Friday, March 20, 2015

Kinshasa 1969 – FIKIN puts Congo on a new map

The Kinshasa International Fair (Foire Internationale de Kinshasa or FIKIN) opened its doors on Congo’s Independence Day, June 30, 1969.  Located in Commune de Limete at the “Echangeur” traffic circle off Blvd. Lumumba (See Aug. 20, 2011), the 18-hectare facility featured exhibitors from 20 nations and during its three-week run, hosted a total of 600,000 visitors.
The publicity poster of the original Fair
The event was designed to present a new, positive image of the Congo under Mobutu’s leadership.  Its organization also represented a rapprochement and collaboration with former colonial power Belgium, symbolized by the closing day of the Fair on July 21, Belgium’s national day.  Congo’s invitation to the world to attend the fair was symbolized at the entrance by a gigantic statue of the “Batteur du Tam-Tam” by sculptor Andre Lufwa Mawidi.
A view of the fair grounds - Chanic open-air exhibit in background
The "Batteur du Tam-Tam" at the entrance to the Fair
The idea of a organizing a trade fair in Kinshasa was proposed at the OAU meetings held in the capital in September 1967, just weeks after a second mercenary rebellion in Kisangani and Bukavu had again tarnished Congo’s international reputation.  On May 7, 1968, Mobutu signed an Ordinance creating the fair and that same month a consultant arrived to conceptualize the project and develop a budget.  By October, the construction contract was awarded to the C.C.C./Safricas joint-venture and site preparation began on the site, which previously had served as a paratroop training landing ground.  The contractors employed 700 workers, graded 150,000 cubic meters of earth, dug 20 kilometers of drains, poured 20,000 m3 of concrete, paved 50,000 m2 streets and parking and erected 40,000 m2 of exhibition halls topped with Congo-copper laminated roofs.  The commercial complex was complimented by a 100-unit Cité Fikin (built by ONL, though it was still under construction on opening day, SeeSep. 30, 2011).
The Fair entrance (center), pavilions (R) and amusement park (L)
The entrance to the exhibit area Fikin '71
Kinshasa did not have a formal site for large commercial events of this type.  During the colonial period, the authorities often used sports facilities, such as the football pitch in front of Sainte Anne Church or the stadiums.  During the Depression, local authorities tried to follow up the Belgian Centenary “Kermesse” (See Dec. 4, 2014) with a Foire Commerciale de Léopoldville, but this lapsed after 3 seasons.   In August 1951, a “Foire Commercial et Industrielle de Léopoldville” was held off Blvd. Albert 1er, on the open space reserved for Ricquier’s monumental boulevard (See July 31, 2011).   Significant interest in the Fair from Belgian firms required the planners to increase the exhibit space from 12,000 m2 to 17,000 m2. The complex featured a recording studio, cinema, post office and two banks.  A 35-meter tower topped with a searchlight would bathe the night sky while a reflecting pool provided participants with an opportunity to decompress from so much frenetic commercial activity.  After the fair, the facilities were demolished and construction began on a series of 7-story apartment buildings to house colonial civil servants.  Only the reflecting pool was retained and Ricquier’s grand urbanization scheme gave way to new priorities (See Jan. 23, 2011).
The Grand Place of the 1951 Foire Commerciale et Industrielle
                                    The Government apartments complex built on the Fair site. Note the reflecting pool in the center 
The unanticipated success of the FIKIN’69 prompted the authorities to establish it as a formal entity and to institute a program of alternating, bi-annual International and National fairs.  The National Fair held June 24-July 12, 1970, the 10th Anniversary of Independence was themed, “Le Congo au Travail”.  The complex was expanded by 2 additional hectares and an amusement park added.  Belgian King Baudouin and President Mobutu jointly opened the fair.  Mobutu and his wife took a ride on “Mobembo”, the “Far West” train that encircled the park. The amusement park included a carousel, bumper cars, a tunnel of love, a roller coaster, and a house of mirrors. Restaurants serving hundreds of patrons and beer gardens with dance floors run by the breweries catered to thousands.  A 600-seat open-air theater showed movies.  Ten snack-bars, public toilets and a flea-market filled out the diversions heretofore unavailable to the ordinary Kinois.  The National Fair was a hit!
