Country number: 193
When? July 2018 First leg of trip, going on to the Republic of the Congo
How? Car, boat, plane
Who? Solo travel
‘It is said that the Queen has come to love the Commonwealth, partly because it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving picaninnies; and one can imagine that Blair, twice victor abroad but enmired at home, is similarly seduced by foreign politeness. They say he is shortly off to the Congo. No doubt the AK47s will fall silent, and the pangas will stop their hacking of human flesh, and the tribal warriors will all break out in Watermelon smiles to see the big white chief touch down in his big white British taxpayer-funded bird’.
Boris Johnson, 2002
‘Today, the Congo remains dangerously unstable’ declares Wikipedia. Tourists have recently been kidnapped in eastern Congo and the FCO advises against all travel to that part of the country. I’ve read that navigating the airport and customs is a major endeavour and that a bottle of whisky can come in handy. It took me a month to get my visa. The London embassy was experiencing ’technical’ problems, which turned out to mean that they had piles of unprocessed paperwork. They even took the unprecedented step of opening three days a week instead of just one. My passport was returned on Saturday morning, two days before my planned departure.
All in all, then, I’m feeling more than a little stressed and apprehensive. I’m very relieved to find that immigration is a breeze (discounting the surly man who is embarrassed about speaking English) and customs wave my bag through, when it’s finally decanted off one of the slowest carousels in the world. I’m met by guide Yahve and driver Adolphe, (God and a Nazi leader?) who whisk me off to town.
Adolphe is grizzled and rotund. Yahve calls him Papa out of respect (women are called Maman or Mama) and he calls Yahve Bebé or Younger Brother, as the mood takes him. They speak to each other in Lingala, a Bantu language peppered with French. Yahve, is a local entrepreneur who runs his own language school. He’s keen to disabuse me of incorrect information. ‘Don’t believe the European media. Congo is very safe- but don’t go out alone when it’s dark and keep the window up in town in case there are pickpockets’. I’ve told him that internet information says that taking pictures of the people is ill advised: locals get very upset, for they believe that “capturing a person’s image” removes his spirit. ‘No’, says Yahve, ‘They get upset because they think Europeans are selling their pictures and making lots of money out of them’.
My hotel is surrounded by barbed wire and not very prepossessing. There’s a garden and a pool to compensate for the dilapidated exterior and the dreary cream rooms. Trip Advisor tells me that the lovely gardens are frequented by exotic fowl, including a peacock. The peacock makes his entrance at breakfast, demanding tit bits, while more timid small yellow birds swoop in for crumbs and larger brown and black cousin’s squat on the side tables and scurry through the chairs. (I’m fairly sure these are chickens.) There are also chattering African grey parrots and lovebirds (sadly) in cages and a lonesome guinea fowl.
Kinshasa, which used to be known as Leopoldville in Belgian times, is the third largest city in Africa, after Lagos and Cairo, but is perhaps best known for hosting The Rumble in the Jungle, in 1974. As far as I can see, through the muggy haze, jungle doesn’t really come into it. Kinshasa is a very dirty, drab grey spread of low rise concrete. The smaller streets are ankle deep in litter. My tour itinerary says it’s brash and possibly intimidating. It’s certainly not brash. There are a couple of four lane highways in the centre lined with cleaner more modern buildings, banks, embassies and shops, but there’s nothing of note to report. Intimidating? Well, the dusty roads are jammed with lemon yellow taxis and minibuses – following a recent New York style government directive – and the driving is atrocious, vying with Bangladesh. Buses lurch past with passengers hanging off the sides and back. There are more people, as well as some goats, standing on the roof of one.
Instead of the usual garland Adolphe has greeted me with a plastic yellow, green and black necklace and bracelet. These, it transpires, are the colours of one of the local football teams, V-Club. As we speed along they serve to attract attention from other vehicles and we are hemmed in by a cacophony of smiling, jeering and waving. We head out of town, (it takes some time) past endless roadside stalls and local markets to the bonobo sanctuary. These apes have the closest genetic link to humans of any animal and are eerily reminiscent of the degenerate ape-men in Wayward Pines. They beat their chests, pelt us with grass and leaves and contemplate us wearily before heading off to try every page in the Kama Sutra. One young male has a plastic bottle he’s using as a skateboard. They are about the size of chimps, but are slimmer, stand on their back legs more and have middle partings (very in vogue). They can be found only in Congo and are highly endangered, due to pollution, deforestation, and bush-meat trade. The animals here have all been rescued and the guide says they have become too domesticated to be returned to the wild.
