Congo: Somebody Give These People a Medal

Pointe-Noire, Congo: The Prefect’s residence in Pointe-Noire is a modern palace with lots of bay windows in a spacious, well-kept park, shaded with palm trees and colored with flower-beds. Nobody lives there. The Prefect, like so many high-ranking civil-servants, managed to amass enough wealth to build himself his own private palace outside of town.

In the back left-side corner is a small walled-in compound which looks very much like the police station it once must have been, with its holding cells, but is now Radio-Congo’s Pointe-Noire station. It is a throwback to the early days of broadcasting.

There are three cells to the left as you walk in, each 12 feet by 15 feet and the first two are lucky enough to have a window. In the second cell, four reporters sit at three tables, one holding an old, plastic cassette recorder to his ear, scripts an interview. Next to him a woman is hand-writing her broadcast while a third actually cuts and splices an interview on a cassette, an audio cassette, the kind we loved in the 1970s. I have never seen anybody, ever, cut and splice a cassette.

“And we have to re-use them too,” says Lasar, the Editor-in-chief.

There are no computers at Radio-Congo Pointe-Noire. There are no fans. Electricity is often out and when the generator is out of fuel, they stop broadcasting until someone gets more to them. The air-conditioners, blackened from the tropical humidity and years of disuse, only serve to plug the holes in the walls they are inserted into. There is no running water. The place has not received a paint-job in at least 30 years.

This is a far cry from the modern, Chinese-built, five-story, half-empty, fully digitalized radio and TV station in Brazzaville, inaugurated to the glory of the president in 2009 and to the tune of fifteen million dollars.

Laser says the tiny Pointe-Noire complex employs 100 people, 60 of them reporters. But it is obvious most of these people are payroll only. Starting salaries go from 90,000 CFA francs, about $180, a good pay for impoverished Congolese. The public service is often used to give fictitious employment to well-connected people in the Congo.

The reporters cannot cover events unless the organizers pay them “because we don’t have money for a taxi.” And, strangely enough, for a country like Congo, politicians don’t care much about the radio, preferring TV. This has given Lasar and his crew quite a bit of freedom to do what they can, with what they have.

They covered a story on trash and waste floating in bottles of beer produced at the local brewery even though they were warned “the president is a share-holder.” The beer was cleaned up. They informed the public of at least two outbreaks of cholera even though the local government ordered them not to “to prevent a panic.” They have been on top of the story that AIDS victims are not getting their medicines. They are covering the health hazard caused by the mountains of trash lining the streets because nobody is collecting it. Those who work, are trying to do their jobs with absolutely nothing to work with, not even a bicycle to get to venues.

In the dingy, sweltering hot, control room which was surely once where the police sat and smoked (and probably much worse), a tall woman stands behind a small antique mixing board with a CD player and two cassette players to her left. There is nohting digital, not even an old reel-to-reel. Behind the window, a chubby presenter sits at one of four microphones, sweat dripping down his forehead. All the equipment was donated by Radio France International in 1998 when they came here at the end of one of Congo’s numerous civil wars. Without that gift, there would be nothing.

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Across from the control room is another big office space. In the middle stands the modulator “which breaks down very often because it over-heats,” says Lasar. Years of trash and dust is piled up against the walls. On top of the trash is a wonderful Technics turntable. “We don’t have a stylus.”

Ah, but where there is a turntable, there are records. Sure enough, in the third holding cell, the one with no window, where the editor-in-chief has his desk, there is a wall full of LPs dating back to the 1970s and 1980s. Vanessa, the US Embassy Information Officer, reaches for one and pulls out a first edition Marvin Gay. They know not what wealth lay therein

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