Pointe-Noire, the economic capital of the Republic of Congo, has a reputation built on nicknames bestowed by its residents: “Beautiful Boardwalk” or “Boardwalk by the Sea”. Its beauty derives from its lush vegetation and the architecture of its city centre, a blend of modern and traditional, such as the famous terminus building of the Congo-Ocean Railway.
When I was growing up there, the city was known, above all, for its calm and tranquillity. It had always managed to escape the country’s multiple civil wars. The Atlantic Ocean gives the city a prominent role within central Africa: Pointe-Noire, “a world city” and one of the most important ports on the continent – an axis of communication benefiting several neighbouring landlocked countries.
I grew up in the neighbourhood of Tié-Tié, where my Uncle Vicky owned the famous bar Joli Soir (Beautiful Evening), not far from Independence Avenue. This lively place was crowded every evening, with as many people outside as inside. My uncle installed lanterns and speakers outside, so it was no surprise to see couples dancing in front of the entrance, or for passers-by to stop for a moment and join in the merriment.
The music of Franco Luambo Makiadi, Youlou Mabiala, the Bantous de la Capitale or Pamelo Mounk’a played all night and the revellers would not leave until the first light of dawn.
My uncle also owned a photo studio, Studio Vicky, just off Independence Avenue. I would see adults come in dressed to the nines in their bell-bottom trousers and brightly coloured shirts and pose in ridiculous positions in front of scenery that could have been devised by Jean Depara, the famous Angola-born photographer.
These are the black and white images of my childhood, of the 1970s and 1980s. I can still hear the commotion of the streets, the sound of the buses, exhausted from the winding journeys across the city. I cannot forget the small shops or the pedlars or the West Africans who ran the stores in the working-class areas.
We spoke mostly Munukutuba, while the residents of Brazzaville expressed themselves in Lingala. Life in our city was driven by the humours of the Atlantic Ocean, while in Brazzaville it was the Congo River that administered its law. The residents of Pointe-Noire were at the crossroads of the world. They saw ships arriving from far-off lands. They waited at the seaside port for fishermen from Benin who braved the waves to bring their fish, which the small shopkeepers then argued about among themselves.
Pointe-Noire was, at that time, one of the cities symbolising the awakening of an Africa that hoped to find its autonomy by embracing communism.
The city was still divided between the working-class neighbourhoods (Tié-Tié, Fouks, Rex, Roy, quartier Trois-Cents, Voungou, Matende) and the centre of town, which was mostly inhabited by Europeans and the wealthy residents of Ponte-Noire.
When we were in “the city” and we wanted to go into the city centre, we said: “I’m going into town.”
And we dressed up nicely. You couldn’t miss the crowds along the avenue: here was a woman with a bag of rice on her head and a baby on her back, heading to the Grand Marché (the big market). There, a driver whose car had broken down in the middle of the intersection, getting help from some kids to push it out of the way. A little further along, a fight was attracting an excitable crowd.
Uncontrolled urbanisation and urban sprawl are progressively disfiguring Pointe-Noire to the point where, in many new neighbourhoods, the housing structures resemble favelas. Some major streets, paved long ago, are in such poor condition that drivers must worry just as much about the potholes as they do about the pedestrians.
To add to this issue are the eternal problems of rainwater run-off, rubbish-choked rivers, and the waste from oil companies that over time has encrusted the sand of the Côte Sauvage (the Wild Coast), disfiguring the face of this city to the point where some now jokingly refer to it at the “Trash Bin Boardwalk”.
Despite all this I know that Pointe-Noire is a city that has always cultivated enthusiasm. And, because of this, the Beautiful Boardwalk deserves its name now more than ever.
Alain Mabanckou is a writer and academic. His new book, ‘Lumieres de Pointe-Noire’, will be published in January