Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Kinshasa 2016 – Legacy of the Baobabs

One of Kinshasa’s sobriquets is “Kin Malebo”, named for its location on the “Pool Malebo” widening of the Congo River, but which in turn takes its name from the Lingala word for the Borassus, or Sugar Palm, which line the banks of the river.  Another remarkable tree that impressed early European visitors to the area was the baobab (Adansonia digitata).  These huge trees, which looked as though they had been upended with roots sticking up in the air, were a notable fixture in the Congolese settlements the explorers visited. Antoine Lumenganeso Kiobe, former Director of the Congolese National Archives, describes the remaining baobabs and other ancient trees in Kinshasa as witness to an era before the disruption and displacement of colonialism.
Baobabs in a Bateke village

Along what is now the Port of Kinshasa was a series of Bateke villages set in groves of baobabs that impressed visitors. Capt. Henry Bailey, named Henry Stanley’s second Chef de Poste at Kinshasa in 1886, was entranced, “Kinshassa – what a beautiful place it looked in contrast to all the other stations I had seen on the Congo!  It is situated close to the water on sloping ground, in the midst of gigantic baobab trees, which suggest the idea of a park.” Early Belgian administrators named the original street along the bluff, Avenue des Baobabs (now Ave. Wagenias). 
Capt. Henry Bailey's depiction of his new assignment
Later colonials were not so charitable.   In July 1891, Lt. Richard of the Force Publique dynamited a number of baobabs to create a military camp along what is now Avenue des Aviateurs, between Ave. du Port and Place de La Poste (See Mar. 13, 2011).  Still, in the early years, baobabs were ubiquitous in the rapidly developing commercial center that was Kinshasa.
The first Post Office in Kinshasa
The beach at Port Citas in 1906, which later became part of Onatra (now SCTP)
A public place in Kinshasa
The Hotel ABC under construction in 1913 
The Compagnie du Kasai headquarters in the 1920s (photo is mis-labeled)
Over time, as Kinshasa developed, the baobabs began to disappear.  Redevelopment of the Port in 1925 resulted in many being eliminated, except for one at the entrance to the port that remained until 1956.  When the Brasserie du Bas-Congo brewery was built in 1948, a baobab having a diameter of 5 meters was removed (See June 12, 2015).  During a heavy rainstorm in 1986, a baobab between the Hotel de Ville and African Lux toppled onto a parked car.
The baobab between the Hotel de Ville and Rodina (later African Lux) in the 1950s
A few baobabs can still be found in Kinshasa.  One on Ave. de l’Avenir near CBCO in Commune de Ngaliema, attests to the original village of Chief Ngaliema who negotiated with Stanley and other arrivals in 1881 (See Jan. 9, 2011).  The spirit lives on in named restaurants such as Le Grand Baobab on Ave. Wagenia at the entrance to the Brazzaville ferry.
Baobab behind Hotel Estoril on Ave. Kabasele Tshiamala

Baobab at the tomb of Mfumu Mvula in Kingabwa
Baobab at the American School of Kinshasa
  • Bula N’zau (Henry Bailey), 1894. Travel and Adventures in the Congo Free State, London: Chapman and Hall.
  • Lumenganeso Kiobe, Antoine. 1995.  Kinshasa: Genèse et sites historiques, Kinshasa, Arnaza-Bief.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Leopoldville 1957 - Battle of the breweries

