Congo-Brazzaville: West Africans, kings of trade


In colonial times, they were called “the Senegalese”. And with good reason. To get to the Congo, the Italian-born explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, a naturalized Frenchman, took the boat to Dakar and brought with him some “laptots” (African soldiers). Among the latter, Senegalese, of course, but also Malians, Guineans and other West Africans.

However, this generic term did not offend anyone. “Everyone was happy. We were all Muslims, there was no difference between a Toucouleur, a Sarakolé, a Bambara or a Wolof. The question of nationalities did not arise at that time”, explains Kader Diawara, the president of the Muslim community of the Great Mosque of Brazzaville.

Initially, the Senegalese were settled around the town hall, which was still just a village. They were then moved by the colonial administration near the prison (in place of the current courthouse, hence the name “Dakar” given to its surroundings), then to the district of Poto-Poto, of which they were the first inhabitants. In 1910, they will build the first mosque there. Poto-Poto is then nicknamed the district of the Senegalese.

Trade & labor: Migratory waves

As the French colonial settlement progressed, the laptots gave way to tradesmen. There were practically no workers in the Congo,” says Diawara.

So we had to bring in masons, electricians, drivers, mechanics and so on. “Some settled in Pointe-Noire and specialized in fishing. As for the Togolese and Dahomeans (inhabitants of present-day Benin), nicknamed Popos, most of them are employed as accountants by the concession companies, others become magistrates.

The migratory wave that followed is mainly composed of traders, attracted by the cola nut present in Congo. They first supplied themselves in Mayama, in the Pool, then in Impfondo, in the Likouala, and gradually settled throughout the colony. Then they moved from trading in cola to other commodities.

During the colonial period, a few families stand out, such as the Diop family, from which came a famous neighborhood chief, Mamadou Diop, and the first Muslim trader to sell Kinkala cassava in the markets of Brazzaville, Sidiki Diop.

The Thiam family distinguished itself by introducing the great river fishing and creating the port of Yoro, in Brazzaville (see portrait below). The Diawara family is known to have developed the cola nut trade in the Likouala and Sangha departments.

Respect local customs

The community also includes the Haidara, originally from Timbuktu. “They are the descendants of the Prophet, the Cherifers,” says Jean Bruno Ousmane Thiam, one of Yoro Thiam’s sons and a communications advisor in Brazzaville. At that time, Tidjania was the only Muslim brotherhood represented in Congo. To communicate, the Senegalese spoke Munukutuba, the language of those who built the Congo-Ocean Railway (CFCO)… If solidarity is the key word of the community, the rules of life are strict.

All those who disembarked at the port of Pointe-Noire were warned: they had to respect local customs and those of the Nzambi ya Basénégalais [the Senegalese god],” says Bruno Thiam. The first wife had to be Senegalese and alcohol was forbidden… Anyone seen drunk was immediately sent home. And everyone had to contribute to the costs of rent, food, water and electricity. “These rules are still in force today.

After independence, a new wave of traders from West Africa settled in Congo. But on the spot, customs changed. We now make a difference between nationalities,” says Kader Diawara. The term “Senegalese” is reserved for those from Senegal and the others are called according to their country of origin: Malians, Voltaics (inhabitants of present-day Burkina Faso), Guineans, Nigerians, etc. »

West Africans or West Af in Congo

The Congolese will indifferently call them “West Africans” or more commonly “West Af”, as well as “Wara” or “Ndingari”, nicknames from Kinshasa. The term “Wara” first appeared in a song by Tabu Ley Rochereau, who imitated West Africans by saying “ça wa” instead of “ça va”. As for the word “Ndingari”, which means fetish in the Yaka language (spoken in Bandundu, DR Congo), it refers to the West African marabouts.

It is from the 1970s that Lingala became the language spoken in Poto-Poto. “The newcomers, who needed domestic staff, hired Congolese from Kinshasa, who imposed Lingala on their bosses,” explains Diawara. Another sign of change was the move of some Muslims out of Poto-Poto while the elders disapproved of the move, seeing it as an insult to the community.

One of the first to take up residence in another district of Brazzaville will be Yoro Thiam, who has settled in Mpila. Today, while the majority of West Africans still live in Poto-Poto, in the center of Brazzaville, many have settled in the districts of Ouenzé and Bacongo (where there is a “Dahomey district”).

Recent religious phenomena

More recently, two phenomena have appeared on the religious level. The first is the rise of Wahhabi Islam, following the ties forged with Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Egypt, countries that now increasingly provide training for the imams of Brazzaville. The latter no longer have much in common with their Tajan counterparts in the Great Mosque of Poto-Poto.

In addition, the number of mosques has increased considerably with the construction of large buildings with high minarets. Currently, the Congolese capital is home to 25 of them, 10 of which belong to the Tidjania. As a result of this Islamic revival, more Muslim women than before are wearing headscarves or veils, and conversions of Congolese are multiplying. The same trend can be observed in other cities in the country, particularly in Pointe-Noire and Dolisie, which each have a place of prayer.