Yahve has just informed me that there is plenty of big game in the Congo, including tigers. Clearly he’s not above misinformation himself. He takes me for lunch in a local restaurant. Chicken, rice and fufu (manioc balls) costs five dollars for all three of us. Then we’re off to the art market. That’s quickly disposed of – a multitude of masks and far too much hustling. Next, the national museum. It’s perched on a headland above the Congo River, with views across the giant basin to Brazzaville. Just below is the harbour where Henry Morten Stanley landed when he came to help King Leopold II seize the country. They’ve left his statue outside the museum, even though he’s generally reviled. I’m given a very thorough tour by the curator who speaks French extremely slowly, for my benefit. I manage to grasp about a third of what he says.
Our last stop for the day is the rapids at nearby Kinsuka. There are gardens where we sit and watch the waters gathering, seemingly piling in tall peaks, before toppling in a crescendo of foam. Trucks wobble over the sand transporting sightseers precariously round rocky inlets to the water’s edge. Also on offer are longboat ferries. Yahve drinks beer and negotiates over a fish, just caught by a young boy. He’s going to take it home as a present for his parents.
I’m waiting in the lobby at nine, as instructed, but nothing happens until after 9.30 when I am given a message to say that Adolphe and Yahve will arrive shortly. Another fifteen minutes and they’re here – ‘Traffic jams’ they say. I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt, as we can set off now to Zongo Falls, a three hour journey on a good day. Except that Adolphe is driving his own Toyota hatchback, as the company car is out of action (they say) and he needs to buy a jack. It takes a while to find one at the right price. Then we have to change the office dollars (which is the currency used by most banks) into Congolese francs so that we can buy petrol that is cheaper than if you pay in dollars. This involves a visit to the (very busy, very bureaucratic) ‘best-rate’ currency exchange. (Now we’re all loaded down with wads of franc notes. The locals all tote them folded into bundles). Then we have to buy food at the (very upscale) supermarket for our lunch (and a toothbrush for Adolphe). Then Yahve stops to buy bread for his breakfast, which he hasn’t had time for yet and goes off in search of cheaper water (it’s too expensive in the supermarket). Then we stop and fill up on petrol. Adolphe rocks the car so as to get in as much fuel as possible. It’s like setting off on a scout expedition. It’s also nearly noon and we haven’t even braved the traffic of Kinshasa yet.
Adolphe’s car is in fairly good shape for Africa. There’s only a crack in one corner of the windscreen. But it’s right hand drive, which has the double disadvantage that he can’t see the road ahead very well and I’m the one in prime position facing the oncoming traffic. The speedo on the car doesn’t seem to be working, which at least means that I can’t tell how fast we’re driving. There are several near misses and a lot of bad language. I’m flinching constantly as horns blare.
Finally emerging from the suburbs of Kinshasa we are stopped by provincial border police. They demand a fine to let us through and return Adolphe’s license. He belligerently pays up. They ask for more. He pays up again. Another half mile down the road the same thing happens. Adolphe doesn’t help by driving his car at the gesticulating officers and he is duly hauled off to the station to have his documents inspected. I’m idly waiting with my camera and snap a passing truck full of wood. Then all hell breaks loose. I’m surrounded by a posse, some uniformed, some not, screamed at, called ‘presse’ and my camera is confiscated. It seems there is a police officer, unrecognisable in a high-vis jacket in one corner of my picture and one must not take photographs of government officials. (Or police stations and there are lots of them). I judge that tears may be necessary and produce a few. The camera is returned, but there is some argument over my credentials. Where is the document that proves I’m a tourist? Yahve points out that my visa, in my passport, does this job. Then there’s negotiation over my fine. It begins at 100 dollars and is eventually reduced to five. And then increased by another one. Clearly a lone female European is seen as easy game. Adolphe is eventually released, berated because one of his papers is not as required and we are finally permitted to leave. It seems that the warnings about this country were true after all and Congo is most definitely intimidating.
Corruption is rife. I’ve read that Mobutu Sese Seko, the DRC’s second and longest-reigning leader, was so corrupt that he chartered a Concorde airplane to take his family from his hometown in Gbadolite to Paris for shopping trips, constructing the requisite large runway at the expense of his starving people. His legacy lives on and everyone demands money. ‘I’m thirsty’ ‘I’m tired.’ ‘I need coffee’ whine the men at the barriers, palm outstretched. Villagers spill out of their rectangular brick houses to have photos taken and line up for their pay-out afterwards. ‘What about me?’ ‘No cigarettes?’