On September 8, 1957, the Bracongo Brewery in Leopoldville hired an ex-convict named Patrice Lumumba to work in its accounting department.  Securing employment was a condition for his release from prison and his selection for this particular position had support at the highest levels of the Colonial government, including the office of then Colonial Minister Buisseret. Bracongo was considered to be more liberal than the church-leaning Brasserie de Leopoldville (renamed Bralima via merger in that year) (See June 12,2015). Within a year Lumumba was promoted to Commercial Director, the first Congolese to hold such a position.
Patrice Lumumba around the time he was hired at Bracongo
The brewery recognized that an articulate, charismatic Congolese who could go into the cité and meet with its customers would be more effective than a white man.  In addition, such promotion of a Congolese to a level of responsibility – and salary – of a European could only improve the brewery’s image in the eyes of African consumers. For Lumumba, it was also an opportunity to make contacts to support his political aspirations.
The competition - Bralima's Primus on order (Photo Jean Depara)
Polar poster at a bar in Leopoldville
Lumumba began promoting Bracongo’s “Polar” beer.  He frequented bars in the African cité and handed out chits for free beer. He hired other promoters to tour the bars, created both male and female “Friends of Polar” clubs, sponsored meetings of ethnic associations (the proto-political parties of the time) and provided the product for funeral wakes.   Polar began to make inroads in the Leopoldville market, particularly among Congolese from Kasai Province (where Lumumba was from) and the upper Congo River (Lumumba had been a postal agent in Stanleyville, today’s Kisangani).
"Mamans Polar"
Polar beer coaster
After 15 months on the job, Lumumba quit to actively engage in politics.  Many of the bars he’d supported now served as meeting places for his party, the Mouvement National Congolais. He remained highly identified with the beer, and bar patrons were known to order in Lingala, “Pesa ngai Lumumba” (Give me a Lumumba).  Polar was bottled in a slender green bottle, and as the political contest to become leader of Independent Congo sharpened between him and shorter, stouter Joseph Kasavubu (See June 30, 2015), Congolese pundits lost no time in linking the latter to Bralima’s squat round bottle.
Polar publicity at the Grand Marche
Leopoldville bar patrons - Primus or Polar?
Lumumba was murdered in Katanga January 17, 1961 -- less than 7 months as Prime Minister.  After Lumumba’s assassination, Bracongo replaced Polar with a new brew called SKOL, pundits again made politics out of poculation asserting SKOL stood for “Solo Kasavubu Obomaki Lumumba?” (Is it true, Kasavubu, that you killed Lumumba?).
SKOL bottle label
During the difficult economic times that followed Independence, the breweries remained a mainstay of the local economy.   By the end of the 1960s, both Bralima and Bracongo (now Unibra) completed plant upgrading and expansion programs.  Unibra increased production to 10,000 hectoliters per month and trained Congolese staff for increased responsibility, including a master brewer. 
Unibra beer coaster
During the mid-1960s, Unibra received unsolicited publicity when the CIA’s “instant air force” staffed by anti-Castro Cubans (See Jan. 27, 2014) adopted the brewery’s black buffalo logo as its mascot. The Cuban force was known as “Makasi” (“strong” in Lingala).
US-supplied B-26 at a forward airfield
At the beginning of the 1970s, Bralima decided to get into the retail business and procured materials from the UK for an English Tudor-style pub, which opened as “Kin’s Inn” in 1972 on Blvd. du Trente Juin.  Kin’s Inn became the Orangeraie in 1988, but Kinois can still enjoy the faux Tudor décor at this venerable eatery.
L'Orangeraie interior - 2000s
In October 1973, a new contender appeared on the brewery scene, the Société des Brasseries de Kinshasa (SBK), owned by the French Castel group.  SBK produced luxury brands Regla, Okapi and Super Bock.
SBK's finest
November 30, 1973 Mobutu announced the Zairianization measures (See Mar. 20, 2015), which had significant effect on the economy. SBK, developed under the 1969 Investment code was exempt, but Bralima and Unibra, as colonial companies, were fair game. A Mobutu crony, Litho Moboti, (See Sep. 12, 2011) obtained a seat on the Bralima board. As the Zairian economy began a downturn (the 1973 oil shock did not help), Zairianization was seen as the primary culprit.  When in September 1975, soldiers of the Forces Armées Zairoise (FAZ) were not paid, they threatened to loot Zairianized stores in the capital. An order went out to find cash, and Bralima, among others made payroll.  An attempt by the government to nationalize Bralima in 1977 failed. Strikes wracked the city that July, and both Bralima and Unibra offered to raise wages 20%. Wildcat strikes hit the breweries in 1979, as well.  The pillages in 1991 and 1993 largely devastated the commercial and industrial bases of the city, but the breweries were largely spared.
SKOL beer coaster from the 1990s
In February 1996, the Brasseries et Glacières Internationales (BGI), part of the Castel Group, bought Unibra. SBK and Unibra were merged in April, though the Unibra brand was maintained in the Zaire market. The previous year, BGI acquired significant shares in the Katanga brewery, Brasimba, making it a significant player in the national market. Heineken was by now a majority shareholder in Bralima.  The firm acquired the Coca Cola bottling company assets in Congo. Bracongo produces Skol, Nkoyi, Doppel Munich, 33 Export in Kinshasa as well as Simba and Tembo in Katanga. Bralima attempted to enter the Katanga market, but Katangans were inured to the supposed cachet of the Capital’s premier beer, remaining true to their home brew.  Bralima recently introduced “N’Tay” (“eagle” in KiSwahili) for the local Katanga market.
Bracongo's Nkoyi targeted at the Kinshasa market
Publicity for Bralima's N'tay in Lubumbashi, Katanga
In June 2004, Bralima established a museum at its complex on Ave. du Drapeau (Kabasele Tshamala) in Kinshasa.  At the same time, the company demolished the 1920s era Art Deco structure which fronted the street for decades. In 2009, the 1946 VanNeuten building was abandoned, while retaining the brewing vats.
Bralima brewery headquarters - Ave du Drapeau, Kinshasa
Bralima's 50th Anniversary of Independence label
Omasombo, Jean & Benoit Verhaegen, 2005.  Patrice Lumumba Acteur Politique, CEDAF.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Leopoldville 1960 - Independence Celebrations

