What a luxury is fresh air. We arrived at the beach, clambered out of the truck and took our dust-logged noses down to the sea to drink it in. This coast is called the Côte Sauvage for good reason: ‘sauvage’ means ‘wild’ in French, but the sea is often savage as well – the rolling surf roars up and just DUMPS water on the steep shelving beach. There’s never a bracing wind like the Cape Doctor, but the coast does offer the blessed respite of the occasional cool breeze. Right next to the sea is the only place here where humidity doesn’t wrap itself around your head like a hot towel.
That first morning in Pointe Noire, we walked along the beach road and noticed a mansion surrounded by a high wall and guardhouses on each corner with the Congolese flag flying. We guessed from the absence of anything at all in front of it blocking the sea view, that it was probably the President’s house and so decided this was not the best place to spend the night. We parked further down outside a building site.
My friend Willy Tchitembo found us there. It was wonderful to see him looking so well and super smart in his sharp suit and polished shoes. The last time I saw him was in Cape Town in 2008 when we worked together on the volunteer Joint Refugee Leadership Committee after an outbreak of xenophobic violence in South Africa (he represented Summer Greens and I was doing press liaison for the Soetwater camp leadership). After 10 years in Cape Town, he returned to Congo in January this year and, because his English is so excellent, he has been headhunted for a big company here in Pointe Noire. Usually, you need a family member or political connection at the top to get such a job. Sampson was asking him whether we could go directly to a company who supply wholesalers with vegetable oil for a bulk discount if we couldn’t source old oil? Willy said that would be impossible as some General would lose his temper and start asking who was cutting in on his import business.
(Missing: pic of handsome Willy)
The next morning, luckily for us, Chris was wandering past with his board; he’s the only local we’ve seen surfing here this week. He told Sampson there was no point trying to get to the pointbreak by the harbour because it’s in a military zone and only accessible by boat. So instead we set off to find the pointbreak south of the city at Djeno. We didn’t find it the first day, but had an adventure anyway, blagging our way past high security at the Total refinery, to drive down the sandy path between palms to the Mukiwa Beach Club.
There we found Xavier, a Frenchman who loves Africa, who’d had to leave Cote d’Ivoire because of unrest, and chose le Congo as it had just come out of civil war. This resort and restaurant is a “project for his retirement” – he gets “to drink good coffee every day with nice people and look at the sea”, and enjoy “la liberté” which means so much to him. His wife is in France, about to give birth to twins, so he’d better enjoy it while he can! Xavier very kindly let us stay overnight for free with only his security guard for company, so for the first time in a while, we were able to completely relax. It was very muggy with a white sky, so it doesn’t look as idyllic in these photos as I bet it does later in the summer. That afternoon, we walked along the beach to the nearby lagoon; I lay down on a towel and immediately fell asleep – something I never do. We sure needed the rest.
Sampson found the pointbreak ‘Envassa’ the next day, a 2km walk around from the power station, but the swell was not favourable, so we headed back to the city to start the hunt for oil. We parked in an open lot by a beachside bar and received an email from a family friend of Sampson’s best mate Pierrot, whose house turned out to be 200m away! Young and dynamic Jérôme arrived at the truck half an hour later and immediately took charge of the situation. We wondered how he got to live round the corner from the President; only later we realised he was the boss of his company’s operations here.
I first thought all these big houses along the beachfront must belong to ministers or ambassadors, but how naïve I was. Here, it’s the heads of big oil companies who are the elite. The manicured lawns next to the flowerbeds in front of the mansions are mowed daily, yet just across the road, there’s an open rubbish tip inhabited by a roaming pack of wild dogs. I haven’t seen a starker metaphor for how selective the vision of big companies can be about their environmental impact.