Kids at the amusement park
President Mobutu visiting one of the exhibits                                                    
The 1971 International Fair surpassed previous accomplishments.  Fifty countries were present with 2500 exhibitors, and an average 48,000 visitors a day paid 30 Makuta to attend.  Both covered and open exhibit space was expanded, of which 4000 m2 was reserved for Congolese participants.  The 1000 m2 United States pavilion featured exhibits organized by the Departments of Commerce, Agriculture and the US Information Agency.   When President Mobutu opened the third International edition June 23, 1973, the Fair had expanded to over 86 hectares, four new pavilions were added and 42,000 m2 of open-air exhibit space was available.  Reflecting changing political and economic policies of the country, the People’s Republic of China, Argentina and Brasil were present for the first time.  China and the US had the largest pavilions, with the latter featuring Texaco, Gulf, Mobil, Westinghouse, Goodyear and Constructors Inga-Shaba, which was erecting the 1700 kilometer electric transmission line from Inga Dam to the copper-producing region of Shaba.
                                          The Gecomin (now Gecamines) pavilion
The Batteur du Tam-Tam
The National Fair in 1974 focused on the results of “Zairianization”, the economic nationalization program decreed by President Mobutu November 30, 1973.  The crowds were so large the closing date was extended an additional week, by which time 1.5 million people had passed through the gates -- 200,000 more than the 1972 National Fair.  Nonetheless, problems were already developing over US participation in the 1975 International Fair. “Zairianization”, was not an issue, as most US businesses in Zaire were exempt from the measures under the 1969 Investment Code, but Washington was dragging its heels, citing budget constraints.  The US Embassy was concerned that the lack of American representation during the 10th Anniversary of Mobutu’s accession to power would send the wrong message.  In the end, a cost-sharing arrangement was worked out with local American firms and the US pavilion opened again it its prime location. Forty-four countries were present and Belgium, France and Algeria sent strong delegations to sign trade deals.
DIFCO - Volkswagen representative open-air exhibit
The negative consequences of “Zairianization” were beginning to be felt, however, and combined with the 1975 oil shock and the collapse of copper prices following the end of the U.S. war in Viet Nam, the Zairian economy spiraled into serious decline.  For the first time in 1976, Mobutu did not appear for the official Fair closing.  In 1979 only 300,000 people visited the Fair and in 1981 Motel Fikin and the amusement park were privatized.  The 1987 Fair featured the “Five Year Plan”, with 11 countries and 325 firms exhibiting.   In 1991 and 1993, like the rest of the Capital, the fair was looted in the “Pillages”.
The publicity poster in 1981
By the time the coalition government under President Kabila was installed in 2003, the Foire had fallen on hard times.  The 150 tenants of the seriously deteriorated Motel Fikin complex were months and years behind in their rent.  This loss of revenue was critical, because the Fair was essentially a self-financing entity.  The following year, Minister of Foreign Commerce sought to negotiate with the renters and threatened them with eviction.  He travelled to Italy to seek help in rehabilitating the amusement park (an Italian firm had built the original).  Five tenants were evicted for unpaid rent in March 2006, but there was little appetite to pursue the campaign to its end.
The beer gardens at the amusement park - 2008            
Blvd Lumumba approaching the "Echangeur" 2011 -- Motel Fikin buildings on right
In June 2012, Fikin and the China Communication Construction Co. (CCCC) created a joint venture, the Société Immobilère du Congo (SIC), for a “cité moderne” on the Motel Fikin site and 11 adjacent unoccupied hectares.   CCCC contributed 80% of the $21.3 million capital, with Fikin providing 20%.  The complex would comprise 14 high-rise buildings with 630 residences, 14 villas, a five-star hotel, commercial buildings and recreational facilities.  The agreement stipulated that CCCC would first build on the vacant site, to which Motel Fikin tenants could be relocated, and then demolish the Motel to complete the construction.