Congo isn’t what I expected at all. Neither Heart of Darkness nor The Poisonwood Bible have prepared me adequately for modern Congo, though both paint bleak pictures. I’m still hunting for the jungle they write of. Most of it seems to have been cut down. The countryside is undulating, a few palms and rusty dry bush, with greener swathes along the many rivulets. The air is cloudy brown, the houses are yellow brown, the narrow wooden pirogues are grey brown and the river is muddy brown. The most colourful sight is the sandy clay, of various brown hues from yellow ochre to cinnamon. It’s ideal for building and there are cuboid kilns and stacks of bricks scattered along the roadside.
Eventually, we turn off the main (reasonably paved, mainly by the Chinese of course) road for a bumpier 50 metre stretch to the falls. We’re still speeding along, so I’m amassing blurred memories. Adolphe doesn’t really understand the concept of tourist photography. It’s definitely Groundhog Day, Bangladesh meets my trip to Ouagadougou.
Then we collect a puncture. We halt at a small dusty village, where Adolphe directs operations from a plastic chair, while the locals change the wheel. It’s a good job he bought that jack. I’m less amused that he’s drinking the local coconut firewater while he’s waiting. Yahve assures me that it won’t hurt. ‘Some people drive better when they’re drunk!” Fortunately, he leaves the bottle in the village. Two miles up the road another tyre gives up the ghost. We just manage to scramble into Zongo town, where we assemble in a bar. It’s now five in the afternoon. At least I get to eat lunch now, while both tyres are repaired.
We can see the smoke of the falls wafting over a patch of trees in the distance. It turns out that my hotel is peacefully set upstream, next to a group of small rapids and the first swirling drop. It seems gorgeous and tranquil. Except that it’s now dark and the paths to the views are all closed. My hair is so caked with dust I can’t even get my comb into it. The shower is just a dribble of (cold) water. Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to wash with. I’m hoping that’s the worst day of my travels over – Zongo Day has turned into Congo Day. I’m also hoping that it’s the most expensive day. If Yahve and Adolphe think I’m a bottomless pit of wealth too I’m in real trouble.
Up at six, to see the falls before we set off to Matadi. We were going to breakfast first, but the cook is nowhere to be found. Still, it’s nice to have the views to ourselves. The chutes are very impressive. The drop is only 60 metres at most, but there’s a veritable torrent of water, even though it’s the dry season. Our guide is an ultra-serious military man in Nike waterproof trousers- who saves me from plummeting to my death and knows all the best photo spots.
Back at breakfast, I ask if I can have water instead of tea but Yahve explains that the department of water is separate from the department of tea and coffee and also from the department of petit dejeuner. So, no I can’t.
On the road again it’s the same as yesterday. More document inspection, more demands for money. Adolphe tries to queue jump at ‘traffic controls’, to no avail. He’s always sent back, sometimes losing even more queue places into the bargain, as he reverses. If I want to use a toilet Yahve comes up with the goods by interrogating the locals. So far I’ve sampled a police station, a village, a bar and a hospital. No stopping for lunch – Adolphe buys us a bunch of carrots from one of the many eager wayside vendors.
My hotel at Matadi is very fancy, with every possible attraction thrown in for good measure. There’s a great deal of gilt, a swimming pool, several terraces, a huge outdoor TV screen (showing football) and a funfair area, complete with small train. (I can’t see any of it actually operating). I’m just grateful that I’ve got some tepid water, after persuading the staff to turn on the supply. I’m less grateful that I seem to have surround sound entertainment in my room. It’s Le Weekend and there’s live music by the pool, muzak in one of the terrace bars and, what seems to be some sort of political rally under the third wall. I can’t check as I can’t see out. The only window looks out onto a balcony that holds the hot water heater (I wish).
We have another early start today, at eight, so we can do the tour of Matadi we were supposed to do yesterday. We were late yesterday because we had to do the Zongo Falls tour in the morning, instead of the day before, because we were late arriving there. Except that the clerk is printing out my invoice exceptionally slowly, Adolphe says that the car has yet another puncture and the guide is late. It’s nearly nine before all these matters are resolved.
In the centre of Matadi the list of things I’m not allowed to take pictures of grows. No ministerial buildings, (that seems to include most businesses too). Yahve suggests I check with him every time I have the inclination to take a picture (that is disappearing rapidly too). There are palm fronds lashed to poles and signs along most of the roads. The governor died last week, in mysterious circumstances. Poisoning is suspected. The first colonial building in the DRC looks as if it might be interesting inside – it has fancy stonework, red pillars and balustrades. But it’s closed. So is the cathedral.
