When I visit marché total or the more remote district of Mfilou, cries of “Moundélé! Moundélé!” erupt preceding my arrival like the trumpet bearers of old. I am a moundélé, which is simply the local word for being white. In case you weren’t aware, I stick out in a crowd here in Congo. Vendors will cry out to me, expecting that I have more money to spend, passersby will shout out and children will stare. Moundélé! It is an announcement; a declaration to those around that someone different is here.
The kids of Brazzaville have also conferred another nationality upon me – as I walk by they will cry, “Chinois!” Yes, I suddenly became Chinese without even knowing it. There is actually a bit of history behind this one. China has been investing in Congo-Brazzaville for years, running construction companies, building roads, starting hydroelectric power plants, and opening stores. With the Chinese companies came an influx of Chinese workers and their families, to the point where Congolese kids simply associate lighter skin with being Chinese: thus my new nationality.
Partly due to the Chinese companies, on-going construction is everywhere in the city, and it is here that you start to see the paradox of Brazzaville. There are beautiful soaring buildings with glossy windows and spouting fountains. Buildings with different colored lights giving a show in the darkening night, impressive gated compounds…and right next door one of the hundreds of half finished cement buildings that are so common in Brazzaville. The nice buildings are generally banks or were built by the Chinese (as I’m told the lovely Palais des Congrès was and even the Maya Maya airport which is the biggest in Central Africa). On one side of the street you’ll pass these impressive banks, and right across will be piles of trash in the streets and stray dogs that you avoid eye contact with if you don’t want to get bit.
Going out in the field with loan officers I have been constantly confronted with these two realities: beauty alongside poverty. Lush green forests, palms and bright pink and yellow tropical flowers sprout alongside homes constructed out of whatever people could find: tin sheets, wood, palm stalks and plastic tarps. Dirt floors, kids with clothing that is dirty and torn. I walked over roads and hills made of trash: plastic bags, bottles, and wrappers. There is no infrastructure here to take care of trash, and people have grown up in a culture disregarding the environment. I was shocked while out visiting the beautiful Congo Rapids with some friends when they simply threw their empty coke bottles and food wrappers on the sandy beach. When I asked why, they turned to me surprised, “Do you see any trash cans here Mara?” I realized that I’ve been trained since a young age to carefully pick up trash, threatened by signs of “Don’t litter!” and school campaigns.
Here, alongside the beautiful and deceptively tranquil Congo River are signs declaring “No throwing out trash by order of the Mayor of Brazzaville” – and right next to them are piles of recently dumped garbage with snow-white birds picking over the remains.
An over-abundance of water in the Congo River and intense rains- and yet water here is unsafe. If you’re fortunate enough to have running water, you cannot drink it without getting sick. I have a water filter that I fill up every night and then use the clean water the next morning. Those without water filters either purchase bottled water every day or have to use what they have knowing they will get sick.
Brazzaville is not known as being an easy city to live in. In fact I recently heard the statistic that it ranks 218th out 233 global cities in terms of quality of living. Yet while there might be dirt roads and trash, I was also struck by the beautiful children playing in the sand. Young artists drawing pictures of helicopters, little boys building courses in the sand to race their toy cars in – constructions out of plastic boxes and twine. Playing in the sand exactly the same as kids on the coast of California or Ocean City.
The Congolese face so many challenges: corruption permeating the government and hospital systems, unsafe water and overall lack of infrastructure. But these people are so inventive, so creative and so determined to create a better life for themselves and their families. I have yet to meet a beggar in Brazzaville – everyone is trying to find work.
One day, people say, Congo will be a paradise. One day they say, it will be our turn on the world’s stage. This country is so rich in natural resources of oil, agriculture, wood, and minerals. For some it already is a paradise. I’ll leave you with some words from Papa Adrien, our driver at HOPE, “I thank God everyday for the fact that I live in Congo. We have rain in abundance! We have sunshine in abundance! We see these tangible demonstrations of God’s provision.”