June 30 1960. Congo obtains independence after 75 years of Belgian colonial rule (including Leopold's Congo Free State)
June 17, 1960 - Governor General Cornelis addresses Congolese politicians.
Kasavubu 3rd from left, Lumumba 2nd from right.
June 24, 1960 - Lumumba's first government on Parliament grounds.
Lumumba center left in bow tie, Mobutu 5th from right in sun glasses.
June 25, 1960 - Lumumba, Resident Minister Ganshoff Van derMeersch and Kasavubu at an official dinner.
June 29, 1960 - Lumumba and Kasavubu receive King Baudouin at Ndjili Airport
June 29, 1960 - A celebrant grabs Baudouin's sword during the parade through town.
Mwana Mboka and father (in white shirt) observing at right of motor cycle helmet.
June 30, 1960 - Baudouin, Kasavubu and Lumumba arrive at the Monument to Leopold II in front of Parliament. 
June 30, 1960 - Police maintain the crowd in front of Parliament.
June 30, 1960 - The crowd around Parliament.
June 30, 1960 - Baudouin's speech to Parliament.  Kasavubu seated at his left.
Note Lumumba (far left) rewriting his speech in response to the King's patronizing remarks. 
June 30, 1960 - Lumumba addresses Parliament. The speech, which denounced Belgian colonialism, nearly provoked an international incident.  Lumumba later offered more conciliatory remarks and the crisis was averted.
June 30, 1960 - Independence festivities in Stade Baudouin (now Stade Tata Raphael).
June 30, 1960 - Revelers dancing in a Leopoldville bar.  Blackboard behind guitarist says "OK Jazz"
June 30, 1960 - Fireworks over Parliament.
Liberaal Archief (

Friday, June 12, 2015

Leopoldville 1923 – Brasserie de Leopoldville Founded

At the end of 1923, a group of Belgian investors led by the Banque de Bruxelles came together to build a brewery in Leopoldville.  Given the pervasiveness of the golden brew in Kinshasa today, it may seem curious that the city had already been established for forty years before this step was taken. However, the colonial model was based on production of raw materials by the colony and import of manufactured goods from the metropole, including beer.  Recall, as well, that the Charles Lejeune company’s first commercial transaction in Congo was to insure a shipment of beer from Bremen to Boma in 1886 (See Aug. 1, 2013). 

