As the plane descends on approach into Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, rolling hills covered in tightly cropped grass spreads out below. Roads are non-existent, only footpaths of dirt link sporadic plots crops fields, erratic in size and length. There are no crops, just that these plots are slightly darker green than the surrounding hills. There are no trees.
The plane shifts to the right and the wide Congo River comes into view. Suddenly, a massive city appears underneath just seconds before touchdown. The runway is one strip of asphalt, so when the plane comes to a halt, it turns back down the runway to make an arrival on the strip. The airport is small. Everything is white tile highlighted by off-white paint. The tile runs from the floors and consumes the construction of the immigration desk. I feel like I’m in a public bathroom that would be found under the supervision of a Parks and Recreation department somewhere. Spray paint graffiti on the windows lingers. The bathrooms have no light, and as the door closes behind me, it becomes pitch dark. I realize why it smells so terrible.
Finding a cab outside, we make the ten minute drive through the city and to the hotel. Congo has undergone two civil wars since their independence, the last of which ended in 2005 after 21 years of fighting. The road to the airport feels like it is a byproduct of this time: the road emerges through dense jungle-like foliage as if the forrest around has started to reclaim the city.
In Untapped: The Scramble for Africa’s Oil, John Ghazvinian explains the reasons for the considerable disparity of poverty in a country which is within the top five producers of oil exports in Africa. While the book was published in 2007, at that time, oil exports accounted for 90% of the entire export revenue for the Republic of Congo. When so reliant on such a volatile world petroleum market for state revenue, it is no wonder why the country appears stagnant and in a process of being consumed by the jungle. Moreover, as Ghazvinian explains, in country that has discovered “the curse of oil,” the government becomes reliant on the income generated by oil to fund the state, so much so that other manufacturing and agriculture markets become underfunded and even ignored. The state starts giving jobs out to satisfy a labor force void of opportunities in other fields. As a result, as it is highly apparent in Congo, the economy becomes stagnant and lives hand to mouth off the oil fields.
None of this though is evident in Brazzaville from the surface. There are no oil workers and as a matter of fact, very few foreigners comparatively with other state capitols. Then there are the Lebanese. Every store, restaurant, hair salon or airline service counter is either under the direct supervision or owned entirely by a Lebanese man. There are some 100,000 Lebanese that live in Congo, a small number as a man explains, who sits waiting for a haircut with me. He himself has just arrived to the country from Lebanon to invest his entire savings into trucking: dump trucks and long distance haulers to cater to building projects within the country. The influence of this small middle-eastern country on the continent is very apparent to the Congolese. Their distaste for the Lebanese is palpable.
Oil, however, would be a strong and present issue once I arrived to Pointe Noire. More on that later. As I regain internet, I will follow up with more writing about Brazzaville.