Step into the light

The little-explored Republic of Congo is striving to move away from the shadow cast by its difficult history and notorious neighbour, the DRC. Christopher Clark heads to Congo’s fast-growing capital, Brazzaville, to meet the young artists helping their country step into the light.

From my window seat, the airport is newer and shinier than I’d expected. As I join the slow, shuffling procession of disembarking passengers, some of those staying on board for the 10-minute flight over the Congo River to the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) chant the unflattering old refrain of “Brazzaville la poubelle”, Brazzaville the dustbin, then laugh and whoop and slap their thighs.

I’m met by an excited welcoming party arranged by a Congolese friend. They take me to their district of the city, Moungali, and we put plastic chairs on the side of the road, drink quarts of beer and bounce cigarettes back and forth while a group of young children play table football noisily next to us.

A sapeur, the distinctly Congolese equivalent of the dandy, swans by 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.

Congo's dapper gentsCongo's dapper gents
Christopher Clark

We take a walk down to the edge of the Congo River and I look across to Kinshasa, the DRC’s capital, about 7km (4 miles) away on the other side and 10 times bigger and badder than little Brazzaville. In fact, the Republic of Congo’s entire population is less than half that of Kinshasa’s alone, and a tiny fraction of the whole of the DRC’s.

Considering the size disparity and the confusingly similar names, it’s perhaps no surprise that many people remain unaware that there are two separate Congos. There weren’t always – not until the colonialists came and cut one powerful Congo kingdom haphazardly in two, with a megalomaniacal Belgian king greedily calling dibs on the larger slice, and an explorer by the name of Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza planting the French flag on the other side of the river, hence Brazzaville’s name.

“It was a bit easier when the DRC was still called Zaire,” muses Billy, the youngest member of my welcoming party.

I leave my new friends and take a taxi into the city centre. It’s quickly apparent that Brazzaville, however small, is alive, pulsing, shouting and shifting incessantly. As my Congolese friend once put it, the Congolese are “un peuple qui bouge”, a people who move.

I drop my bags at my hotel and take a walk to the Institut Français du Congo, a popular hangout for local artists. I meet with Martial Panucci, a young local political activist, poet and hip hop artist.

Brazzaville's colourful Marché Total is the city's biggest marketBrazzaville's colourful Marché Total is the city's biggest market
Christopher Clark

Martial’s group is called 2 Mondes, two worlds. Martial says that 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 that once ravaged the city and to the everyday lived realities of most Congolese citizens.

We walk together into the heart of Bacongo district, the main hub of Congolese culture and the burgeoning local arts scene. Along the way, palatial residences and hotels and ambitious new construction projects intersperse the crumbling shells of buildings bombed during the war.

“All of us knew someone who died during the war,” says Martial.

The bloodiest bout of fighting in Brazzaville followed disputed parliamentary elections in 1993 and reached its pinnacle in 1997, largely fuelled by the potential prize of the country's substantial offshore oil wealth.

Today, for any of the scars, it’s hard to imagine this city at war, though Martial says that many Congolese citizens, as well as the country’s reputation, are still hampered by those darker times. But this is where he and other young artists like him believe they can play a pivotal role. 

Driving past a shell of a building bombed during the warDriving past a shell of a building bombed during the war
Christopher Clark

As we continue into the heart of 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, Martial talks about the importance of his work.

“Dictators are nourished by the silence of the people,” he says, “but thanks to our music, we can speak to people, we can change things, we can wake people up, give them hope.”

I head back to the Institut Français du Congo to meet with Baudouin Mouanda, a world-renowned Congolese photographer and one of the founding members of the energetic local photography collective Génération Elili.

The collective has taken it upon itself to appropriate and reimagine the way that Brazzaville and Congo are presented to the world through images, challenging both tired and dated stereotypes of war and poverty, as well as the polished propaganda that the Congolese government diffuses through the almost exclusively state-sponsored print and broadcast media.

“Photography allows us to say that which we can’t say,” Baudouin says. “It has the power to denounce certain things, but to do so in a way that is beautiful at the same time.”

The collective puts on exhibitions, workshops and screenings both at their small base in Bacongo and at the Institut Français du Congo.

“The aim isn’t to just keep showcasing misery in Congo,” Baudouin says. “It’s more about creating another view of African photography, a view that is ours, and a view that is more nuanced, more real.”

Memorial to the city's founder, explorer Pierre Savorgnan de BrazzaMemorial to the city's founder, explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza
Christopher Clark

I leave Baudouin and take a bus out of town to Les Rapides, a picturesque watering hole under the shade of big oak trees on the banks of the river. A number of young men bathe naked in the water, a few others are fishing with hand nets and some women are washing clothes.

That evening I meet up with some of my new friends and listen to some live Congolese rumba music at a bar called La Bodega. The vibe in the open-air courtyard is lively and eclectic. The beer is cheap and flows freely.

There’s a local guy with dreads down to his waist who dances a mean salsa and does his absolute utmost to drag every white girl in La Bodega onto the dance floor with him. 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, drawing the attention of a table full of hungry-looking Lebanese men.

I’m introduced to Ya Vé, the other half of 2 Mondes. “Our music, our art, is very important,” he tells me. “It is the strongest weapon that we have to move mountains, to improve lives through words. Because after religion, science and politics, it’s time that artists have their say in what is built.”

Acramo, another of the young artists sitting in our group, grows tired of the conversation and joins the band on stage with his djembe drum.

I stop talking and listen, contemplating this Janus-faced city’s many emerging narratives, and hoping they begin to get the kind of airtime they deserve.

Congo's more notorious sibling, the DRC, is just on the other side of the riverCongo's notorious sibling, the DRC, is on the other side of the river
sfinke / Thinkstock


Getting there
Both Air France and Kenya Airways operate daily flights from London Heathrow.

Where to stay
Hotel Hippocampe (tel: +242 06 668 6068; is among the best budget options in Brazzaville, centrally located with simple but clean rooms, Wi-Fi and a good Asian-themed restaurant set amidst lots of greenery. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the big, busy and sophisticated Mikhael’s Hotel (tel: +242 05 366 6660; is a favourite with business travellers. There’s an excellent restaurant and bar that often hosts live bands too.

Where to eat
For the best grilled chicken and manioc (a Congolese staple), great live music and a young, artsy crowd, head to Chez Kudia in Bacongo (tel: +242 05 780 4545). For fine dining and the best river views within stumbling distance of the city centre, Mami Wata (tel: +242 05 534 2879) has become an obligatory weekend stop for wealthy locals and expats alike.

More information
Génération Elili (
Institut Français du Congo (  

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