Bukavu, Africa’s forgotten art deco jewel

Hercule Poirot would love the Art Deco buildings in the DRC city of Bukavu. He might be less keen on the gorillas


You go looking for gorillas in the heart of Africa and you find something entirely different but just as remarkable, so what do you do? Do you tell people about it? You probably should. But I was unsure, and I did nothing.

It was in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in December 2007. The eastern DRC is one of the world’s most benighted places: the demented violence of the 1994 Hutu-Tutsi genocide in neighbouring Rwanda spilled over the border and since then it has been the scene of almost continuous fighting between rebel groups, foreign armies and domestic forces in “Africa’s World War”, with a death toll of more than five million, and mass rape a frequent tactic from all sides.

I had gone there to talk to an extraordinary man, John Kahekwa,  below, who in the midst of all the bloodshed had founded a conservation body, the Pole Pole Foundation, to try to look after the wildlife of the region, especially the eastern lowland gorillas of the Kahuzi-Biega National Park. I saw the gorillas, which were magnificent, and I wrote about John in 2007, and I wrote about him in this column last October when, shamefully, he was unable to come to Britain and receive an award because the Foreign Office and the UK Border Agency fouled up his visa application. (They’ve assured him of a visa now and he’s coming later this year.)

But what I didn’t write about was John Kahekwa’s home town: Bukavu, the capital of South Kivu province, at the bottom end of Lake Kivu. It’s a sprawling city of 800,000 people, short on amenities – when I was there, it didn’t have any street lights at night – and it’s dusty and run-down, so at first I didn’t notice what was quite astonishing about it.

Because it was something you don’t expect, in central Africa. You might expect gorillas; not this. It was Bukavu’s buildings. Underneath the ubiquitous dust and grime, I gradually began to perceive, they were magnificent, just as much as the gorillas had been: they were Art Deco, pure Art Deco. They were all the bold geometric forms and the rectilinear shapes of the “machine age”, which we now appreciate so much and flock to visit in Miami Beach, or parts of California, or Napier, the Art Deco city in New Zealand, or even the inter-war arterial roads of west London with marvels such as the famous Hoover factory.

They had been built by the colonial inhabitants of what was then the Belgian Congo in the 1920s and 1930s: and because, after independence in 1960, Bukavu had remained more or less a backwater, they had never been torn down and redeveloped – exactly like the Georgian terraces of Bath. So what remained was a complete Art Deco town, a sight to gladden the heart of Hercule Poirot: once I had cottoned on to it, I made three trips through the streets and counted 95, then 103, then 110 separate Art Deco buildings, and there are surely many more.

We know the Belgians’ colonial record in the Congo was one of the most dismal, but the buildings they left behind in Bukavu are stunning, and now they belong to the Congolese people. Run-down they may be, but spend a few million dollars giving them a scrub and painting them in the pastel shades of Miami Beach and they could become one of the supreme tourist attractions of Africa.

I perceived this at once, like you do: but because I had gone to the DRC to write about wildlife conservation in the midst of war, the perception was sidelined. Yet it has been bugging me for the past five years: the voice at the back of my brain hissing: tell people, for God’s sake.

So here it is, for the Art Deco enthusiasts out there, or any enlightened aid donors, from the World Bank down, or indeed for the DRC Government in Kinshasa: Bukavu is Africa’s forgotten Art Deco jewel. Realise what it is. Restore it. Turn it into an outstanding revenue-generating attraction. Give the people of the eastern DRC a break. For they need all the breaks they can get.

Seth Rollins cashes in his Money in the Bank contract to win the WWE World Heavyweight Championship
WWERollins win the WWE World Heavyweight title in one of the greatest WrestleMania's ever seen
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark, TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor