Congo’s Crumbling Castle

June 21, 2008

Dungu Castle

The castle looms up out of the jungle, overlooking a muddy river which bisects the town. You can just imagine the soirees on the lawn which runs down to the riverbank. Talk would have been of that day’s hunting while couples danced to music from a gramophone in the shimmering light from flaming torches. Champagne would have arrived by river and guests wouldn’t have left until dawn.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is very different to the old Belgian Congo, which was treated as a private bank by King Leopold II. But there are reminders everywhere of the days when the Congo was an exotic destination for hunters, young Belgians taking an alternative Grand Tour and honeymooners.
Today Dungu’s old colonial buildings – the colonnaded administration block, the old Greek store still bearing the name of its proprietor – are shattered shells after decades of war, neglect and corruption. It’s hard not to think of the closing scene from Planet of the Apes, when Charlton Heston stumbles across the Statue of Liberty, half buried on a beach. The whole place has a post-Apocalypse feel. Residents live in thatched huts built from wattle-and-daub in the shadow of Leopold-era architecture.
The jungle is consuming the castle. Palms and mango trees are crowding in on its walls. Meanwhile locals live as they always have. There are no paved roads, water arrives in buckets and the town falls silent soon after dark.
There are plenty of little reminders all over the continent of the way Europe’s industrial and military might once ruled Africa. But nowhere have I seen anything quite as extraordinary as Dungu’s castle – only the old Italian salt works in Hafun, Puntland, has the same majesty. So what’s my point? No idea really. Maybe the castle will be the setting for my first piece of historical fiction. Or an enterprising entrepreneur will work out a way of bringing visitors through the bush to turn it into a conference centre. Or maybe the castle will eventually disappear into the bush along with a turbulent period of history.
(With thanks to Kate Holt for the photograph.)



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