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.