Blood, Trees and Flesh
The deforested land around us bleeds out the shockingly beautiful red of this African soil, open to the winds, stripped. And yet this country is home to vast expanses of rain forest – second only to that of the Amazon, which, along with swamps and savannah, provide shelter and food to rare communities of chimpanzees, extraordinarily large herds of forest elephants, leopards and antelopes. Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park covers 47,000 square kilometres – where there are almost as many gorillas as humans.
Here in the south, the sprawl of Pointe Noire occupies much of the small strip of the country that provides access to the Atlantic. Once a port for the slave trade, it is now the embarkation point for the massive mahogany logs that trundle down the roads, high quality roads that run the length of the country, demanded by the foreigners who drive the country’s second largest industry.
Roads In, Roads Out
A dozen cranes marked in Chinese letters testify to the doubling in size of the airport – to which my companion notes: ‘They don’t hire Congolese. Our workmanship is poor, things falling apart so soon after they’re built – so they bring their own workers to make sure it gets done right. Why bother training Congolese.’
As in so many countries in the world, like airports, roads are not always good news: roads out for communities in resistance or people living modestly on subsistence or minimal-surplus agriculture in ancient, homogenous communities, are not seen as particularly needful. Roads in provide access to loggers, as well as poachers and purchasers of ivory, bushmeat and exotic pelts. For a country in which the vast majority of people do not own automobiles and public transit is limited to a slow and rickety railway – whose 1920s-era construction cost 17,000 forced-labour Africans their lives, mostly from Chad and what is now known as the Central African Republic – in a continual state of panne, informal buses and taxis beyond the reach of poor people, roads are useful for armies bent on violent pacification or resource extractors bent on exploitation, these days the latter.
Commerce then and now: a global theme
Yesterday, we drove the final kilometres of the sand-duned piste du caravane to its end-point overlooking an Atlantic beach of white sand and waters that sparkled in the late afternoon sunshine. Two million people, sigh the words of a crumbling monument, its cement plaque now resting in in the sand, embarked from here, sold into slavery, never to return. The Ministry of culture has failed to care for this place, says Jean-Michel. He tells the story of African vendors selling Africans to eager fair-skinned customers – distant echoes of the modern collaboration of foreign arrogance and local opportunists.
It’s a global theme. As citizen of a country reduced by ‘free’ trade agreements to a return to our traditional role of hewers of wood and drawers of water, I am conscious of and recognise our collaboration in our own enslavement – our tax- and redistribution-aversive contribution to the collective bottom lines of the border-less élites.
On the way home, I read an old issue of Les InRocKuptibles, whose cover drew my attention on my way out of the Pointe Noire post office, part of a side-walk spread of news-expired French magazines. It featured Gérard Depardieu: ‘1948-2013: c’était notre Gégé’. Did he die? I asked the vendor. ‘Oh yes,’ he assured me. That was before I noticed the January date on the cover – his ‘death’ actually the renunciation of his French citizenship, yet another example, as one commentator inside says, of the super-rich refusal to participate in the creation of societies – ‘streets to live in’ – infrastructure, beauty and enlightenment – and governments facilitating their own impoverishment and calls for austerity.