congo brazza palazzo cultura

The value of culture in Congo

Eni's projects to reinforce a bond born long ago with a country filled with history and wealth.

by Davide Perillo
14 April 2021
9 min read
by Davide Perillo
14 April 2021
9 min read

The statue has been there for fifteen years: six metres of white marble, guarding the small garden and the entrance to the mausoleum. He has bare feet, a long stick in his right hand and a turban framing his face – a unique look among other known portraits, but one that gives an idea of the person depicted. Pietro Savorgnan di Brazzà (1852-1905), the French-Italian explorer who, in 1880, made a friendship pact with King Makoko, ruler of the Teke, and paved the way for the arrival of the French on the right bank of the Congo River.

More than a century has passed, the world has changed, and colonialism is long over. The river separates two countries with names that overlap and often cause confusion in those unfamiliar with the regional map. On one side is the former French Congo, and on the other is the Democratic Republic of Congo, once occupied by the Belgians. Brazzà stands there, celebrated by a country that even named its capital, Brazzaville, after him, and that placed a statue and a commemorative mausoleum for him on the riverbank in 2006. Now, a new building is being dedicated to him, built next to the Memorial and inaugurated on 24 February.

Eni’s new projects in Congo

It is two floors high, with white masonry. Below is the library, computers, the permanent exhibition room with traditional pieces from the Teke tradition and the tradition of other peoples from the region and a conference room with 565 seats. Upstairs there are classrooms for children, a film library and other computer stations. "There wasn’t a place like this in the city, and it’s important because it can serve as a base for a very lively cultural setting," explains Mirko Araldi, Operations Director of Eni Congo.

This is an important step in a long-standing relationship: Eni has been present in the country since 1968. If the Italian company has invested in the project, making a decisive contribution to giving this place to the city, it is also for another reason: Brazzà, himself. He was a unique person, someone who was unusual in the way he related to the local population. "He did not use force, instead using dialogue and mutual understanding: if you talk to people here, they all know him. It is important for us to recall these values, even today.

The Brazzà Memorial is one of three projects part of a deal signed with the Congolese government. The others are in Makoua, inland, and Pointe-Noire, by the ocean. “A $15 million investment package to support culture and the country," explains Araldi, who has been in the Congo for a year and a half and has been director since January 2021: “It’s a non-profit operation: we gain no economic advantage and we will not recover the costs”. In return, however, there is the boost given to the development of a country that is a historic partner for the six-legged dog, and which has made remarkable progress in recent years. “I had already worked here between 2008 and 2011, just after I was hired”, Araldi said. “When I came back, I was able to appreciate the change: many things are similar, but there is much more order, cleanliness, organisation. You can even see it on the streets. The power station we built now supplies power to homes and offices, and you no longer hear the loud noise of many generators." The streets he is referring to are those of Pointe-Noire, where Eni's offices are located.

The Covid crisis also weighed heavily here, and 2020 was a complicated year. “But it is a city where people live well, safely. In your free time you can go to the beach, the nature there is beautiful. However, there was a lack of a place to organise meetings, exhibitions, or cultural activities”. Now there is. The Musée du Cercle Africain was renovated and returned to the population at the end of 2018.

A group of students visiting the Musée de Cercle Africain in Pointe Noire

The cultural centre

“It was a very active club in the 1960s, an important meeting place for the local community,” Araldi explains. “Then it went into a period of decline”. The city, Congo’s second largest with 715,000 inhabitants, has long suffered from the lack of a meeting place where cultural events could be organised. “Some events were organised in hotel lobbies, but it isn’t the same. For the people, and for the value of the place”. The location, firstly, is important: “It’s located on the Lumumba Roundabout, from which seven major roads branch off, and which serves as a connection point between two souls of the city.

It took a year and a half of work to reach a level like you would see in Europe”. It is organised around several activities: “A permanent exhibition with art objects from Congolese culture: statues, masks, etc.”, says Araldi. Most of them come from the donation of a personal collection made to the city. There is also a room filled with photographs on the history of the country and the Congo–Ocean Railway, a key moment in the development of the area. Another, the gallery itself, is “... where exhibitions are planned with artists selected together with the municipality and the Ministry of Culture, and the other members of the Foundation that runs the club”. In addition, there is also a porch and an open-air space with around a hundred seats. “It allowed us to organise concerts, when it was still possible, before Covid. And jazz evenings, encounters with local artists, film screenings and activities for children”.

Children, in fact, can benefit the most from an initiative like this. They enter for free (adults pay a symbolic price), have access to the gallery and can participate in workshops. “Above all, they experience a clean, tidy, colourful shared space. They can enjoy something different. Do something beautiful, something constructive. It sends a strong message. For many of them, it means sowing the seeds of the possibility of a different life, giving them an extra chance to develop their talents”.

The city along the equator line

It revolves around the same idea as the project in Makoua, a town a thousand kilometres northwest in the Cuvette region. It is much smaller, with less than ten thousand inhabitants, but has one important feature: the equator passes through it, at the exact spot of the white building dating back to 1905 that was once the seat of the local governor. Now, after years of neglect, it was renovated by Eni and has become a multimedia cultural centre.

“Next to the main building we created others”, Araldi says: "A library with two reading rooms, a classroom with a computer and Internet connection, a playroom for children and a 200-seat conference room were opened. For a small and fairly isolated town, this is a huge gift: “It means allowing children and young people to study, research, connect with the world. It can really make a difference”. It also means offering adults a multipurpose meeting place: “A census of vulnerable individuals who received emergency Covid aid took place there”, Araldi explains.

If we add to this the fact that, along with the renovation, three water wells have also been dug for the population (two in the city, one just outside), the impact of such a project on people's lives becomes even clearer. Araldi continues, noting that, “Opening a library, or a computer hall where young people will come to study to build their future, is immensely satisfying”.

Shared values

So, how important is it to get in tune with the culture of a country, its mentality, its traditions? "It’s essential. Rather, it is a necessary condition to work well. You sign the contracts, make the deals, and follow all the rules, but then there is something that goes beyond that. It becomes a question of relationships, of connections. Of sustainable solutions that you seek out together. You must be able to understand the other person by valuing aspects of common interest. This is at the heart of Eni's dual flag model”.

The ceremony held at Brazzà's statue was also significant for this reason. The Prime Minister, the Minister for the Environment and the Minister for Hydrocarbons attended. Ambassadors and the press were there. “Representatives of the Teke also attended, performing a ceremonial peace dance, blessing the place and highlighting how the figure of Brazzà represents shared values. For me, it was touching to be there. That dance in front of the authorities reiterated how crucial dialogue, non-violence and respect between peoples are. It is and always will be the only way to build”.

The inauguration of the 2nd module of the Savorgnan di Brazzà Memorial in Brazzaville

The author: Davide Perillo

Journalist, he currently deals with sustainability, social issues and Third Sector. He was director of Tracce magazine for 13 years. He is a member of the editorial staff of the Rimini Meeting (an international event for which he has managed numerous meetings), he was editor-in-chief of Sette, a magazine of Corriere della Sera newspaper and covered the economy section for L'Europeo. He has a degree in Philosophy and a master's degree in Journalism.