Before arriving in Congo we had high expectations. We were not coming to Africa for the first time – our year in Uganda had dispelled many of the apprehensions most people would have about life in the sub-Saharan continent. There was much to enjoy and appreciate there; we’d had a good lifestyle (although that is easier to say with hindsight, out of the cloud of adapting and settling in). Then, while we prepared for our move to Congo with a stay in France, we heard nothing but good things about life in Pointe-Noire from the French expats we knew who’d lived here.
‘The best posting in Africa!’ After our Uganda experience, it was easy for us to take that at face value, and we were looking forward to life here.
Now, most people arrive in Congo with more apprehension than anticipation. As a result, they are pleasantly surprised. It’s really not so bad. We skipped the apprehension, and went straight to disappointment. It’s really not so bad – but it is very, very French.
Attendez! Ne me quittez pas! J’adore les francais!
It’s not that we don’t like the Frenchness. We lived in France for 4 years, our oldest son was born there, we speak French, we like Le Grand Journal and I reckon Royal Mail could learn a lot from La Poste. We are definitely Francophiles.
Life here is really quite good in lots of ways. But ‘The best in Africa?’ Only if you’re French. When I mention to my French friends just how French it is here, they don’t believe me – they only see the differences. But after over 130 years of French influence, for good or bad, the comparisons are unavoidable. So, permit me to count the ways in which Congo is more French than France:
1. The Language
Of course everyone speaks French. The local languages of Munukutuba and Lingala are widely spoken too, but schooling is in French and locals appear to have reasonably high levels of literacy, including the distinctively French loopy cursive handwriting of their signatures. We had the advantage of already speaking French, so no language barrier, but any anglophone expat arriving without it needs to learn at least the basics, as very few locals speak English.
And here’s the thing: the expats are mostly French too. My own level of French moved from functional – the level I achieved in France, where I mostly spoke English because I mostly socialised with expats – to fluent, here in Congo, where I mostly… socialise with expats. Of course, the anglophone in this world is never completely adrift or immersed in another language – we have a small but thriving anglophone community here too.
2. The Bureaucracy
Take the French love of form-filling, rubber stamps and fonctionnaires, multiply it by African ‘efficiency’, long-held analogue habits and just a little bit of corruption, and the result is fun for all the family.
3. Baguettes and Patisseries
Many locals rely on street food to get them through a long and busy day. On corners, beside markets and lining the streets of the industrial areas, there are stalls and makeshift restaurants selling local dishes like saka-saka. But there are always baguettes, a daily ritual that seems to have been wholeheartedly imported. Forget the beret and breton top. You haven’t seen francophone Africa until you’ve seen an African woman resplendent in her vibrant pagne, hips swaying along the dusty road, a basin of fruit or vegetables balanced on her head, and a baguette under her arm.
At the other end of the scale, the high-end baked goods experience is all about the patisseries, of which there are several good ones here in Pointe-Noire. Step out of the dust into a bright, air-conditioned space with glass-fronted counters displaying freshly-baked wonders: éclairs, réligeueses, opéras, elaborate cream cakes and fruit tartes with detailed decoration. Then there are the usual pastries – indulgent butter croissants and pain au chocolats. The supermarkets have shelves lined with mass-produced madeleines and brioches for the childrens’ goûter– the pains au lait are cleared from the shelves quicker than they can be stocked. It’s wonderful to know that even on the dustiest, most frustrating days here, you can easily indulge yourself.
But if you fancy a cupcake with your coffee? Out of luck.
Speaking of which…
4. The Coffee
Just like in France, ordering a coffee will only bring you a teeny-tiny espresso. Unless you ask for allongée, when it will be a little less teeny. (And unless you go to the glorious boutique hotel Villa Madiba, where you can order a French press/cafetière and empty your pockets.) On the streets too, locals can grab their strongly-brewed espresso shots from a faded barrow on the way to work.