Onwards, to the loftiest viewpoint in this very hilly city, built at the highest upstream navigable point of the Congo when travelling from the sea. There’s another guide at the Belvedere and a bronze coffin shaped memorial, so I now have three people to explain to me about the history of the Congo and Stanley’s’ attempts to build a railroad to Kinshasa, where the river is once again navigable.
Our late guide disappears again. It seems he isn’t well – he probably has malaria. It’s graduation day in Matadi and the streets are thronging with students in capes and mortarboards, marching along dancing to clashing brass bands. It’s the highlight of the visit. We depart on the road to Boma, further downriver, taking a suspension bridge that delivers more picturesque views across the river and town. But not before we have negotiated the fee for crossing the bridge, and for taking photos on it.
We’re going via Inga Dam, which I’m promised is very scenic, the tour will take roughly half an hour. We arrive just before 12, but it seems that Yahve is missing a couple of required permissions. Two hours of interrogation, pouring over passports, talking to various officials and meeting with the local manager, (who wants to know how much such visits cost in Grande Britannique) follow. I tell him they’re free. I don’t think he believes me. Yahve eventually hands over 30 dollars, despite the fact that I’ve now totally lost all interest in seeing any dams. When we are finally allowed in the dam is old, small, and dirty (1960s) and the view very hazy. There are plenty of shallow rapids spreading into the distance. I can see why the river isn’t navigable. It’s more interesting to see the huge turbines running inside the second dam wall. And now the car won’t start. I’m still there at six, sitting outside a bar with some tepid bottled water. A guy is skinning a goat suspended in a tree, I’ve had no lunch (again) I’m alone, while Yahve chivvies Adolphe and I need the loo. We arrive at the hotel in Boma at 8.45. It might have been sooner, but Yahve and Adolphe don’t know where it is and have to keep stopping for directions.
I’ve woken with two dozen infuriatingly itchy bites on my arms; the mosquitoes must have feasted on me in the dusk at the bar last night. I’ve also acquired a livid wheal on the underside of my left thigh. I hadn’t realised that the plastic toilet seat in my bathroom is actually an instrument of torture. It has a cunningly concealed crack that operates a pincer movement after you have sat down. This is one of the better rooms. There is hot water and electricity though they don’t function all day. I haven’t worked out the rules of operation yet. The lobby is decorated with a grimy Christmas tree.
Today is billed as a day tour of Boma. We don’t start till ten, ‘so we can rest’. Yahve hijacks a guide, a bow-tied and bespectacled young man, and we begin with a hollow baobab that Stanley slept in. It’s old, but not quite the revered Bo tree, more King Charles’ oak. A very decrepit old colonial house by the river follows. It was built by a German before the days of the Congo Free State and boasts the remains of two very rusty old cars. The old governor’s house is bigger and is in marginally better shape. It seems now, to be used mainly to host several small concessions selling mobile phone time. Adolphe and Yahve are taking photos of all the sights and acting for all the world like two extra tourists. Adolphe sits in the cars and poses. He also insists on putting his arm round me at every attraction, tilting his head and calling me his ‘Bebe’. I’m beginning to count down the days till I leave the DRC.
Next, the new brick cathedral. It’s packed (it is Sunday) and echoes with moving melodic harmony. The old cathedral, dinky red spire and white walls, is adjacent. I’m told it used to be much bigger. And I’m also informed it’s the end of the tour. It’s not quite noon. I try protesting, but am assured there is nothing else to see in Boma. We decamp to a café by the river for a drink, looking across to Angola. Adolphe and Yahve order beer. I reason that it won’t hurt, it’s not far back to the hotel. The Congolese take after the Belgians in being partial to a brew, but feel they should go one better. The Simba beer here bears a crude lion logo and I discover, too late, that it comes in a bottle that’s nearly twice the size of most beer bottles around the world. And Adolphe has also purchased a quarter bottle of whisky for a chaser. I sigh and add some to my coke.
I’ve only just realised, to my distress, that we return to Kinshasa tomorrow afternoon by domestic flight (when did that creep into the itinerary?) That gives me twenty four hours in Boma with nothing to do, except pray that the mechanics and fuel suppliers are on their best behaviour this week.
I’ve just been reading the FCO travel advice, which says all Congo airlines are banned in the EU. I am woken up by a text from Yahve saying I am to be ready for nine as the flight time might be changed. So I get up, have breakfast and wait in my room. He turns up at eleven to say that the flight is at 2.30, as planned.
