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African Commission in action

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MRG Programmes Officer Neil Clarke reports back from the African Commisson

OK, so my first impression of Congo, Brazzaville, I have found is very much my own. Blue skies, warm clean air, bouyant music, tasty fish suppers whilst watching over the great expanse of the Congo river… but I seem to be rare amongst the visitors here, to be engaged by these distractions.

We are all here for the 42nd session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights, and for the last few days NGO activists in particular have been buzzing around Brazzaville’s handful of upmarket hotels, engaged in a series of pre-meetings before the main event kicks off on Wednesday.

During the day the air is full of warmth, friendship and familiarity as the continent’s activists re-convene at this twice-yearly event, where in the past partnerships and friendships have been established and maintained and rekindled through regular attendance. For me, on only my first visit, it has been the opportunity to put faces to many emails and to surprise people with the fact that I am neither female nor 45.

But at night as we retreat to our accommodation in smaller numbers, the mood changes, either the African Commission was not prepared for Brazzaville or vice versa. If you were able to check into your hotel and find the room you reserved weeks in advance still available, you are lucky. If your hotel is actually built you are even luckier. Once inside you experience all night generators with the sound of power drills and a chorus of frogs that is even louder, towels which come back from room service wetter than after your shower, air conditioners without an off switch, an electricity supply with a mind of its own, table clothes which are generating their own life forms and restaurant staff who are so surprised at the presence of the customer that they seemingly have to retreat to a library for several hours after taking your order, so they can study and understand the very concept.

Added to this are the prices to make a Londoner like me blush, otherwise I think participants maybe a little more generous in their appraisal of Brazzaville, for whom this is a rare and big event.

When I suggested to partners the other day that maybe a trip outside Brazzaville would be interesting, their faces lit up until they realised I meant within Congo and not back to the airport. The sense of despair is increased by both the prohibitive cost of alcohol and the fact that many had their passports mysteriously confiscated at the airport making them wonder if they would ever see home again. Hopefully, the start of the commission session on Wednesday will focus everyone’s energy and maybe generate of few much needed watts.

The most popular destination is to head down to the river, where people stare dreamily across the mighty Congo river towards the skyscrapers of neighbouring Kinshasa and imagining its greater comfort and wireless internet connections. Maybe its because I am an African Commission virgin and not sure what to expect, but I’m enjoying myself. It’s all curious and I want to see more of this place and I’m excited about the people I am meeting. I found another equally curious fellow soul – he is a representative of the Fisher Peoples of Africa and is impressed by both the Congo river and its inhabitants. Indeed the stoicism of the river’s fish is indeed a sight, gainfully working their way up against a pretty strong current, surely knowing they only have a few more miles before they become someone’s lunch, but steadfast in their task nonetheless.

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