The past few months I’ve travelled a lot through the Democratic Republic of Congo. I had the pleasure of visiting Goma, Bukavu, Kananga, Mbuji-Mayi, Beni, and many other big Congolese cities. However, one little city really caught my specific attention and managed to charm and enchant me with its lost grandeur and melancholy: Gbadolite, Mobutus own Versailles.
I came across Gbadolite for the first time in the book, “Congo: The epic history of a people” from David Van Reybrouck. At the time I had never even set foot on Congolese soil but for some reason I had an urge to see this city. It’s the old Xanadu of Mobutu Sese Seko (Kuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga), also known as Papa Marechal, the leopard of Zaïre, the eagle of Kawele, etc.
During the seventies Mobutu decided he needed to build a town he could model from scratch. Which is actually very normal behaviour for a dictator. Some beautiful examples are Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, Pyongyang and even Adolf Hitlers Germania, that never left the drawing board. Every dictator needs to leave his architectural marks for further generations. Gbadolite, his hometown, was this mark for Mobutu. It went from a small village in the North of Congo with 1500 inhabitants at the beginning of the seventies to currently more than 100.000 citizens. The few mud brick houses made way for schools, top notch hospitals, a five star hotel, factories and an airport where a Concorde could land. (which it did on several occasions).
So, a few years after reading about this magical place I finally manage to set my foot on the tarmac of the famous Gbadolite airport, after a 2-hour flight from Kinshasa. However, before landing I could already see from the airplane window Mobutu’s biggest mark on this city, Kawele, one of the three palaces he built in and around Gbadolite.
During my first stay in Gbadolite I manage to visit this once so magnificent palace. It lies 6 kilometres outside the city centre of Gbadolite next to a road that’s remarkably good until it ends a few miles further into one of the many nightmarish, almost untraversable dirt roads that are unfortunately to common in the DRC.
You first enter through a guardhouse with the same rhombus pattern ornaments as the airport a few hundred metres further down the road. That’s where you pay the 20-dollar tour fee and where you also get a self-proclaimed guide, who tags along, whether you like it or not. If you expect to get an insightful explanation about the Maréchal, the history of the building, the architecture, … don’t be disappointed. It’s more a pointing-at-something-and-grunting-an-explanatory-word kind of tour, where every additional question is answered by an uncomfortable silence.
As you make your way up the 3-kilometre-long driveway, you get little by little a magnificent view of the surroundings, miles and miles of tropical forest. (don’t walk, you’ll probably get a sun stroke before arriving at the palace) Finally, you drive through a tunnel and at the other end you’ll find what once was a magnificent marble building. Now, it’s a ruin without a roof, stripped to its bare structure.
After Mobutu’s fall in 1997, first, all the movable property of the palace was looted by Kabila’s troops, afterwards the local population took all the rest, and this can be taken quite literally; after only 20 years the palace looks like an undiscovered Roman ruin.
An interesting example of just how much was looted: the upper swimming pool of the palace once was covered with dull, blue tiles, but even those are almost all missing. A few days after my visit to the palace I recognise the same blue tiles as a repair material for a hole in my office floor. (quite notable because the floor is brown)
After the Mobutu’s kitchen, swimming pool, garage, …we finally enter the most interesting part of the palace: the old leopard’s bedroom. I can already hear you say: “so this is where the magic happens!”. Depends on what you claim is magic: His bed could disappear in to the floor. But he also had, according to the rumours, sexual intercourse with some of his minister’s wives while they were waiting for an audience with his highness in the next room. Let’s stop here, at the pinnacle of this visit. I can assure you that it didn’t get more interesting than this.
Is this visit worth 20 dollars? yes, if you’re in a group but probably also yes if you’r alone. It’s just one of these places where nobody comes. I bet you can enter in no matter what bar around the world, apart from DRCongo (and the Mantonge neighbourhood in Brussels) and the chances that someone will have visited the palace will be close to zero! Which means you can start a monologue about this place like you are Christopher Columbus who discovered America. You will be in the middle of all (unwanted) attention!