Confusion, trepidation and curiosity jostle in my head as I stare at the gleaming white marble Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza Memorial in the heart of Brazzaville. Outside, a Christ-like statue of the Italian explorer stares back at me. What makes this scene particularly compelling? This is the only mausoleum in the capital of the Republic of the Congo, a memorial to heroism and history, myth and mystery. But it’s also a memorial to colonialism and its legacy, making it a space of controversy.
Inaugurated by President Denis Sassou Nguesso in 2005, the museum has emerged as a major tourist attraction, drawing more than 7 million visitors in the past decade. But the Congolese? They blame Nguesso for imposing an “evil” space on their community.
The museum is not very appreciated locally.
Albert Maniaga, museum guide
For many locals, the dome-shaped building is an unwarranted nod to Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, the man whose name the capital still carries, a man who signed a deal with the region’s then Bantu king, King Makoko, allowing the French to take control of the nation in the 1880s. It’s also the epicenter of a persistent swirl of local rumors and superstitions, rooted in de Brazza’s Freemason background. In large parts of Africa, and in the Republic of the Congo in particular, Freemasonry is considered a cult of devil worshippers. Some locals believe that Freemasons in the country hold their meetings at the museum in the dead of night — which is rubbish, according to 48-year-old Albert Maniaga, who has worked at the museum as a guide for six years.
“The museum is not very appreciated locally,” says Maniaga. “Many locals do not agree with the idea of establishing this museum in Brazzaville.” He calls me “brave” as a local visiting alone.
As I wander through the museum’s halls and corridors, it quickly becomes apparent that this crypt is worth visiting (admission is free) for other reasons. De Brazza dominates, for sure — the walls are lined with photos of the explorer and his family, and his diaries and other belongings are on display. But the museum also highlights the role of other iconic figures like King Makoko — whose descendants remain the unofficial “kings” of the country — and Charles de Gaulle, under whose rule France finally granted the Republic of the Congo independence.
There are also curiosities like old Teke tribe currencies, masks, sculptures and other artifacts that illustrate the country’s journey over nearly 140 years. Two large side-by-side flat-screens show photos, taken by de Brazza’s aides, of the explorer’s arrival in the Republic of the Congo, and the development of Brazzaville under French rule.
In the basement lie the remains of de Brazza, his wife and four children, brought here by Nguesso in 2006 from Algiers, where the explorer had been buried in 1905. De Brazza had been assigned to Central Africa by the French navy to report excesses of colonial rule. He died on his way back to France, shortly after visiting the Congo. Walking up to the crypts, I thought of the locals’ rumors. Odilia Inkoga, a 37-year-old Congolese woman, tells me she believes the museum was built only because many in the country’s government — including the president — are themselves Freemasons.
Rumors and superstitions aside, what will stay with you is an appreciation of the museum’s success in preserving the modern history of the Republic of the Congo. It’s not creepy, and the staff aren’t zombies (as one rumor has it). To round out your visit, visit Bristol, a cozy restaurant that serves up French and local food. Try the bissap, a local hibiscus-based drink. After visiting the dead, you can afford to live a little.
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