The airport is miles up a really bumpy track (surely there isn’t an airport up here?) and has no facilities whatsoever. There’s one hut and a dirt runway, nothing to drink and I don’t have any water. But I’ve only had lunch on one day so far anyway. The baggage allowance is 15 kg to include my hand luggage and my handbag. It would have been good to know this beforehand, especially as their scales are wildly inaccurate (though ‘certified’). Yahve is loading a carpet and a printer (I’m not sure where he has acquired either) as part of his allowance. Adolphe is setting off back down the bumpy track to Kinshasa. He may well be there before us.
The plane is an ancient Turbolet that reeks of kerosene. But it manages to stay aloft, tracking the river back up to Kinshasa. It’s amazing how a hotel that once appeared dreary and decrepit can now feel so warm and welcoming.
Today, I’m being driven by Desiré, a high powered military officer (I’m not quite sure how this works –he’s a friend of the tour company owner) and not only are the police letting us through with no hassle, they’re saluting. And the car is a Rav 4 with a functioning engine. We spend most of the day on a long brown boat on the brown river. We bob along some reed lined channels to the expanse of the Malebo Pool. It’s 22 miles long and 14 miles wide, so I can’t quite see the Republic of Congo on the opposite bank. A huge palace teeters on the bank to the right. This belongs to the current president. Mr Kabila, whose second and final term in office ended two years ago. Needless to say I’m not allowed to take a photo. We visit a dirty brown village (the chief pockets ten dollars for the privilege) and we eat a very brown lunch, cooked by Eveline, the owner’s wife. The beans, rice, chicken and fish are very tasty though and it’s by far the most relaxing day so far.
I finally manage to chat with Yahve about his family. He tells me he has a nurse girlfriend (he proudly shows me the photo) and he is the youngest of seven. His three older brothers all have professional occupations. One, a police officer, has fifteen children from two wives. He took a second after ten years, as the first appeared to be barren. However, she then had four children, before she was murdered by the second wife, who consulted a sorcerer, requesting him to make use of Voodoo. Wife Number Two then went on to to attempt to dispose of her husband. He had an unexplained accident on his motor bike, despite an armed escort, and suffered a terrible head injury. Fortunately, he recovered and Wife Number Two has now been banished to the provinces, to fend for herself, with the younger children of the brood. It sounds like pure Nollywood, but belief in witchcraft is still very common here, with children often being accused and subsequently beaten, abandoned or even killed.
Recent FCO warnings on the DRC include the information that Jean-Pierre Bemba, a Congolese warlord, who has been in prison, in The Hague, is to return to the DRC shortly to stand as president in the December elections. The warnings say that this could lead to traffic disruption, demonstrations and unrest. Today’s news announces that he’s arriving tomorrow, when I’m leaving. Excellent timing.
Kinshasa and Brazzaville, in the next-door Republic of Congo, are the closest capital cities in the world (with the exception of Vatican City and Rome). There’s been talk of a bridge for some time, (perhaps they could base some Scandi movies on it?) but it’s still talk. So I’m taking a ferry. There are a little fleet of speed boats zipping back and forth. These take on board passengers till they nearly sink and then they depart. But first I have to be cleared by immigration. This takes several men, a great deal of patience (nearly three hours) and quite a few more dollars.
But finally, I escape. I haven’t seen Yahve’s school. He says I can visit on my next trip. I don’t think that will be happening any time soon. Given a choice I might well opt for the DRK instead.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is the second largest country in the African continent. It’s vast.
The DRC is the fourth most-populated nation in Africa, its population has recently increased rapidly: it’s growing by about 2.3 million people yearly.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo is named after the Congo River, the basin of which occupies the whole country (and more.) The Congo got its name from the old kingdom of Kongo which was at the mouth of the river from the fourteenth to nineteenth centuries.
The region that is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo was first settled about 80,000 years ago. Belgian colonization began when King Leopold II founded the Congo Free State as his private empire, running it oppressively and corruptly. This led to the Belgian government seizing the country and establishing the Belgian Congo. Independence was granted in 1960, but after various conflicts Mobutu, took control (aided by the USA) in a bloody regime, renaming the country Zaire (nzere or nzadi -river that swallows all rivers) in 1971. Following more bloodshed, and war with Rwanda, Kabila gave the country the name it has today, in 1997.
French is the main language used. Very few people understand English.
Despite being a poor and conflict-ridden country, the DRC boasts a space programme. Privately financed by the Développement Tous Azimuts (DTA), with significant government support, the Troposphere rockets are expected to send cargo to outer space in the near future.
To see more of my photos of the DRC, visit this page.