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It’s hard to get attention in a rough neighborhood

6 mins read

By Scott Graber

It is Saturday and a rising, low-angled sun has illuminated the pink blossoms that cluster on a single azalea. It has also flared the white fans atop a stand of pampas grass. For the last 30 minutes our lawn has given me silent satisfaction.

Although I take pride in our well-ordered yard, I am more conversant, more at ease with confusion. Like most of my generation, I sometimes seek the order, the understandable familiarity of a grid, but for me real excitement comes with an unfamiliar, chaotic landscape. All of which brings me to Africa.

Actually it brings me to the recent presidential contest in Congo-Brazzaville.

Congo-Brazzaville used to be called the Republic of the Congo. Before that it was the French Congo to distinguish it from the Belgian Congo. It is small, only 5 million people live here, and most Americans confuse it with the larger, more turbulent Democratic Republic of the Congo, a.k.a Congo-Kinshasa, f.k.a Zaire, which is chaos, confusion and conflict made flesh.

In the early 90s I made two visits to Congo-Brazzaville. I was there, at the invitation of its President, Pascal Lissouba, for the purpose of creating a promotional hand-out that the President would distribute when he visited the United Nations later that year.

“I need photos, Excellency, and directions to Congo’s National Archives where I can get photographs,” I said one afternoon.

“We don’t have a National Archives,” he replied in French. “But I see you have a camera of your own. What’s wrong with that?”

“Its a cheap point-and-shoot,” I said holding up the plastic, use-it-once throwaway I had brought along. “I also need transport into the interior.”

President Lissouba did not reply, and so I was surprised when his driver arrived at the Bamou Palace Hotel the next morning.

“Where are we going?” I nervously asked my Kalashnikov-accessoried companion as we got into the President’s Mercedes.

“Aeroport,” he said. “Where Excellency keeps his helicopter.”

And so began a years-long love of Congo with a flight up the Zaire River where I was stunned by the lushness, contrasted against large de-forested tracts that were testament to Asia’s appetite for Congo’s mahogany.

Shortly after my trip, Pascal Lissouba was deposed by a former paratrooper, Denis Sassou Nguesso, who remains President after years of despotic leadership. In the aftermath of that coup I developed a lasting friendship with another Congolese — Herve’ Miabey — an expatriate who now lives and teaches (math) in Washington, D.C.

I was surprised, last week, when Herve’ called saying, “I have news about Congo.”

His said his friend, Parfait Kolelas, had been a candidate for President running against Sassou Nguesso. Herve’ said that in the run-up to the voting, Kolelas had been polling well, then suddenly got sick. Kolelas thought it was Malaria, or Covid, but he died in route to medical care in France.

“I think he was poisoned,” Herve said.

“How do you know that?”

“I can’t prove it. But isn’t it remarkable that the only person who had the courage to repeatedly run against Sassou is now dead?”

After 23 years Sassou Nguesso is third in line (behind dictators in Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea) in terms of one-man, authoritarian longevity. He has taken a country that was admittedly poor; admittedly non-ambulatory; and made it worse. He has done this in spite of vast oil reserves in the Gulf of Guinea.

For most of those 23 years of mis-rule, Herve’ has been a relentless critic of Sassou, a tireless advocate for transparency, organizing Congolese expatriates living in America and in France.

He has made videos, sold commemorative mugs, and has tried his best to raise Congo’s profile — to distinguish it from Congo-Kinshasa. Herve has also spoken with President Biden — when Biden was a Senator — and no doubt he will seek another audience.

But when things go south in “Big Congo,” that blood-borne pathology, internecine butchery and killing of nuns dwarfs any ongoing misery generated by Sassou in the “Little Congo.”

Boundaries, drawn with help from the Belgians, French and those other nations that participated in the “Scramble for Africa” in 1884, put Congo-Brazzaville in the same neighborhood with Congo-Kinshasa. And Congo-Kinshasa sucks every ounce of empathy, anger and outrage out of that neighborhood.

I don’t suppose Herve’ will ever stop preaching his gospel; but geography makes it hard for him to get America’s attention.

Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at cscottgraber@gmail.com.

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