go by.

A sapeur, the much-celebrated and distinctly Congolese equivalent of the dandy, passes in a lemon yellow three-piece suit with matching cravat and brilliantly white shoes. He carefully and masterfully negotiates the mud, puddles and piles of rubbish that regularly punctuate the unpaved road, while some of the bystanders clap and call out to him. My shoes and the bottom of my trousers are already filthy; the sapeur’s get-up remains spotless as he disappears out of sight. This is the very core of “sapology”: the flamboyant defiance of the trying circumstances in which you find yourself.

After failed attempts at four banks, I finally manage to withdraw some money and then I hail a taxi and head to the Centre Culturelle Francaise (CCF). I’m sure Congo has some kind of official highway code, but it appears that no one on the road has ever seen a copy.

I have to keep on fighting… our music, our art, is very important

At the CCF, I meet with Martial Pannucci, a young local political activist, poet and hip hop artist. Martial’s group is called 2 Mondes, two worlds. According to Martial, both his group’s name and his lyrics speak of the environment in which he lives, where the opulence of the powerful elite and the grandeur of colonial monuments stand in stark contrast to the visible scars of the civil war and the everyday lived realities of most Congolese citizens.

We walk together into the heart of the historic Bacongo district, the main hub of Congolese culture and the local arts scene. Along the way, palatial residences and expensive new construction projects intersperse the crumbling shells of buildings bombed during the war that ravaged the city between 1997 and 2003. Some of these ruined buildings have been largely reclaimed by the dense vegetation around them. Many of them are still inhabited.

We eat salt fish and manioc for lunch and then walk through the enormous, pulsing Marché Total, the city’s biggest and noisiest market, a labyrinth that sprawls chaotically in every direction underneath a dense canopy of brightly coloured parasols.

As we weave our way between the stalls, pedestrians and mountains of rubbish, I speak to Martial about his work and some of the challenges he faces. He tells me that Congo is a country “rich in talent”, but that there aren’t the right policies or adequate support for promotion and development of the arts.

“An artist will put on a concert and then have to walk home, he’ll put on an exhibition of his paintings but will sell nothing – it doesn’t work. Music, the arts, have to develop and artists have to be able to make a living from their art. Even if someone is a well-known artist, they are not respected.”

The country’s current priorities are made apparent by the architecture as we walk away from the market and along the main avenue past the president’s enormous residence and a number of imposing new government buildings, all of which dwarf the small and dilapidated Ministry of Culture and the city’s only “official” museum a little further down the road.

I collect my bags from my friend’s place and head to the house where I will be lodging during my stay. The owner is Chantal, a teacher from France and currently the only Couch Surfing option available in Brazzaville. She lives with a few local artists in a big house on the outskirts of the city.

One of the artists is Ya Vé, who, it transpires, is the other half of 2 Mondes. He is living with Chantal temporarily as he does not feel comfortable in his own home these days. Since he and Martial appeared in a BBC dispatch denouncing the despotic Congolese government, Ya Vé is worried for the safety of his family and he doesn’t go anywhere on his own. His career choice has also cost him his girlfriend, who couldn’t deal with constantly worrying about his and their safety. “But I have to keep on fighting,” he says. “Our music, our art, is very important.”

This domain allows us to say that which we can’t say… it has the power to denounce certain things, but to do so in a way that is beautiful at the same time

Another of the “artists in residence” chez Chantal is Acramo, who is among Congo’s biggest cultural exports today, choreographing and performing a contemporary fusion of traditional Congolese percussion, movement, dance and storytelling for presidential events and foreign ambassadors, touring the globe and giving TV interviews with his troupe of around 10 young locals. Yet he still struggles to survive on what he earns as an artist.

Over the next couple of days, I notice that Acramo likes to spend at least three hours every day polishing his numerous pairs of leather boots and his silver jewellery. Though I don’t ask, I suspect that like the sapeurs it is a way for him to defy the financial difficulties and lack of respect that confront him and other artists in Congo.

Acramo tells me that his wife and children are based in France. There is a life waiting for him there if he wants it. But although he visits his family regularly when on tour in France, he will always return to Congo, he says. He loves it too much. He also feels a strong sense of responsibility. “I can’t leave the young people to lie down and die in the shit,” he says. “I have to stay here and change things.”

Acramo is certainly not alone in this regard. Over the proceeding days in Brazzaville, I meet a number of talented young local artists, from slam poets to painters, who feel a similar sense of responsibility, and who share a similar belief in the power of art and the youth to bring about change for a broken Brazzaville and for Congo.