(Missing: Scenes of luxury juxtaposed with litter all along the beachfront, except where I was stopped from taking one by a man in khaki in front of a studded gate amidst a plethora of palms – “You can’t film here. This is the President’s house” “Oh! I thought that was the President’s house down there?” “That’s his official residence – this one is his personal residence.” Ah…)
We were lulled into somewhat somnambulant behaviour, as Jérôme the logistics manager swung into action. He works for TECOR, the Congolese subsidiary of ORTEC, an international business handling waste management for companies such as ENI and Total who seem to be the employers of most foreigners here. Large scale waste management in Congo is very advanced, and some of the processes are world firsts; Jérôme took us to see the plant where crude oil waste is being processed with as little negative impact on the environment as possible. The SA ambassador had told us that, compared to many of his peers, Congolese President Denis Sassou-Nguesso is very switched on to environmental issues; however I’m not sure how the low the bar was to start with.
Jérôme took it upon himself to start enquiries to large catering companies and local restaurants. He’s very charming in that French way of being kind, understated and insistent. Thursday night he invited us to dinner and, feeling scruffier than ever, I was relieved when his even more charming wife Cèline greeted us casually dressed in shorts with a baby on her hip. Being French, she nonetheless managed to look utterly chic, with her model looks and fiendishly Audrey Tatou-esque gamine haircut. They met, of all places, in Bolton – which is twinned with their hometown of Le Mans – as they were both there as students. Jérôme loved it and still pines for UK pub culture and HP Barbecue Sauce.
(Missing: beautiful pic of Cèline in white blouse, and charming Laumonier family)
This was a school holiday week, and to celebrate the completion of my first term’s teaching, I had a week off the blog as well. I walked the beach everyday and did loads of Tai Chi, much to the amazement of Chinese men who came and took photos with me. The bridge to nowhere is one of many interesting sights here– a mineral company used to load rocks along a conveyer belt straight onto transport ships – but that was decades ago and now it’s rotting away. Sigh. Mother Earth is about to teach us a sharp lesson for never clearing up after ourselves.
(Missing: Very arty pic from underneath entitled ‘Pointe Noire – a bridge too far’)
On Saturday, Willy had organized for Sampson to do a show at the CONELTA language school as part of their English speakers’ graduation ceremony. The appreciation of the Africa Clockwise message by the teachers made us feel very welcome. I was amazed how patient the kids were – they’d already sat through long speeches by every single teacher and administrator, plus an endearing play by students about children’s rights. Sampson rewarded their concentration at the end with a series of magic tricks that had them on their feet! Afterwards, he had another TV interview with one of CONELTA’s translators Kevin Kinzimou, whose efforts at morphing his ramblings into coherent sentences were so impressive, Sampson ended up kissing him. The interview was transmitted 3 times a day from Tuesday to Sunday, on a magazine programme on the French Congolese satellite channel Canal Océan.
At the weekend, we moved outside Jérôme and Cèline’s house, and on Saturday night they invited us for a braai. We felt we got to celebrate Heritage Day as it should be observed, devouring almost a whole pig: chops, ribs and three different types of French sausage. The children were beside themselves. And there was also CHEESE: four different varieties! You can’t begin to imagine how decadent that feels unless you haven’t tasted cheese for months. Sampson was in heaven. He weighed himself on Cèline’s scales and found he’s lost 10kg since we left – that’s nearly a kilo a week – so now feels all his scoffing is justified.
On Sunday Jérôme and Cèline took us and Ricardo and Chiara, Italian friends of theirs, to a fancy seaside restaurant frequented by ex-pats. (Ricardo also joined the quest for used oil, and took Sampson to his company ENI’s Club afterwards to introduce him to the chef.) After 3 months on the road, I found it almost surreal to be in such a rarified atmosphere. The line of swanky upmarket hotels and restaurants along the front are very posh and very pricey. They’ve got palm trees and parasols, loungers and linen napkins, sugared glasses with slices of starfruit, and even sculpted sand patios, but it’s all rather undermined by the piles of rotting litter on the beach just beyond the picket fence. There’s also a sewage outlet running into the sea between two of the swankiest. Why not clean up your own backyard?