Architectural rendering of the "Cite Moderne"
But in September 2014 Motel Fikin residents were notified that they must vacate by October 30 so that the Motel complex could be demolished.  There were as yet no apartments ready for occupation and the price tag for a two-bedroom unit was $225,000, hardly the “social housing” originally promised and unlikely to be affordable for Motel Fikin residents (or most Kinois, for that matter).  The rationale for the early demolition was to enable SIC to construct all the roads, drainage and utilities at one time.  Minister of Economy and Commerce Jean-Paul Nemoyato visited the site October 22, 2014 and declared himself satisfied with the status of the construction work.    CCCC maintains the first apartments will be ready for occupancy in September 2016.
Aerial view of the project site, the Echangeur and Blvd. Lumumba (the Fair is left of Motel Fikin site)
  • Congo-Afrique, 1971. “Au Barometre de la Fikin 81”, Centre d’Etudes pour l’Action Sociale, p.363.
  • Congolia, 1969. S.N.E.C., Kinshasa.
  • Jeune Afrique, 1975, pp. 61-64.
  • Revue Colonial Belge, 1951, p. 401.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Leopoldville 1924 - Party at the Café Central

In an earlier post on Kinshasa’s lost architectural heritage in March 2011, I shared a photo of the Café Central (See Mar. 24, 2011), suggesting it could have been on Ave. Stanley (now Ave. du Bas-Congo in old Kinshasa, Commune de la Gombe).  I have still not been able to locate the Café, but will exercise the blogger’s prerogative and depart from my usual effort be authoritative into the speculative.  
The Cafe as depicted in the March 2011 post
The earliest reference to the Café Central, owned by Victor Dorginaux, is a post card dated July 1, 1924, which shows the premises decked out with paper garlands and Chinese lanterns and tables set up in front beer-garden style.  July 1st was the anniversary of the founding of the Congo Free State in 1885 and remained a holiday even after Belgium took over the colony from Leopold II in 1908.  That same year in September, Dorignaux offered a self-named winners Cup for the European football league playoffs (See Nov. 1, 2014).
Ready for the party - the tables appear to be arranged to create a dance floor
The Café Central likely pre-dated 1924, as an earlier photo exists without the “V. Dorginaux” sign on the roof or the mounted flagpoles. Dorignaux was probably involved, however, even if not the proprietor, as a banner on an adjacent shed proclaims, “Friture Victor”. 
A later photo shows the “Friture” building with a new façade of the “Garage Central”.  There is scaffolding on the main building and the "V. Dorignaux" sign has been erected, a low masonry wall now separates the beer garden from the street and young trees have been planted at the corners of the lot.
This photo dates from the same period as the one above
and the posture of the man in the doorway suggests a proud new proprietor.
The décor and ambiance of the café and restaurant appear intended to provide customers with a respite from daily life in a tropical river port with the comforts of a European club.  The dark, interior bar appointed with heavy wooden furniture was called the “Bar Américain”.
The club room
The Bar Americain - heavy imported furniture, no wicker or potted palms
The last record of the Café Central I have found is in the 1927 “Congo: Revue General”, in which the establishment is listed as a “Grand café-restaurant & dancing”.  Other photos with more lush and filled out vegetation match the photo at the beginning of this post.  Large potted tropical plants now stand on the verandah wall.
Dining on the verandah in the heat of the day
The trees have now nearly doubled in height
I have revised my hunch on the location of the Café Central.  It would have made sense to be closer to the old Gare and the Hotel A.B.C. (See Mar. 27, 2011) and the architecture resembles other buildings north of the railway line (now Blvd du 30e Juin) built in the 1920s, such as the Gremio Portugalia or the Unatra headquarters on Ave. Rubbens, for example (See Nov. 1, 2014, Feb. 2, 2012).  But after looking over several aerial photos of downtown of the inter-war years, I am unable to identify any building that fits the Café’s silhouette.  For now, it will have to remain an enigma.

  • Congo: Revue Général de la Colonie Belge, 1927.  Association pour le perfectionnement du matériel colonial.
  • VanPeel, Bénédicte, 2001, “Au Débuts du Football Congolais”, in Vellut, Jean-Luc, Itinéraires croisés de la modernité: Congo belge, 1920-1950, Institut Africain CEDAF.