You drive all the way on Avenue Charles de Gaulle to the rond-point (roundabout) Lumumba. From Lumumba, on the other side of it from the Avenue Charles de Gaulle there are seven roads that branch out. They’re called the days of the week.
We usually take Tuesday to go to our favorite fresh seafood restaurant, a little eatery in the dusty street with the freshest jumbo shrimp and fish barbeque. That place is amazing. Whew…
Next to Sunday, there is another street, called Avenue de la Revolution that we just went down today to pick someone up (“Next to the mango tree down that dusty paved road there”) and I thought I’d describe it a little to let you know what the “Cite” (pronounced See-tay) or popular neighborhoods are like here in Congo/Central Africa/Pointe-Noire.
It wasn’t a very deep foray into the Cite, and it wasn’t long. It was a superficial glance so you can imagine you’re a little bird or a little kid, walking through and just looking. That’s what a lot of my writing is, since I’m not an ethnographer and I don’t read up massively before I write my pieces, they’re just my eyes, resting for a few minutes on things and just telling you what it feels like.
So until I have something better to offer, the eyes can rest on this.
Picture a small street that feels bigger than it is because of the incredible amount of human activity scurrying around it with insect-like intensity. Imagine ants, but people. There. You have it. Now imagine this road covered on either side with generous amounts of sand, and old flattened plastic bottles (the blue ones) and old old trampled and dusty fabric-like things that used to be clear plastic bags with a knot on them and discarded banana leaves brown with age and stepping. Every now and then sprinkle a broken shoe, a plastic part, shards of green glass. Okay.
If you were in Kinshasa, you could add on either side of the street a gutter with green standing water, and trash floating in it, and slabs of concrete over it so people can step over the gutter (outside sewage) or set up shop over it. But here you don’t need to do that. We have enough on our plates, and honestly, I wonder how I’m going to carry you through this. I haven’t even started. I can maybe skip ahead.
So lots and lots of little side streets everywhere, smaller versions of the large one. In these, you can plant large mango trees and banana trees and put, closer to the rond-point Lumumba, nice houses of concete with open doors and windows and swept dirt grounds, and the farther you get from the roundabout, little dwellings of aluminium siding still with the ubiquitous swept beaten dirt ground.
Back to the main Avenue. On this, and on the side streets, line up every single little shop you’ve ever imagined. Baker, “quincaillerie” (shops that sell bits and pieces of metal as well as metal pots and metal spoons, anything that clangs) butcher, fish-market, Internet cafes, textile shops, hairdressers, doctors, pharmacies, marketing consultants, garage, tire store, welder, little market for food and house supplies one next to the other in no order whatsoever. Just a very happy mess of store fronts, all concrete, mostly all white, with painted on store names that get very creative, and interesting, usually praising God in some way to bring luck to the shop and proclaim His Greatness!! Hallelujah! “Bakery of the Glory of Our Father” is a good example, or “Jerusalem tires” The signs painted in green, red, black, yellow, blue stating the name and the trade are above the open doors.
In front of these shops, you can dot as many little stands as you can imagine. Grill stand with barbeque of chicken, liver, fish, shrimp, stands that sell cassava meal wrapped in shiny olive-green banana leaves and tied with twine. Some stands are cell-phone calling booths, some are cell-phone recharging booths, some sell tins of tuna and corned beef, some sell shoes, some are shoe-repair shops, and some actually sell the same thing as the store on the road.
Just everywhere, someone sitting, selling something, trying to make a living. Trying to get to the end of the month.
Now for the final touch. The people.
Add lots and lots of men and women. Pehind the stands in the streets, sitting, with their friends, in front of the houses, sitting talking or standing, joking, kids running, coming back in uniform from classes, begging, teasing everyone, or gawking at the stand that sells cell-phone apparatus.
After all, a cell phone is sacred.
Then people in the stores, tending them, sitting in front of a cash register on hard round benches or high chairs waiting for customers. People get good at sitting. And waiting.
Then add people walking on the streets, on the sidewalks (storefronts), in both direction, in every direction, going everwhere.
That’s a tiny slice of the Cite, and you didn’t even go near the Mosque where men at the call of the Azam just throw down their mats for the prayer on the dust in the middle of the street, or further down in the real “Marche” (the market, pronounced mar-shay) where you can buy smoked bats, live cat-fish, pieces of crocodile, live squirming grubs, smoked monkey, forest game, like little rats, and all kinds of chinese remedies…You didn’t even see the real thing.
This was just a minute from the rond-point…I must apologize for not having given you a more vibrant tour but this is what you get in a little swirl! I’m enjoying seeing these things again. I see them for people who will never come here, I see them to ground myself, I see them to appreciate them, and see the nobility in survival and understand a bit better.
But I’m always learning how inadequately I see. It’s a constant process of re-adjustment.
Anyway with this I thought you all deserved a dose of reality after the bit of fiction. Here’s something concrete.