(Missing: group pic of all eight of us á table eating a seafood feast)
Twice on this trip I have been embarrassed about what I’m wearing: the first time amidst the poverty of the windswept village of ‘Blessings’ on the coast of Angola, because I felt obscenely well off, and the amount of clothes I had crammed in our little cupboard felt excessive. This week, visiting some exclusive leisure spots in the expat enclave of Pointe Noire, I have felt very underdressed on a number of occasions, if not downright shabby. Which just goes to show, context is everything, and the clothes themselves are neither here or there.
Sampson was thrilled when, after a weekend of mushy surf crowded with annoyingly young and supple French teens somersaulting off skim boards, a big swell came in on Monday and there was no-one in except him! We were also back to school that day; I eased the kids in with times tables challenges on our beach walk.
(Missing: Côte Sauvage beach pics)
Having been cooped up in the truck for 3 months playing small scale Lego, the kids have enjoyed playing with Cèline’s kids in expansive space both indoors and outdoors this week. Ruby has loved helping with 1 year old Arthur who’s on the verge of walking, and Zola has loved chasing 3 year old Arnaud round and round the house on bikes with the constant refrain of ‘T’es où?’. Not to mention CARS the movie on DVD…
(Missing: blurred pic of Zola and Arnaud tumbling on giant beanbags)
On Tuesday afternoon, I left the children playing in airconditioned comfort and set off to visit my Arterial Network Congo contact Pierre Claver Mabiala at the Espace Culturel Yaro. I took a blue and white taxi over to the Quartier Loanjili, and was escorted through the crowded streets behind the hospital by a friendly local. I was delighted to discover the Espace Yaro is a space very like our eMzantsi HQ, with local youth rehearsing on a small stage and some scrap metal puppet props in a corner.
I had a fascinating conversation with Claver and his team: Monsieur George, a veteran of 30 years backstage experience in Paris and elsewhere, his apprentice Duvalier, Ramathe, and French communications volunteer Sophie. Against all odds, with very little sponsorship and no government support, they run programmes in theatre, music, dance, storytelling and slam poetry and hold an annual arts festival in June called N’sangu Ndji-Ndji – the latter being the name for Pointe Noire in the local language Munukutuba. I’m gutted I missed the festival, but am the proud owner of the T-shirt. It would be fantastic to facilitate an exchange between our youth programmes and very much hope to meet with Claver again – he was off to Cape Town this week for the African Creative Economy Conference http://acec2013.org.za. I didn’t take my camera (not wanting to cross town looking like a tourist) but this photo is courtesy of Dèpêches de Brazzaville journalist Lucie.
Meanwhile, Jérôme had sent a couple of his mechanics to check over the truck, and they ended up taking it in for full service. It was only supposed to take half a day, but once they’d changed the fan belts, checked the brakes, fixed the box, welded an air bracket, changed the diff and transmission fluids, solved the steering problem, sealed the coolant leak in the radiator and greased everything, it was Thursday. And we had to insist on paying for the fan belts. What can we say but MERCI MILLE FOIS.
Jérôme was bending over backwards to help us, but I felt awkward imposing on Cèline like this for another 2 nights, especially as she doesn’t know us from Adam and I felt my kids were overexciting her 2 young children in the evenings. I couldn’t help feeling like an imposter in their house: trucklife makes long showers and tumble dryers feel incongruous.
I also find it really difficult to sleep in aircon. Sampson thinks I’m mad as he’s been sweating buckets in the truck, even getting up in the middle of the night to have cold showers, and loves the cool. I just feel trapped and unable to breathe properly. I don’t know how much of it is psychological, but I can only cope for a few hours at a time, otherwise I get a sore throat and start feeling ill. The only time we ever went on a package holiday together was a winter bargain special in a Durban hotel. By the end of the week I was sick, poisoned by the aircon. So we turned it off and slept with the window open until dawn.
