Congo · Memories


Or what TV was like in a single party dictatorship during the 80’s.

We had a small portable plastic cream-colored, black and white

television post, that we kept through our eleven years in Zaire, and I

even think the post made it across the river after the ’91 uprising,

but I would have to check with mom and dad.

Zaire (now the DRC, capital: Kinshasa) was pro-USA, and ruled by Mobutu Sese Seko, head of the one party, the MPR, right across the Congo/Zaire river from the Republic of Congo (capital: Brazzaville). The Republic of Congo was ruled by Sassou Nguessou, a Marxist-Leninist “leader” who had strong ties with Russia, China (Chinese engineers built many of the roads and some of the buildings in Brazza, and Chinese and Russian were the two languages taught in school as foreign languages!) and Cuba…So we basically had two TV channels: one broadcast from Kinshasa and one from Brazzaville.

I can’t exactly remember what the difference in programming was between the two stations, but I do remember that the only four shows we watched seemingly in a continuous eleven-year loop were the following:

1) Bouba, “le petit ourson” (the little bear). Bouba lost his mother in the opening credits and tried to find her throughout the entire rest of all the shows. I think this show somehow never failed to make me cry uncontrollably and mom would always have to reassure her sobbing, wailing, distraught daughter that it would all turn out all right in

the end, and that they didn’t really shoot and kill the bear, wait

until the next episode. I only remember a couple of bars of the theme

song, which was actually quite catchy and I wouldn’t mind owning the

MP3 one day, if I can ever find it…it was cute…”Bouba, Bouba, le

petit ourson qui habite qui habite…” something like that.

2) Belle and Sebastien: young boy and his gigantic female Saint

Bernard. His mother is also lost (what is it with these French

depressing shows for kids????) and he’s for ever trying to find her and just barely missing her (I think she was some kind of wandering gypsy, and she never really seemed to care as much about him as he did about her) and for ever getting buried under avalanches. Also, very catchy theme song: “Belle et Sebastien….” Okay, fine. I can’t remember any of the words.

3) something Rose Something: Either the Wild Rose or the Rose of

Trallee or the Rose or something about a rose. A romantic hate you love you hate you series about a temperamental Irish woman who loves and hates this man I think, I remember her being temperamental, there being Ireland everywhere and also boats that never sailed. She had flowing dresses and skirts and was very dramatic.

and, of COURSE

4) Dallas. All I remember were blonde women and the main guy, JR I

think it was. I never understood this show.

Now the main DIFFERENCE between the two channels resided in two


Feature A: the newscaster from Brazzaville always wore a suit and tie,

something we would never see in Zaire, because it was considered too

Western and not traditional enough, so Western three piece or two-piece suits were forbidden. Watching the Congolese news was a novelty for us to see these African men wearing suits. Zairean newscasters had to wear African clothes.

Feature B: a few times a day, on the Zaire channel, a recording of

Mobutu Sese Seko would be broadcast of him with his leopard hat from

behind a pulpit reading out his propaganda slogan: (I’m doing this from memory because Google failed me for the first time in my personal

history of using it)


which translates as (again from memory, please excuse the lack of

exactitude, they are, after all, childhood memories):


And Nic and I found this absolutely entertaining, so we memorized it

and would chant it, balling up our little fists and yelling earnestly

the slogan, as we sat in front of the small TV on our parent’s commode, waiting for the next installment of our cartoon.

It was interesting for me to read Barbara Kingsolver’s Poisonwood Bible last year and find this scene recounted in it (Mobutu’s televised propaganda slogan), bringing back so many vivid memories. I remember the taste of the saltine crackers and Chips Ahoy we used to eat when watching TV. Weird.

Funny that at the time, it never even seemed strange that our programs

would be interrupted by these propaganda recordings. It was all quite

normal. But then again, so were tropical storms that uprooted giant

mango trees and neighbors coming to our house with gashing leg wounds

from Machetes, so normal doesn’t mean anything.

Now one interesting thing was the commercials of which I only remember

four. I’m sure there were probably more but these are the four I

remember: (I will provide you with plot synopsis, because I’m sure

you’re dying to read about this)

1) Maggi: mother cooking a huge pot and everyone acting nuts from the

delicious smell, then everyone laughs and eats and she won’t tell

anyone her secret ingredient.

2) Cowbell (or was it Bluebell?) margarine: Heidi look-alike walking or biking down a dirt path bordered on either side by palm trees with cowbell margarine in her basket

3) MIR handwashing liquid: mother washing white clothes and laughing

and hanging them up to dry in the sun

4) Primus beer: men and women drinking and laughing, as if beer could

free you from dictatorship, hehe

But the highlight of the television set’s life was every four years,

the World Cup of Soccer event. It never let us down for that. And what

a pleasure it was to watch it and root along with the rest of the

city…what an intense lovely communal experience that was…to be able to cheer at the same time as a city of 10 million. Oh well, this is a flat end to an otherwise colorful memory but I have to go to bed. This is not smart.


One thought on “PAPA BO MOKO!!

  1. Hey, Violetta!

    Found your blog.

    Of course, e-Blogger has this annoying “Register with us! Register with us!” thing goin’ on. I refuse! I will not bow down to the Man!

    Fascinating bit about TV under a dictatorship! Mobutu Sese Seko was pro-USA, but his newscasters couldn’t wear suits? How odd.

    Belle & Sebastien have now lent their name to a tedious band that seems to be incredibly popular here in Scotland. And in Ireland, too.

    “BO MOKO” sounds a little bit like “NO BAKA,” which is Japanese for “Don’t be a perv!” or something like that. I think that’s what it meant when this little Japanese girl was hitting me and yelling “Nathan, NO BAKA!” Very confusing.

    And if beer doesn’t make you forget that your entire existence is the whimsy of powermongers, then what is it for?

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