5. The Pharmacies
The flashing green neon cross is as ubiquitous here as it is in France. The French obsession with health and medication has been imported, and the locals are just as likely to be dissatisfied with leaving their doctor or clinique without a prescription. The first reaction to hearing someone is ill is ‘What are they taking?’
It’s worrying though – it often seems to me that the credulity of people surviving on very low incomes is exploited as they are persuaded that certain medications and procedures are essential, when in fact they may not be. For example, people with diarrhea are often told they have to go to a hospital or clinic for infusion to rehydrate. In my most cynical moments I wonder if medical staff particularly target those whom they know work for Western families, who will therefore most likely be able to ask for help paying the bill. But I’m not a doctor.
6. Le Midi
Oh merde, the sacred midi. I will do my best to limit my ranting here.
I get it, it’s nice to have that main meal, with family time, in the middle of the day, and probably healthier too. In France we really appreciated the focus on having a full meal at lunchtime, especially as wherever people work or study, there’s always provision – in the form of a canteen or catering brought in – for a simple but full three-course meal, usually heavily subsidised by the relevant institution. Everyone stops work and takes that time to focus on what they’re eating. When I was at home with one little one, I knew that the other members of the family were being well-fed at lunchtime, which helped take the pressure off in the evenings.
But here, there is no such provision in the French school, and very little in the workplace. So everyone comes home. For at least two hours. So that means come 11.30am, it’s already time to pick the kids up from school, and I join the roads packed with peak-time traffic. Twice a week, we’ll be heading back out at 2.30pm to take them back for afternoon classes, once again joining every vehicle in town on the potholed roads. Some businesses don’t even open again until 3pm, so then there might be hanging around waiting to shop or pay a bill. On these days the children stay in school till nearly 5pm, and those working mostly won’t be home until well after 7pm. On other days, the children don’t go back to school, but most people organise activities for them (especially those of us in apartments) so we’re back out for drop-offs and pick-ups anyway. I’m sure some people manage a restorative siesta at midi, but if not, it makes for a very long day. Meanwhile I remain unconvinced that anyone can be fully productive in that routine. It’s certainly a struggle for me to feel productive, when I can’t get started on something without knowing I’ll be watching the clock for the next pick-up time. From my Anglo-Saxon, northern perspective it seems like a massive waste of time and resources, especially as most of us live and work with air-conditioning these days.
7. The In-House Entertainment
Canal+ satellite TV is available here, and very widely subscribed to by both expats and locals. That means the French can settle down to all their normal ‘home’ TV channels like TF1 (la une) and France2, as well as Canal+. It’s all foreign-yet-familiar to us, but it still blows my mind a little bit to hear my neighbours talking about the latest episode of Koh-Lanta or Ze Voice, just as they would if they were still at home. As far as I know no other country exports their entire TV output wholesale – definitely not the UK. As much as I would love to have proper legal access to the BBC iplayer (TAKE MY MONEY BBC!), I can’t imagine flicking between Eastenders and Corrie of an evening in a living room in actual Congo.
So yes, life in Congo is in many ways at least as French as France. But sometimes we can pretend we’re actually in New York City:
When we lived in south-west France, finding a taxi after a night out was a triumph, a story to be told on Monday morning. ‘Yes, it was a lovely dinner, but guess what? Just as we left the restaurant, there was a taxi, on the square, with its light on! We got home straight away! Can you believe it?’
The more likely scenario would involve phoning one of the two or three taxi companies, and waiting on deserted streets for half an hour or more for a vehicle to roll up, while you resolve next time to just hold back on the wine and bring the car.
Here in Congo, however, taxis are the premier mode of public transport – you step out of your apartment, pause for a moment on the pavement with your arm raised, and instantly have a car stop in front of you – just like Carrie Bradshaw! Well, a bit like Carrie Bradshaw, if Carrie Bradshaw was happy to be seen in a beaten-up Toyota Corolla with dodgy window stickers, and/or bizarre internal disco lighting, and to wonder how long it would be before her bum ended up in a pothole, given the evident lack of suspension in the vehicle. But for about £1.30 to go anywhere in town, nobody’s complaining!
Not even the French.