Another of the most prominent artists that I meet is Baudouin Mouanda, a world-renowned photographer with a face and a voice so gentle and beautiful that I want to weep when he speaks to me. Baudouin is one of the founding members of Generation Elili, a collective of local photographers who have taken it upon themselves to appropriate and reimagine the way that Brazzaville and Congo are presented to the world through images. It’s a difficult task. Freedom of expression is extremely and sometimes violently restricted in Congo and many people, officials and regular citizens alike, are instantly suspicious of photographers. By the time I meet Baudouin, I’ve already been stopped by officials on four separate occasions for taking photos.

But the state’s dislike or even outright fear of photography perhaps speaks of the power that this medium can have in a repressed country like Congo. Baudouin sums it up neatly as follows: “This domain allows us to say that which we can’t say… it has the power to denounce certain things, but to do so in a way that is beautiful at the same time.”

Like Acramo, Baudouin has been lucky enough to travel the world with his work and he studied in France, but he will always come back to Congo, he says. His travels allow him to import what he has learned and seen and share it with others. “That’s how we can advance together,” he says. “It’s us artists, the youth and the new generation that have to change things in this country.”

Dictators are nourished by the silence of the people.

After my meeting with Baudouin, I take a ride in a bus out of town to Les Rapides on the banks of the mighty Congo river. A number of young men bathe naked in the water despite the strong current, a few others are fishing with hand nets and some women are washing clothes. I look across to Kinshasa, roughly seven kilometres away on the other side of the river and 10 times bigger and badder than Brazzaville. I’ve been told that a number of illegal immigrants from the DRC try to cross this great, riverine border every night under the cover of darkness. As I look across the water, a group of children approach from the bank below, waving and shouting “nǐ hǎo”. It seems they’ve somehow mistaken me for a member of the new breed of colonialists: the Chinese.

As darkness descends and the mosquitoes launch their relentless attack, I head back towards the main road to catch a taxi back into town and I come across a small courtyard in front of a few run-down concrete buildings with corrugated tin roofs. The courtyard is filled with huge animals, including a life-sized elephant, made entirely from soft drink cans. They are incredibly realistic. The walls of the dull grey buildings are decorated with an eclectic array of paintings and sketches, inside and out. Most, in my opinion, are fit to stand on the walls of any art gallery that I’ve ever been to.

My taxi drops me at a bar called La Bodega where I meet up with Acramo and my new housemates and listen to some live Congolese rumba music. It’s a trendy open-air affair and the vibe is pulsing. There’s a local guy with dreads down to his waist who dances a mean salsa and does his absolute utmost to drag every single white girl in La Bodega onto the dance floor with him. Meanwhile, there are a few stunning young Congolese women in sky high heels and dresses that leave little to the imagination scattered around the fringes of the venue and drawing the attention of a table full of Lebanese men.

As I glance around the bar, again I think back to the words of my friend in Cape Town, his assertion that the Congolese are a “people who move”. Based on my experiences so far, as well as move I would also use the word hustle with regards to the Congolese youth. That is to say that many of them will do whatever it takes to get ahead, whether that is getting to the city’s only university at 3am in the morning to try to ensure that they get a seat in the overcrowded lecture hall for the 8am lecture, or dressing to the nines to attract a rich foreigner who might just give them a ticket to something better.

It certainly appears the same is true for the industrious young artists I’ve met so far. They will do whatever it takes to keep producing their art, to be seen and heard, despite the countless obstacles that are put in their way. Whether their art is overtly critical of the country’s repressive regime or not, in Brazzaville almost every artistic act and accomplishment is an act of defiance in and of itself. As Lebon Zed, another member of Generation Elili, puts it: “There are many ways to protest.” So many people I have met since arriving here are testament to this.

The next 18 months are undoubtedly going to be a crucial period for Congo. In September, Brazzaville will play host to the African Games on the 50th anniversary of the event. Two brand new stadiums are currently being built. Some locals fear that the games will see the Congolese public take their grievances to the streets en masse and that this, in turn, will be met by a violent response from the state, which, many feel, is only using the games to distract the public in the first place while it forges ahead with its plans to change the country’s constitution and allow ageing President Sassou-Nguesso to run for a third term (Sassou-Nguesso has in fact been in power for most of the last 30 years) in the forthcoming 2016 elections.

Speaking to many of the youth and young artists in Brazzaville about the murky short-term political future, the significant contribution of a youthful citizen movement led by artists and musicians towards the toppling of Burkino Faso’s former president remains fresh in their minds, as does a similar movement led by young rappers in Senegal.

“Dictators are nourished by the silence of the people,” says Martial Pannucci and, again, the engaged young artists of Brazzaville aren’t going to stop making a noise any time soon. I hope for their sake and for the sake of Congo’s future that more people start listening to them. Congo has known enough suffering. There are other emerging narratives that deserve more airtime.

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