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A visit to the craft market… the long way round

19 November 2007

Neil Clarke, MRG Programmes Officer, bides his time in Congo Brazzaville waiting for the African Commission to begin.

I don’t want to spend a second blog on the subject of hotels in Brazzaville, even though after a week this is still the main topic of conversation here, particularly since the Commission itself has been delayed for the last day and a half due to the technical difficulty of… uh… not being ready.

The lack of Commission did at least force some of us outside of the Kurtzian odyssey of our hotel experience during daylight hours and gave us the opportunity to see some of Brazzaville’s sights. Or at least we tried. Having jumped into a Turkish bath of a taxi with the intention of seeing one of the cities acclaimed craft markets, we steamed away happily for an hour before being dropped off at a series of endless rows of shacks on the outskirts of the city. Most of these shacks were piled high with knocked-off Nike trainers dating back decades, like an elephants graveyard of hooky footwear. Again no one seemed impressed in the slightest that they had potential customers, even less impressed when we weren’t prepared to pay $US150 a pop for a Hugo ‘G’oss belt.

After noticing the lack of craft or acclaim in these items, we decided to admit we had given the driver the name of the wrong market and set off in search of what we were calling the ‘southern market’. I felt confident I had given the driver clear instructions in my best finger-pointing French. But after two hours of heading further and further south, the driver stopped the taxi and started pointing in front of us with a puzzled look on his face. After a number of attempts at communication we admitted defeat and called a French-speaking friend to intervene. It was established that in fact I had not instructed him to take us to the southern market but simply to head south…

It turned out that the craft market was actually on the same road as our hotel and a mere 5 minutes walk away. What slightly concerned me about this was that my companion, an expert on pastoralist issues and a valued programme partner, had boasted of the ‘livelihood mapping’ he had conducted on the first evening. Along with the market he had also missed the cool, efficient, tasty and affordable restaurant opposite. There is a moral to this story, let he who is without sin cast the first stone at Brazzaville.

Indeed the craft market was certainly worth 4 hours of severe dehydration in the back of a cab. The style, a strange mixture of local imagery and cubism, was certainly unique to me and totally distinct from the broad and generic indigenous art usually on display for tourists. Later we had the chance to visit an art college and were surprised to find that young artists, working in a specific Congolese style, produced much of this mature work.

Brazzaville is certainly an interesting place, if we are lucky there will be more delays so I can figure it out a bit more. But seriously, while this is still something of voyage of discovery for me, I can see the frustrations of the many experienced activists for whom this is a crucial event. The scattered nature of hotels hinders the socialising and networking which brings such meetings to life. Delegates are alone, drained by the temperature and lack of running water and feeling they are wasting time and opportunities. The sad thing is that people are focusing their frustration on Brazzaville, when perhaps Brazzaville has not been provided with the infrastructure it needs to facilitate such an event.

So I have decided not to blame Brazzaville or the hotel staff for any of my minor discomforts and to enjoy the city. Indeed I have decided not to blame hotel staff for leaving used ear buds on my bedside table, for drinking my beer, for leaving a six foot imprint of another human body on my bed sheets, for filling my bath with a foot of dirt and for re-programming my TV to French channels every day. I have decided instead to blame a flying beetle I found circling the ceiling two nights ago. I caught up with him in my wardrobe this morning and he caught up with a firm blow from a wet towel. So now I can attend the opening of the Commission assured that there should be full roll of toilet paper waiting in my bathroom tonight.

This article reflects the sole opinion of its author and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.