When I arrived in Brazzaville, I had been travelling for a long time since my departure from Gabon. As the bus pulled into the outskirts, I was looking outside, and soon after I stepped off the bus and took a taxi to the city centre, I liked the atmosphere around me. There was the mess that is common in most African cities, there was an abundance of traffic, but although there were many people on the streets, it somehow managed to give a peaceful feeling. I was full of plans to explore Congo. I wanted to see several waterfalls, go to a wildpark with gorillas and other animals, and explore the city. Unfortunately, I found out that it was impossible to arrange anything: either roads were impassable after heavy rains had fallen a few days before, a park would only re-open within a few months after my departure, or it was impossible to arrange transportation. It took several days before I was sure that I could not make any trips outside the city, and also that applying for a visa for neighbour DRC was impossible - someone who was supposed to help me to arrange it, never showed up. In the time between my efforts to get things organized, I walked around the city, which I liked always more. Mostly without real goals, just turning corners, getting the feel of the city, following my intuition, taking busy roads, but also sandy streets that in some cases seemed almost abandoned. What makes Brazzaville unique, is its proximity to Kinshasa, the capital of neighbouring DRC that is just across the wide Congo river, making them the two closes capital cities in the world. The corniche was close to where I stayed, and I ended up checking the views every day. Once, I walked further south, to reach the house built for president Charles de Gaulle, and currently in use by the French ambassador. Next to it, I found a monument honouring Pietro Savorgnan de Brazza, the Italian-turned-Frenchman who found the city when he found the Congo river he was looking for. Guys were playing football, and I walked to the viewpoint a little higher up the river bank. From here, Kinshasa was looming on the other side of the river, while the Corniche and the Namemba tower which defines the skyline of the Congolese capital seemed to be at stones throw. There is a small circular terrace, with brightly coloured tiles in which distances to major cities in the world are displayed; unfortunately, it lacks maintenance and is slowly crumbling away. The path that leads to an even better, because unobstructed viewpoint, is overgrown. As is so often the case in Africa, I wondered why this was so. Such a beautiful point, that so many people could enjoy - and it lies in disrepair.
One afternoon, I walked through the Poto Poto district, entered the curiously built St. Anne's basilica with its green roof and pointed windows and doors on the way, walked past the Grand Mosque of the city with square minarets and coloured windows. I chatted with a very friendly Ghanaian (first time to speak English in a long time!), and what he told me was, again, disturbing. He told me how the police would harass him and others, always in search of money. Even when they would exit the beautiful Grand Mosque we were standing at, police would sometimes be waiting, perform a search of the worshippers, and leave with the money they would find. It was shocking to hear how people here were hostage of their own authorities. A little later, I took a taxi to visit the Marché Total. African markets are always a great place to discover; Marché Total must be among the bigger markets on the continent. I walked and walked, carefully because in some places, the ground was flooded, bombarded on all sides by noise, smell, full stalls, and an array of impressions. There were the thoroughly smoked fish, black all over: I never even wanted to taste them, as they looked completely burnt. There were the stalls selling plastic, soap, clothes, instruments. There were stalls with neat piles of small tomatoes, of wrinkled ginger, of chunks of meat, of the hoofed remains of a cow. In some places, the market appeared extremely dirty even to African standards, and I found food stalls right next to sewers. I cautiously took pictures, but when I wanted to take a picture of the caterpillars and grasshoppers for sale, someone quickly called out to the lady selling them, after which she told me I had to pay. Several times, people asked me to take their picture, but as soon as I took out my camera, they demanded money. Even taking general pictures of the market from a distance made some people demand payment. A pity, because the market is in many ways photogenic - and so are the people on it. From the market, I took a taxibus to Pont Djoué, a bridge south of Brazzaville. A sight not to be missed, and a substitute for the waterfalls I so much had hoped to see, close to the bridge, you have a good view of the rapids in the Congo river that make it impossible to navigate for bigger ships. To my surprise, one man was rowing a pirogue up against the stream - but then again, the impossible often is possible in Africa.
On the last day, I went for the longest walk. I passed the Poto Poto roundabout, and wanted to have a shave; but just before the barber started, there was a power cut. I waited for quite a while, and just as I walked out, the guy came running after me to say that the lights were on again. Cleanly shaven, I continued walking the tree-lined street. There were hawkers selling oranges, there were people selling petrol in bottles, there were women walking by completely veiled. And there was much more. I turned northwest, and walked back to one of the main streets. I had a lovely cake somewhere, and walked until I reached an obelisk. From here, I turned west, and continued walking. As soon as I left the busier streets, I entered sandy alleys, some of which seemed abandoned. In other cases, I walked through lively neighbourhoods. People sitting on the streets, having a drink, or chatting with each other. There were rather posh neighbourhoods, but also slums. Nowhere did I feel threatened, in many cases people greeted me. The Congolese thought it very weird for me to walk these distances, but to me, it was the best way to explore the city and all its different suburbs. It was striking how, unlike many other cities, it is the downtown area of Brazzaville that is the most quiet, while the outskirts see the action. Centre of town is mostly for business, banks, and such - while the real life of Brazzaville takes place in the many streets and alleys around it. This is where you find the fashion shops, the salons, the local bars and restaurants. This is, too, where I liked most to go - even though I was based in the downtown area. To conclude my stay in Brazzaville, what better to do than to walk back to the riverbank, and see the light disappear from the sky, and be lit in the many buildings across the river. Kinshasa - the city that will have to wait for another moment. Brazzaville, its small sister, the city that had managed to captivate me. When I finally left it, it was with mixed feelings. I would love to go back, but at the same time, I was happy to be gone from the problems posed by authorities. I can only wish, mostly for its inhabitants, that things will, one day, change for the better.
Around the World in 80 Clicks
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Brazzaville (Congo). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Brazzaville. Read more about this site.