However, aircon is undeniably wonderful to walk into when you’re dripping from just sitting in the truck of an afternoon, and it certainly makes it easier to cope with fractious children. So to the hotel and health resort Chez Laumonier: THANK YOU – for the washing machine and the Ceres orange juice and the muesli with chocolate and the home made yoghurt and the jam and the pate and the home made cookies and the Fanta and the CHEESE and the space. It felt like a holiday from the holiday to be with you. There’s a picture of the truck outside Jérôme and Cèline’s house here thanks to neighbours Sévèrine and Greg – it’s quite bizarre to be appearing in someone else’s blog – http://www.iero.org/blog/2013/09/un-gros-camion-vert/
As I walk along the beach in the morning, I gasp great greedy gulps of fresh air off the sea; only 100m inland, on the road up to Jérôme and Cèline’s, the blanket of humidity wraps itself back around me. Every day I seem to feel the clammy hands of the greenhouse gases choking the planet creeping round my throat. Soon the earth’s aircon will be too clogged to clean and will stop working altogether, but still we carry on spewing out our noxious fumes.
On Wednesday, Jérôme, Cèline and ourselves were invited to dinner at Ricardo and Chiara’s, along with their friend Paulo, at a vast new townhouse complex built by ENI. The Italians were as engaging and generous as our new French friends. The cosmopolitan conversation meandered from whether the Viking antecedents of the British led to their binge-drinking behaviour, and how the strategy of Berlusconi in Italy has echoed that of the Nazis in pre-1939 Germany to the psychological motivation of Die Antwoord. There are, as Sampson says “pros and air cons” to this ex-pat life. It is, I feel, rather like an oilrig: flashy and expensive from the outside, but rather isolated on the inside, hanging about on the outskirts of reality, beyond the reach of most, suspended in the mid-distance. (I’m definitely overdoing it on the metaphors this week, not to mention the length; sorry.)
This extended stay in Pointe Noire has been a vital respite from the travails of the road, but I can’t wait to get back to it. The more treats the children received, the more they took them for granted, and the more they wanted. How depressingly predictable we humans all are. Cheese on everything was commonplace within days, no longer a cause for celebration. I want to go back to the world of wonder!
Of course, it’s not easy travelling as a family, all four of you living in three square metres for months on end. There have been trying times with the kids: at the beginning, while getting into the homeschool routine, Zola had a few uncharacteristic strops while testing out the new boundaries; now at the end of term, Ruby started feeling very sorry for herself, moping about missing her friends and missing out on starring in the school play. Sampson is still grieving and far from his old happy-go-lucky self, although every session in the sea helps. Somehow, by going back to stay in our corner of the carpark by the beach – outside the roadworthy testing station, between the taxi carwash and the nightclub – the fresh air off the sea began to blow all of our nonsense away.
Firstly, on Friday Ruby had a Skype call to her friends at school and found out that as well as missing the school play, she was also missing a whole host of new general knowledge tests and sports day trials, which she loathes. This put her in a much better mood – thanks Mrs Williams! Sampson and the ‘petit Bob Marley’, as Chris calls him, also had an epic surf together where Dad was so proud to watch Zola ride an unbroken overhead wave. This was during school time, as the Sampson philosophy is that maths can wait, but the swell won’t; we’re really cherishing the benefits of our hard-won freedom.
Sampson also had a solo surf that affirmed his choices this week. After checking the swell first thing Thursday morning, he’d raced to fetch the truck back from Jérôme’s mechanics and get in the sea as soon as possible, but by the time he got back, the wind had come up. So he was hanging on his board, feeling all sorry for himself, thinking “ I want my Mummy to come and make it all better”- then realised that was never going to happen again. He started crying about his Mum, hating everything and everybody, feeling very depressed and not wanting to go on.
