Brazzaville: new embassy signals U.S. support for Congo's rebirth.
The city also served as Free France's symbolic seat of government from 1940 to 1943. General Charles de Gaulle's office overlooked the rapids that separate Congo-Brazzaville from its neighbor, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and its capital, Kinshasa. Together, Brazzaville and Kinshasa provide a piece of geographic trivia: they are the only national capitals located within sight of one another.
Few seem aware of Brazzaville's tenure as France's wartime capital in exile despite the fact that the film Casablanca mentions the city in one of cinema history's most memorable moments. As the movie concludes, Rick Blaine, played by Humphrey Bogart, contemplates joining the Free French in Brazzaville before uttering the famous line, "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."
Today Brazzaville embodies the ideals of friendship and beauty, words that aptly describe an often overlooked city whose charming citizens warmly welcome visitors and showcase the Congo's artistic soul.
Congo was settled by Bantu tribes who established one of the great kingdoms in Central Africa and became part of the French colonial system after explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza arrived in the 1880s. De Brazza dueled over the rights to the area with Belgian explorers, leading to the development of two separate colonies straddling both sides of the Congo River.
Both countries became known as sources of extractive resource wealth. Today, Congo-Brazzaville is working to diversify its economy. While oil still accounts for 80 percent of Congo's gross domestic product, the country also boasts a robust timber industry and promising iron ore deposits. Congo, with some of the largest expanses of unexploited forests and savannah in the world, is home to thousands of exotic species, including gorillas, chimpanzees, grey parrots, forest elephants and leopards.
The Congolese people are, of course, Congo's most valuable resource. They pride themselves on being the lone African state to resolve a civil conflict without Western influence. Congolese writers and artists have achieved renown through their work, much of which was inspired by the struggle against colonialism. Though artists suffered during a Marxist-Leninist period of post-colonial rule, Congo has again become home to a robust artistic community, thanks in large part to the acclaimed Poto-Poto School of painting.
The art scene extends beyond the canvas and written word into the wardrobes of Congolese men and women. The bright colors of tropical flowers and wildlife, from turquoise to tangerine, that distinguish the Poto-Poto School, also show up in the costumes of Brazzaville's renowned dandies known as sapeurs.
Dressed in their flashy designer garb, the sapeurs of Congo represent La Sape, the Societe des Ambianceurs et Personnes Elegantes (roughly translated as the society of good-timers and elegant people). Started by Congolese military veterans and students who returned from Paris with a colorful and unique twist on European style, Congo's Sapologie movement represents a philosophy extending beyond clothing to promoting moral nobility and peace--refreshing undertones for a country that is no stranger to the tragedies of civil conflict.
After a 1997 evacuation during Congo's second civil war, a greatly reduced U.S. Embassy in Brazzaville worked out of an office in Kinshasa until American diplomats were again permanently posted here in 2005.
A new embassy compound situated along Brazzaville's main boulevard opened in 2009. The state-of-the-art embassy became the first Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations structure to win Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. The compound highlights America's commitment to Congo's rebirth and a renewed focus on U.S. programming efforts.
Twelve direct-hire Americans and nearly 200 local staff constitute the U.S. mission. Most U.S. personnel are on their first or second tours, with duties that entail significant reporting, program and management roles. Officers interested in emerging economies, climate change and biodiversity will find Brazzaville especially rewarding. The Republic of the Congo is an important U.S. partner for regional security, the environment, conservation and medical research.
Aside from the State Department, the only other U.S. agency present in Brazzaville is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Thus, many of Brazzaville's staff serve as liaisons for other agencies such as the Department of Defense's Africa Command and the U.S. Agency for International Development. The embassy's proximity to Kinshasa, a seven-minute ride in one of the embassy's boats, provides staff in both cities the opportunity to work and train "across the river."
Hardship and Comfort
Life in Brazzaville is not without challenges. Hardships include limited commercial flights, unreliable Internet access, poor infrastructure and a lack of amenities and conveniences that meet U.S. standards. However, most embassy personnel learn to embrace Congo's quirks.
Brazzaville is a quiet, safe city, and embassy staff are housed in comfortable homes that are within 10 minutes of the embassy or any other place in the city, including the airport. Colleagues often get together for a morning round on Brazzaville's nine-hole golf course or a game of tennis at the local club; others enjoy the vibrant local music scene or viewing the sapeurs holding court at their weekly expositions. There are also opportunities for weekend expeditions in Congo's national parks.
In 2009, the Department designated Brazzaville a fully accompanied post. Children find their niche at the tennis club playground or the post's recreational facility, Villa Washington, which is also the scene for a weekly English-language lecture series.
Brazzaville remains a well-kept secret, perhaps due to the fact that the planned sequel to Casablanca, titled Brazzaville, never materialized, undoubtedly costing the Congolese capital a measure of pop culture notoriety. While we'll never know if Rick Blaine made it to the Free French capital, the United States has renewed its presence in this intriguing nation in the heart of central Africa, opening the door to, as Bogart would say, a beautiful friendship.
DeMark Schulze is a political-economic officer and Morgan O'Brien is a vice consul at the embassy. Embassy Brazzaville alumni Christopher McHone and Breton Boudreaux also contributed to this article.
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|Title Annotation:||Post of the Month|
|Author:||Schulze, DeMark; O'Brien, Morgan J.|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2011|
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