In the remote north of the Democratic Republic of Congo, in the tiny village of Kawele, sits the decrepit, melancholy palace of a dead tyrant. It’s not exactly a tourist draw, and yet here I am, waiting at the foot of a 2-mile-long road for someone to open a large set of metal gates. Before long the village head arrives, dressed in shorts and t-shirt. After I pay a $15 dollar fee, he unlocks the gates and invites me to follow him up the winding driveway.
The village consists of simple mud and thatch houses that jar awkwardly with the great generosity their one-time neighbour bestowed upon himself. The man who once lived next door was Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, the notorious dictator who ruled Zaire (now the DRC) between 1965 and 1997. The town from which I have just made the 15-minute journey is Gbadolite, the former president’s ancestral village.
This is the first of two once-lavish compounds I’ve come to explore—the other across the border in the Central African Republic, once home to Emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa, who ruled and terrorized the country from 1966 to 1979. Both palaces reflect an era of corruption, greed, and brutality that reverberates in the two war-torn countries today.
In Kawele, where Mobutu and his family once luxuriated, the palace is now a ruin. The roof is long gone and only an exoskeleton remains. The swimming pool is empty, filthy, and cracked. Everything is weeds and smashed masonry. I amble through the debris accompanied by villagers, their flip-flops clacking as they stroll. At one time, servants would have carried champagne buckets and platters of chilled salmon. The panorama from the hill on which the palace is perched is stunning and the vegetation is steadily reclaiming this emblem of corruption.