While the community is less homogeneous than in the past in its religious practice, the West Africans remain the undisputed kings of the import of manufactured goods and retail trade in the Congo. From procurement to trade, they have linked the entire country and control the entire chain: they have purchasing centers in Dubai and China, have agents at the port of Pointe-Noire, and meet daily to learn about competition and prices.

Wara” businesses

Not a city, not a neighborhood, not a village escapes its “wara” shop. Large or small stores (sometimes installed in a container), open seven days a week (except on Fridays from 1 to 3 p.m., prayer day at the mosque), you can find all kinds of articles: canned food, cookies, milk, mineral water, sweet drinks, candles, soaps, hygiene products, tools and utensils…

Everything is there except fresh products (except bread, pastries, yoghurts and apples), which go through other merchants and through supermarkets. Each store has a freezer and a generator that also powers one or two light bulbs placed on the outside facade. A real bargain and a meeting place in the evenings for neighbors during power cuts.

The West African community of the Congo also owns almost exclusively the jewelry sector, especially gold and silver work. Finally, some of its merchants have specialized in hi-fi, household appliances and telephony, others in hardware, fabrics and clothing, and increasingly in the sale of vehicles. The more affluent have ventured into real estate, hotels, logistics, and passenger transportation, such as the owner of the North Ocean bus company.

Most West Africans in Brazza have Congolese nationality. This explains why the operation Mbata ya bakolo (“the slap of the elders”, in Lingala), launched last year by the authorities to expel illegal foreigners, did not affect them too much. This is also because solidarity has played a major role: as Kader Diawara points out, “the community encourages those who are undocumented to comply with the law.

Camara Malamine, the faithful sergeant

Driven by a taste for adventure, Camara Malamine had left her village in the Senegalese Fouta to become a sailor, before joining the laptots in Saint-Louis. He was a sergeant when he was recruited in Dakar by Pierre Savorgnan de Brazza, who took him on board in his contingent for his second exploration mission, from 1879 to 1882, in the Ogooué (Gabon) and the Congo. The friendship between the two men led Savorgnan de Brazza to make Sergeant Malamine the first head of post of the territory on the Congo, which had just been ceded to him by treaty Makoko, the king of the Tékés.

At the command of the post of Nkuna, the future Brazzaville, from October 3, 1880 to May 1, 1882, Malamine distinguished himself by standing up to the British explorer Henry Morton Stanley, Savorgnan de Brazza’s great rival: he wanted to bribe him to replace the French tricolor flag with the blue flag with a gold star of the International Association of the Congo, founded by King Leopold II of Belgium. Rejected, Stanley gave up his project and quickly returned to the left bank of the river, where he founded Leopoldville. Sergeant Malamine died in Gorée, Senegal, in 1886. The street linking the town hall square to the Central Post Office square in the heart of Brazzaville bears his name.

Yoro Thiam, the fisherman’s boss

Everyone knows the fishing port of Yoro, in Brazzaville, but few people remember the origin of its name, a tribute to Yoro Thiam. Born on February 7, 1893 in Senegal, the latter landed in the Congo in the 1920s as part of the construction of the Congo-Ocean Railway (CFCO), of which he was site manager. At the end of the work, he confided to Raphaël Antonetti, the Governor General of French Equatorial Africa (AEF), who had become his friend, that he came from a family of fishermen.

At the time, the locals only fished with hawks on small pirogues, so Antonetti encouraged Yoro Thiam to launch “the great fishing” on the Congo and granted him a vast piece of land along the river, in the district of Mpila. This is how “Baba” (nickname given to him by the Muslim community of Brazzaville) introduced large-scale fishing on the river (using nets of 800 m in diameter), and the port that still bears his name was born. Yoro Thiam died on February 25, 1975.

Bernard Yoka, the businessman

As the very Congolese name that he took at the time of his naturalization does not indicate it, Bernard Yoka is of Malian origin. A great businessman, he became the CEO of International Transit, a company based in Brazzaville specializing in river and sea transit as well as the import of wholesale goods. The sexagenarian has also launched himself in recent years in real estate and is also said to be active in the trade of precious metals (gold and silver). Faithful to his community, Bernard Yoka built in 2003 an imposing mosque in Brazzaville, on the Avenue des Trois-Martyrs, at the confluence of the districts of Moungali and Ouenzé.


After reigning almost unchallenged over the retail trade in the Congo, the West Africans are increasingly competing with Rwandans, Cameroonians, Nigerians, Congolese from Kinshasa, but also Chinese. The latter have invested in the distribution sector, notably Avenue de la Paix in Poto-Poto, the West African stronghold of Brazzaville, where they have opened three supermarkets under the Asia banner (one in the city center and the others in the popular districts of Ouenzé and Bacongo).

Indian merchants from neighboring DR Congo have also invested in the sector. The Indian group Regal, which has supermarkets in Kinshasa and other DR Congo cities, has established supermarkets in Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire (under the Park’n Shop banner), as well as Regal mini-markets in the capital, Pointe-Noire and Dolisie, in the Niari.

Written by Muriel Devey Malu-Malu.
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