I walk across the dry-season ‘green’ far from the teeming, choking, rambunctious chaos of million-strong Pointe Noire, my attention drawn to the towering flames of gas flares that are turning large sections of the skies into pulsating, bleeding wounds and the air, closer to the site, a thick soup of chemical détritus.
The price of jobs
Curiosity drove me earlier this week to get a closer look – and feel and touch. Even from a distance of many metres, its infernality stuns: a loud, roiling torch of searing heat that bends the air and scorches greens into anaemic yellows and burnt browns, corroding the metal of the sign warning locals away. The fruit of nearby trees, pushed out hopefully in a brief season of respite from flaring, are now bloated and grey, hanging like the breasts of an old woman, or fallen to the ground.
Supporting rows of inward-inclined concertina wire, the frame of the fence that surrounds the fireball is incongruously and amusingly empty of chain link. Their eyes shaded by bent-over versions of their usual colourful headgear, women hang laundry and lay out racks of manioc root to dry – under the occasionally watchful eye of a pair of young security guards bent over a game of dominoes.
I cannot help but think of Wiebo Ludwig, leader of the Christian Community known as Trickle Creek, not far from Hythe, Alberta. Trickle Creek is located in an area of heavy sour gas extraction – natural gas, whether sweet or sour, being the by-product of the release of crude oil and bitumen. It is disposed of when regarded as uneconomic to capture, ship and sell. That ‘disposal’ is known as flaring.
Wiebo fought Alberta’s big oil and gas companies, earning both kudos and curses, claiming what has always been known to be true: the results of flaring are toxic, poisonous to ground water, air and soil. Around the world, recovery or capture for shipping is declining, from Alberta – where capture now stands at 94.5% to other, developing parts of the world where it’s never or rarely done.
Here, for many, it is seen as the norm, the price of jobs. Approximately one-fourth of all natural glass is flared off; the remainder is increasingly being ‘reinjected’, producing steam for tar sands extraction. Sounding just like home! Flares from the recently-developed Moho-Bilondo ultra-deepwater oil fields – situated 70 km out from Pointe Noire in depths of 600-900 metres – can be easily seen from the unswimmable, dead fish-littered beaches.
The Other Congo
This is the other Congo, the little one, tucked between Gabon, Cameroun, the Central African Republic and the much larger DRC – the latter provocatively adding the d-word to the name of a country that is anything but, better known as the land of Mobutu and Kabila, of the aborted dream of Lumumba, Kurtz’ heart of darkness, and the private corporation of a brutal Belgian king named Leopold. Though at a kind of peace for 15 years, this little Congo, French Congo, plays out, if at a lower intensity, many of the same themes as its neighbour.
À la fois seductive and foul, hope- and despair-inducing, relentlessly brown and brilliantly polychromatic, this country dodges its own narrative. Here in this out-of-the-way place, the young people tell a sanitised history of their nation, wanting to impress, wanting to forget, taught well by their revisionist teachers.
Still, the stories surface, told by the older adults with us who are determined not to forget: the stories of colonial brutality followed by an independence soon marked by a series of violent coups, assassinations and tribal struggles for power; stories of a flawed socialism replaced by an even more flawed darwinian capitalism; the impoverished class stories of child barter trumped by the upper class stories of fathers trafficking in the concubinage of their daughters – the one explained by indigence-driven desperation, the other by norms that render women objects; stories of Congolese co-operation in their own rape and pillage.
Local and national collaboration with foreign transnationals in the plundering of this nation struggling to make its way leaves the countryside and the Congolese majority devastated, scorched. The pipeline that goes by our door originates in Bongi, perhaps a thousand kilometres from here to the north-east. Once an agricultural community, the people who live there can no longer farm because the ground, air and water are now contaminated: as one told me, ‘It doesn’t matter if the company be domestic and foreign; they keep the profits, leave the people impoverished and without clean air, water and land. We are destroyed.’