Heart of Culture

Article excerpt

Byline: Maya Jaggi

The Congo hosts a celebration of African arts.

Brazzaville's corniche, a once elegant drive with an air of abandonment, looks out over the Congo River, the immense silted waterway that shaped the destiny of equatorial Africa. Just downstream are the Livingstone Falls, named by Henry Morton Stanley after his hero, the Scottish missionary who tried to chart the upper Congo. More than any other 19th-century adventurer, David Livingstone came to stand for an age of exploration whose lingering assumptions can still distort outside views of Africa.

The bicentenary of Livingstone's birth, on March 19, arrives on the heels of a groundbreaking and eye-opening festival in Brazzaville that made manifest what many early European explorers failed to see: the culture of the people whose lands they "opened up" for commerce and Christianity. Even the relatively benign anti-slavery Livingstone shared the prejudices of his day. And, as Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe pointed out, Joseph Conrad, who piloted a steamship up the Congo in 1890 and hinted at the brutality of colonial rule in his most famous novel, merely portrayed the Congolese people as a mute or jabbering backdrop. But as the novelist Henri Lopes, now Congo-Brazzaville's ambassador to Paris, told 90 writers and artists from around the world: "You're not in the heart of darkness, but the beating heart of the continent."

The linchpin of the festival, called Africa Rising, is its co-director Alain Mabanckou, a youthful and iconoclastic novelist born in the coastal Congolese city of Pointe-Noire, who has both a French knighthood and a professorship at UCLA. "When Europeans came here and tried to spread their culture," he told me, "they came with their exotic eye, seeing everything from a distance ... They underestimated African culture."

As befits a festival bringing together Africans on the continent with those outside, the boundaries at Africa Rising were fluid. South African novelist Andre Brink appeared alongside Lisbon-based Jose Eduardo Agualusa, Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole, and authors from across Francafrique. The main venue was the Palais des Congres, built in the 1980s with Chinese aid. Despite former Eastern bloc ties, French influence is apparent in everything from Brazzaville's patisseries to the games of boules in the streets.

The festival is the latest branch of Etonnants Voyageurs, begun in St-Malo, France, in 1990, by Mabanckou's co-director Michel Le Bris, to explore a literature "open to the world." Le Bris, a veteran of the 1968 student movement in Paris, said that "Africa is moving, expanding economically ... There's a new Internet generation. It's a mental revolution." The burgeoning of cities such as Lagos "creates horror and misery, but we're also seeing an incredible number of writers, musicians, Nollywood filmmakers. This energy is the power of creation, not just destruction."

Brazzaville takes the baton from the Bamako festival, begun in 2001 but defunct because of Mali's recent conflict. Yet it's been only 10 years since the end of Congo-Brazzaville's civil war, whose two bouts spanned a decade--a period reflected in Emmanuel Dongala's fine novel Johnny Mad Dog. The city is still pockmarked with abandoned and derelict areas.

Congo-Brazzaville's culture minister, Jean-Claude Gakosso, hailed the festival as a "big first for central Africa." Another rationale for Africa Rising was to reunite Brazzaville with its "other side." The city was founded in 1880 by the Italian-French Pierre de Savorgnan de Brazza, who claimed the north bank for France, while Stanley planted a flag on the south bank for the Belgian king. The skyscrapers of Kinshasa, formerly Leopoldville, rise across the river, as the two capital cities face off.

Mabanckou's fiction makes fun of rivalries between the Republic of Congo ("little Congo") and the Democratic Republic of Congo ("big Congo," formerly Zaire). …