I travel quite a bit to Africa and other areas of the globe where it often helps to not look like you’re rich pickings. As such, I have a pair of ten year old Puma trainers with holes galore and peeling soles which I take everywhere with me. They are comfy and airy (due to the holes) and are perfect for treading the dusty streets of Africa. They are so battered that I don’t care what state they get in and this is just as well as today I have been walking around Brazzaville through torrential rain. It was one of those situations that once you’re wet you just plough on and don’t care too much as you can’t get any wetter. The rainy season is part and parcel of life here in the tropics and I’ve been fortunate enough during recent trips to have missed most of it, but right now I’d like the sweltering heat back please. I just hope these Africa shoes of mine dry out by the morning when I head over the Congo River to Kinshasa, else I’m going to have to bin them!
The week started in sunshine when I arrived in Pointe Noire, the second city of the Republic of Congo (ROC) and one of Central Africa’s major oil producing cities. It was my second time in the city, the first being five years ago, and, although generally much the same, there have certainly been some improvements to the shopping choices. Unthinkable a few years ago but there is now a genuine Hugo Boss outlet – in Central Africa!! The prices are perhaps double what you would pay in Europe, and in fact, pretty much everything in town is expensive too. The shiny façade of the newly opened Casino supermarket looks a bit out of place along the main drag of Charles de Gaulle Avenue, and a little further down is the Atlantic Palace Hotel, one of several top-end options which have sprung up since my last visit. Last time I remember staying at the “best hotel in town”, the Hotel Mboumvoumvou (best name for a hotel…ever… I reckon), with its mould, peeling wallpaper, soiled bed sheets and reception area full of prostitutes. It’s now been taken over by new owners who have done an excellent renovation job.
Malaria and high crime levels are often levelled as big dangers in Africa but the driving standards of the locals is up there with them. Many young drivers are behind the wheel without a licence and I’ve witnessed a fair few collisions on my travels. Pointe Noire took me by surprise though. They have zebra crossings and the drivers actually slow down and stop to let you cross. This is unheard of in Africa!! So, all in all, I left Pointe Noire with positive feelings, even though I arrived on different terms. When I arrived five years ago the immigration staff wouldn’t let me enter the country without paying 400 euros for the correct visa. I did, of course, already have the correct visa but corruption reared its ugly head and I had to reel in the help of an expat contact in the city to help me out. This time I was expecting something similar but they let me through with no questions asked. I did, however, end up having a huge row with the porters who wouldn’t leave me alone. I ended up shouting and swearing amid the chaos and dreaming of being back on the plane home. Fortunately matters improved.
Like many African nations, the ROC has lived through tumultuous times but now seems to be at peace with itself. Formerly called the French Congo until 1960, things were going fairly well until a coup in 1997 sparked a four month civil war which destroyed much of the capital, Brazzaville (where I am now sitting in my hotel room drying off). Since then slow progress has been made and it seems to be faring better than its namesake neighbour, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The GDP per capita is over ten times higher than the DRC and the country has done well from the oil sector, which accounts for over three quarters of government revenue.
Brazzaville is fairly laid back and, once again, the drivers slow down to let you cross the road. However, the drainage system here leaves a lot to be desired, making it nigh on impossible to get around when the rains come. If you walk you get soaked and if you take a taxi you end up in gridlock inching along at a snail’s pace. The taxis are omnipresent around town (around a quarter of all vehicles are taxis!) and are all green painted Toyota Corollas in various states of dilapidation. The ones in Pointe Noire are all blue so you always know where you are by the taxi colours – just in case you get lost, of course!
PS: It is with great sadness that I have to end this post by announcing that my Africa shoes are still sodden and will have to be banished to shoe heaven as I leave to cross the mighty Congo River this morning where I will be collecting data in Kinshasa, the third largest city in Africa.