I was recently emailing a friend who’s on her way to live here. I described Pointe-Noire as a ‘grey, flat shabby town’. I stopped to ask myself if I was being ungenerous. Well, no. Sometimes it seems like half the sites in town are either in the process of being built (a very positive thing) or just abandoned half-built projects. The expanses of concrete coupled with the often-overcast skies make for, yes, much greyness. It’s a visual relief when a new building finally gets its coat of white paint. And yes, the town is flat. Shabby? I may have misspoken there. It’s more than shabby in places – it’s dirty. Refuse collection is definitely not a priority here and in some parts of town rubbish just builds up at the side of the road until it gets burned.
Of course, there’s so much to enjoy here (listed in great detail to my friend before I indicted the town, I promise) and the weeks pass quickly. Work, school runs, kids’ activities, exercising, shopping, not to mention all my expat-wifely duties of attending coffee mornings, book group, dinners and parties. But the heat and the chaos and the dust and the greyness get exhausting, and it’s important to get out of town. Confession time: in my email I also said that the town was in an ‘uninteresting country’ – and that really was ungenerous. (Although in my defense I was mentally comparing Congo to Uganda.) Taking even a short trip along the coast reminds me that Congo too is a beautiful corner of Africa.
Last Sunday we packed the car with beach gear and took the short drive up the coast towards Matombi. Even as we drove out of Pointe-Noire there was a welcome variation in the road – a gentle hill rises over one of the northern quartiers, providing an expansive view over houses and out to sea. Further out of town it’s easier to be aware of local culture. Since it’s Sunday, locals walked beside the road on their way to or from church in their Sunday best. And that best is impressive, given how carefully Congolese can be attired on a weekday. A little more than half-way there’s a toll to be paid on the road. Every time, we wonder just what that toll is paying for.
Many people living here own a case (beach hut) or share of one. These can be surprisingly well kitted-out and many of our friends use one as a regular retreat, packing coolers and barbecue supplies. So far we’ve preferred the catered option, however, and this time we headed to ‘Les Pieds dans l’Eau’, one of several barbecue restaurants along this coastline. It’s a popular one due to its closeness to town, ease of access – at a point where the main road is close to the beach – and a reputation for great local food.
We were seated under our own paillotte and the waiter reeled off their brief menu – the day’s selection of fish and seafood available on the grill. Such short, simple menus inspire confidence (despite the lack of meat for MT) – it usually means the kitchen knows exactly what they’re doing. Of course in this case the kitchen is another more shaded paillotte filled with open grills, the catch of the day, and buckets of marinade.
No tyranny of choice here; our prawns and sea bass (bar when ordered in French) were brought with accompaniments of bananes frites and rice. Along with our chilled local beers it was just about a perfect meal – perfectly cooked with a tasty marinade, nowhere else to be, the Atlantic at my back and happy children.
Even happier when my older son spotted his best buddy from school on the other side of the restaurant (curly red mops standing out even more here…) Living in a relatively small expat community means you’re never far from someone you know. The two of them had fun joining in and dancing with a local band which was serenading each paillotte in turn.
After lunch we installed ourselves on the beach. The sea here being a bit rough for young children to swim in, a stream had been dug in to the beach, ideal for parents of little splash-lovers. It was still a hot day, although Congo is moving into the cooler dry season, so stepping into the chill Atlantic waters was addictively refreshing.
Eventually the sun started to sink, the boys’ friend headed home, and our beach retreat day was almost over. After one last session of wave-baiting, we packed up and clambered into the car, tired and sandy.
Back in town, we paused at our favourite seemingly-always-open patisserie (l’Orchidée) where, as well as soft white bread, I picked up some tarte au citron and tarte au chocolat for an after-dinner treat, and was indulged with a dégustation of gorgeous triple chocolate mousse. Maybe it wasn’t so bad to be back in town after all.