Imported beer was expensive.  Postal agent Leon Tondeur reported in 1900 that a bottle selling for Fr.1 in Matadi cost three times that in Leopoldville.  When District Commissioner Costermans was assigned a warehouse manager who happened to be a brewer, he ordered equipment from Europe and installed a brewery opposite his office on Avenue du Roi Souverain (now the location of INBTP on the Matadi road in Commune de Ngaliema (See Feb. 20, 2011).  But, the local brew could never shake its disparaging moniker, “liquid manure”, and the operation folded after the second brewer died in February 1903.
Avenue du Roi Souverain looking towards the River.  District Commissioner's Residence at left.
A site for the new Brasserie de Leopoldville was located on the river at Ndolo and construction commenced in 1924.  December 27, 1926, the first bottle came off the production line, which had a capacity of 35,000 bottles per month.  When the plant became fully operational the following year, it produced 815,500 bottles of beer as well as 252,000 bottles of mineral water and 825 tons of ice. In 1928, beer production exceeded 1.1 million bottles, plus 720,000 bottles of water and over 2000T ice.  Plans were in the works to double output.
The Brewery under construction
The Brewery nearing completion
Inquiring minds might wonder, who was drinking all this beer? In 1928 there were about 2500 Europeans in Leopoldville and another 800 across the river in Brazzaville, or about one bottle per person daily. The development of European breweries in Congo and elsewhere in Africa was frequently justified on the basis of providing an alternative to locally distilled “lotoko” alcohol or palm wine.  At the time, Congolese were forbidden to buy alcohol. An ordinance in July 1911 prohibited the sale of alcohol to Congolese in Leopoldville between the hours of noon Saturday to Monday morning. It was not until July 1932 that Congolese were allowed sell alcohol to other Congolese, which led to the establishment of a number bars in the Cite (an informal color bar prevented Africans from purchasing in European establishments until the late 1950s). Palm wine was popular, though limited by lack of a significant number of palms that could be tapped within a radius of the city; allowing the naturally fermenting beverage to remain fresh (See Feb. 12, 2012).  Some enterprising Congolese in Bas-Congo shipped “bidons” of freshly tapped wine on the railroad, but this was not a significant source for a town of 40,000 in 1930.
Sofrigo ice plant in foreground, established in 1928
The Depression nearly sank the brewery.  Incomes and purchasing power declined and a significant number of its European clientele lost their jobs and were repatriated to Europe.  This loss of market no doubt contributed to the decision to allow the sale of beer to Congolese.  The company’s marketing campaign was lackluster and its less-than-premium product was priced at only 1 franc less (10 francs) than Beck's Beer imported from Germany.  During this time, Dutch brewer Heineken invested in the Brasserie de Leopoldville. 
Advertisement from 1933 ("Etoile de l'AEF", Brazzaville)
Anticipating 7-Up's "uncola"campaign by four decades
In 1933, a new brewer, Anselme Visez, was hired with a mandate to purchase new equipment to improve the quality of the beer.  The brewery introduced three grades of Primus and rolled out a new line of carbonated drinks.  Within a year, Visez claimed steadily increasing sales despite a declining market and stiff competition (such as Beck’s and Holsten which was marketed by Sedec). The Brewery hosted influential visitors to further get the word out.  The Touring Club du Congo Belge toured the facilities in September 1934, praising the ultra-modern equipment that precluded any contact between the workers’ hands and the liquid, a procedure “not to be scorned in Africa”.  Governor General Renard of French Equatorial Africa visited from Brazzaville in December 1934.  After inspecting grain storage facilities, fermentation tanks, the brewing hall, bottling line and sampling the product, he told Visez that his beer was better than the imports, and he should know, as he “consumes it regularly”. Throughout the 1930s, the brewery continued to expand production.  The company marketed Coolerator iceboxes, manufactured in Duluth, Minnesota, to enable customers to keep their beverages cold (with blocks of ice purchased from its ice plant, bien sur).
An advertisement from 1934 (note production levels are not quantified)
New brewing equipment - 1930s
When world war broke out in 1940, Brasserie de Leopoldville joined the fight.  At the time, bottles were shipped in 24-count wooden crates enclosed in basketry.  The crates were so flimsy and prone to breakage that Otraco, the state shipping agency (See Oct. 31, 2011), refused to accept them as cargo. Citing the importance of maintaining the morale of up-river customers providing raw materials for the war, the brewery persuaded the authorities to declare beer part of the war effort.  The Brasserie also sent regular shipments of beer to the Allies in Nigeria.  In September 1943, the “New Columbia” left Matadi for Lagos with 600 tons of beer. Called “Congo juice” in the bars of Apapa, merchant seaman Harold Taylor of the Thurland Castle recalled loading a cargo of empty bottles destined for Matadi in December 1944 and returning with full ones.  In Leopoldville, consumption in licensed bars in the cité had increased to such an extent that missionaries pressured government to impose restrictions. This initiative was supported by certain industrial firms concerned about the impact of drinking on productivity.  The reduction measures enabled the brewery to meet its contract with Nigeria and keep Europeans in the bush well supplied.
Bottles from the Brasserie were recovered from the wreck of the “Thor”, which sank off Milford Haven in Wales, December 18, 1943. 