Then, he said, he had an encounter that was “the closest thing to a spiritual awakening or religious epiphany that I’m ever likely to have”; just a few minutes later, as he was paddling back out, a marlin breeched and flicked above the water about 50m away from him. “That’s bloody close for such a massive terrifying creature”. It caught the light and shimmered, twisting in the air. It was hunting, but obviously not a shark, so nothing to be scared of. Sampson felt his Mum’s spirit had come to chivvy him back to cheerfulness, and remind him of the wonder of life. The wind dropped. Sampson said, “It felt like a turning point. The depression lifted, my mood switched, I felt positive and started surfing well – had a corker with some kick-ass moves. It was life-changing for me, to realise how nature can affect you and alter your perception.”
Our luck certainly seemed to change. On Friday, a Durbanite called Ryan Hare, from the awesome Mercy Ship in port here, arrived on his bike to check the surf out; the next day he and Chef Ken Hatfield returned with 200L of used cooking oil for us – hooray! (See www.mercyships.org, they do wonderful work.) Added to the other 100L we have managed to coax from various restaurants, we now have enough to get on the road to Gabon.
We were inundated with gifts: US missionaries Theresa and Keith Wheatley from the Church of the Latter Day Saints arrived at the truck bearing a bagful of food for us. Their kind donation of chilli con carne and tinned peaches made for very tasty Friday Night Treats, not to mention the superb homemade banana cake, thank you Keith! We were also given a huge bowlful of vegetables by the lovely Edvige, sister of the celebrated Emex of the VIP bar Escale D’Emex, which we have been parked next to for a week.
(Missing: gorgeously colourful pic of Edvige and her vegetable bounty)
This weekend, we celebrated the end of filtering with a meal at one of the spontaneous restaurants frequented by locals that spring up on Saturdays and Sundays at our end of the beach, beyond the fancy places. As the lines of parasols were being put up, we checked out the piles of fresh crab and oysters and figured that anywhere this popular had to have reliable hygiene practices. All four of us ate huge portions of scrumptious fish and chicken with rice and greens for the price of one plat du jour in one of the exclusive restaurants. As we sat and grinned at each other, luxuriating in the cool sea breeze, watching the sun set between the rigs, the experience felt pretty exclusive to us.
(Missing: very pretty pic of Ruby in front of the rows of restaurant umbrellas)
The next day, everything had disappeared – except for the litter. The plastic chairs and the parasols had all been carted away but we were horrified at how much debris remained, and how much of it was glass. So, inspired by the antics of the Octonauts at http://fantasyholidays.wordpress.com/2013/10/05/the-octonauts-and-the-ocean-gyre-cleanup, we decided to clean up our own backyard. We took a bin bag each and within an hour had filled them to bursting.
I’d taken my trusty Olympus PEN E-PL2 from Tudortech to take ‘before’ and ‘after’ shots of the kids, though normally I’d never risk it – I’m from South Africa after all, and I never take my camera to our local beach. I had it slung round my body, and it kept hitting me in the face as I bent to pick up litter, so I asked Sampson to take it, in an attempt to get him to stop before his back started hurting. Five minutes later he put it down while adjusting the GoPro tripod – a few seconds more, it had gone.
I feel utterly stupid: for neglecting to download any photos since we arrived in Pointe Noire despite meaning to several times, for taking the camera onto the beach, for handing it over to my husband, for the nervous breakdown he’s having about it, for tainting our memories of this wonderful place, for giving Congo a bad reputation in this blog when it was my own silly fault. Sigh.
There is a young man called Lionel, who was in Escale D’Emex when I went in to ask for advice, and has taken this on as his personal mission. He first drove me to the police station, but when the officer behind the desk explained that their vehicle was broken down and they’d need some taxi fare to do investigations, perhaps 25000 FCFA (R500), we left. Lionel was incensed, and vowed to “attraper” the thief himself. With his friend Rigel, we screeched round the backstreets in his brand new Toyota Prado with tinted windows, with them occasionally jumping out, Bodie and Doyle style, to investigate a likely den. He is determined to retrieve my memory card; as he waved his-father-the-Senator’s card at me before he left, I figure anything’s possible…