Face-off over the Congo: the long rivalry between Kinshasa and Brazzaville
Its only a five-minute flight from Kinshasa to its rival city, Brazzaville but as the DRC slides into a bloody political crisis, an international border, the Congo river and centuries of colonialism continue to separate west Africas volatile twins
Sunday morning, and the crowds are thronging the myriad churches on the ragged western edge of Kinshasa. Congregations file into the barn-like halls to hear priests and preachers. Down on the terrace of Chez Tintin, one of Kinshasas best known restaurants and nightspots, only fishermen and two tourists from the central town of Kisangani brave the warm, driving rain.
Beyond the plastic tables and chairs, a low brick wall, and the pilgrims, is the Congo. Though 4,500km from its furthest source, the great river is less than 1,000 metres wide at this point, and surges through the narrow bottleneck with tremendous power. The resulting rush of foaming brown water is the reason for the existence, the proximity and the enmity of arguably the worlds two closest capital cities: Kinshasa, of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Brazzaville, of the confusingly similarly named Republic of Congo.
Upstream, the river broadens and is navigable deep into the interior. But below the rapids, all the way to the Atlantic Ocean 450km away, the Congo is impassable.
This geography was of crucial significance in the late 19th century when France and Belgium established rival colonies on the Congos banks. Ivory, rubber and other commodities could be brought as far as the rapids, but no further. To bypass them, each built a railway to the Atlantic Ocean. The Belgians built theirs on the southern bank in the 1890s; the French followed 30 years later on the northern. The tracks began at the last possible point where goods could be carried by ships: the current sites of Kinshasa, and Brazzaville, named in honour of Pierre de Brazza, the young French explorer who pioneered Paris acquisition of the territory.
The birthright of the cities is thus suspicion and rivalry. For nearly 150 years the two have been divided by their shared origins and the famous river which runs between them.
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