The Foreign Service Journal, October 2019

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | OCTOBER 2019 73 It seemed the new Brazzaville had pulled up its socks and was eager to join a wider world, held back only by airfare, visas and enough reading material to meet its wishes. a colonial French marketplace. A child approaches and says, “ J’ai faim .” I offer a spoon and a seat at my table; frightened, he runs away. • Community security guard Gabriel cooks maboke —or vegetables and savory fish slowly roasted in palm leaves over an open-pit fire. • Afternoon run; amazed children laugh and point, “ Moundêlê! Moundêlê [weird foreigner]!” • Shower out of a blue bucket. Two gallons, plenty. • Geckos stage acrobatics on the wall. Better than Cirque du Soleil. • A tarantula, big as a freight car, scuttles under my refrigerator to the cool shadows below. s Now, in 2018, I was working a tem- porary job at the new U.S. embassy. The only building I recognized from before was Blanche Gomez Maternity Clinic, built by the Chinese in the late 1970s, when China’s per capita GDP was one- third that of the Republic of the Congo. For lack of running water, the clinic was never used, and still stood empty. A new corniche led from Brazzaville’s center to the Case de Gaulle, where the leader of the Free French had held the Brazzaville conference of 1944. It was now the French ambassador’s resi- dence. Built by the government of France, the corniche connected to a bridge to nowhere—aesthetically eye- popping, donated by a newly prosper- ous China. The dour Congolese frombefore seemed gone. Gracious, quick to laughter and easy to deal with, the “new Congolese” seemed to be on social media, able to access some personal funds. Even a Brooks Brothers outlet opened with fanfare during the second week of July. It seemed counterintuitive that this store could have a clientele in a poor country of four million (doubled from the 1980s), but Congolese assuredme it would. “When they have any money at all, they spend it on clothes,” an embassy driver toldme. s Michel, the stranger in my office, took me out to the city that Saturday. We saw the Brazzaville crafts market, where you get no hassles, no pressure to buy, and an open and relaxed atmosphere. “Make an offer on anything in the store,” one stand owner said. “What I value most here is you ,” I said. “You can’t afford me—I eat too much,” answered the stand owner. It seemed the new Brazzaville had pulled up its socks and was eager to join a wider world, held back only by airfare, visas and enough reading material to meet its wishes. Michel and I scoured the city, discovering much that was new and nothing much from before. s In 38 years, the country had gone through travails and traumas. Corrupting oil deposits abetted factional and regional disputes. North-versus-south edginess came to a head in 1992, with northerner Denis Sassou-Nguesso displaced in elec- tions by southerner, anti-Marxist Pascal Lissouba. Lissouba quarreled with runner- up Bernard Kolélas, and fights broke out. Now I see that the new “Little” Congo hovers like a sting ray over a murky past. The civil war of 1997-1998, politically inspired and with ethnic overtones, took a steep toll. These days a teachers’ strike shuttered the university, as professors went without pay for five months. As the market price of oil dropped, so did single-product Congolese exports and, with those, the local economy. Asked why teachers weren’t being paid, the govern- ment said it had “other priorities.” Congo-Brazzaville has a long road ahead before realizing its potential. Connected, savvy and determined, its youth and an emerging entrepreneurial class may carry it forward—and certainly out of the doldrums from four decades earlier—or, failing that, get out and live somewhere else. It’s best for all if they manage to make it at home, and maybe they will. n Embassy Brazzaville Locally Employed Staff Member Lejuste Moukoubouka at a local French pastry shop in downtown Brazzaville, 2018. COURTESYOFDANWHITMAN