Leopoldville’s Territorial Administrator assigned to the Cité, Emmanuel Cappelle, estimated sales there in 1946 at 500,000 bottles a month, worth 50 million francs per year, surpassing consumption of palm wine.  The Brasserie embarked on an upgrading and expansion program to serve this burgeoning Congolese market.  Architect Charles Van Nueten designed new buildings.  When completed in early 1948, management reported to shareholders that the product was esteemed for both quality and cost and held up to the competition. This allowed the company to raise prices for the first time since the Depression.  Beginning in 1947, the brewery allocated 2 million francs per year to a welfare fund, today the Fondation Bralima.  Anticipating electric power constraints of a growing capital, the company obtained a concession to a potential 200 HP hydroelectric site on the Ndjili River (which explains why the Quartier of Ndjili Brasserie in Ndjili Commune does not have a brewery).  In 1947, as well, construction began on a bottle factory, Bouteillerie de Leopoldville, on the Route du Camp Militaire (Sgt. Moke) in what is now Quartier Socimat.  The company also began building a brewery in Bukavu, the capital of Kivu Province that was developing into a region of white settlement similar to the Highlands in Kenya.
Brasserie de Leopoldville in the 1950s
The facade of the building designed by Van Nueten - 2010
The Brasserie’s venture into new markets was likely driven by the arrival of a competitor in Leopoldville, the Brasserie du Bas-Congo.  Bracongo’s investors included the Belgian Brasserie de Haecht (controlled by retail and ranching firm SARMA) and two breweries recently established in Stanleyville (Kisangani) and Luluabourg (Kananga). It constructed its facility (also designed by Charles Van Nueten) near the mouth of the Funa River in Kingabwa, part of the rapidly developing industrial zone of Limete.  The construction forced the displacement of a Bateke fishing community. During excavation work, the discovery of a number of cowries indicated the presence of a prehistoric settlement here.  The Bracongo brewery was completed by Auxeltra-Beton in 1954.
Heineken and the Brasserie de Leopoldville merged to form Brasseries Limonaderies et Malteries Africaines (Bralima) in 1957.  At Independence in 1960, Bralima operated breweries in Leopoldville, Bukavu, Stanleyville and Boma, as well as one in UN mandate territory of Ruanda-Urundi.  In 1959, Bracongo, along with affiliated breweries in Stanleyville, Luluabourg and Paulis, merged to form Unibra.
Labels and drink coasters - 1950s
Brasserie de Leopoldville labels and coasters - 1950s
Brasserie du Bas-Congo labels - 1950s