Ever since arriving in Angola for work last year, I had been pouring over maps of the region, examining what travel opportunities my new location afforded me. One neighbouring country in particular stood out: the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The true heart of the Dark Continent, the Congo still seems to capture the imagination, over a hundred years after Joseph Conrad published his seminal Heart of Darkness, or Sir Henry Morton Stanley and Pietro Savorgnan di Brazzà fought it out to establish colonial control of the region for France and Belgium. Today, what people know of the Congo they know through news reports of civil war atrocities and UN interventions. Tim Butcher’s excellent book Blood River echoes the view that Europeans seem to have always had; that the Congo is a dark, dangerous, unknown place, that civilisation abandoned a long time ago.
“The Congo? You don’t want to go there, it’s dangerous. They have no security there.”
“I’m sure they say exactly the same thing about here in Angola.”
This was exactly how conversations played out with everyone I spoke to about my proposed journey. Two weeks and a lot of hassles later, at the end of my trip, I found myself having exactly the same conversation in reverse, with a Congolese policeman I had met by the border with Angola.
“Angola? You don’t want to go there. Didn’t you hear about the Togo football team? It is not safe!”
My journey began in Luanda, the sprawling Atlantic capital of Angola. On a map, it looked simple enough: follow the coastal road north to N’Zeto, then branch inland to the Angolan border town of Noqui, where I would enter the DRC. It was less than four hundred kilometres. How long could it possibly take?
The answer is sixteen and a half hours, over some of the worst roads in Angola. One stretch in particular (between Tomboco and Mepala) seemed to have been abandoned during the civil war and was slowly being reclaimed by nature. We did not pass another vehicle for over two hours as we crawled along, praying that the huge fissures in the mud track would not damage the suspension and leave us stranded. Thankfully, it did not rain; otherwise I doubt the Land Cruiser would have made it.
We spent the night in Noqui, having to sleep in part of the local hospital as there were no hotels in town. It is a small place, which looks out over the Congo to Matadi, it’s much larger Congolese neighbour. It was fascinating to listen to the locals here talk about the Congo with the sort of reverence usually reserved only for the West.
“Over there they have electricity. Look, we can see them all lit up at night, and over here were are in darkness!”
I pointed out that this was not strictly true, as some houses on our side did seem to have power.
“That is the governor’s house, and the centre of town. But they all have to buy the power from the Congolese authorities. We cannot produce our own here.”
My new friends spent the night telling me how much better life was in the DRC, how business opportunities were plentiful, cost of living was low and there were tourists in abundance. I was beginning to look forward to crossing the border in the morning.
This enthusiasm for the border crossing was short lived once I reached the Congolese side of the checkpoints the following day. In what I can only describe as the biggest shakedown I have ever witnessed, the Congolese authorities demanded everything from my trainers to my dollars, and most things in between. The head of immigration, growing frustrated at my unwillingness to produce a “sucrée” (literally a sugary drink, but in this context a bribe) and the fact that my DRC visa was in good order, instead chose a different tactic:
“There seems to be an irregularity with your Angolan work visa.”
I assured him that there was not and that even if there was, it was nothing to do with him and no barrier to my entry into his country.
“My friend, I am only pointing this out for your benefit. I am trying to help you! We wouldn’t want you getting stuck outside Angola…”
After over an hour of assuring me that there was a serious problem (he knew because he had studied Angolan immigration law at ‘Immigration School’) and demanding money to sort it out, he finally gave up and let me go. Sadly, he was only the first of many Congolese officials who tried (and more often than not failed) to extort money from me. It is a simple fact of life in this country. You are immeasurably rich by their standards, and therefore should be willing to part with your dollars. The trick is to remain calm, be patient, and allow plenty of time if you need any sort of official document or visa (a lesson I would forget later on in my trip). Most importantly, never let an official know you are in a hurry, or show that you are becoming impatient or losing your temper. Funnily enough, this will not result in faster service.
Matadi itself is a picturesque market town situated near the mouth of the Congo. The first European here was the Portuguese explorer Diogo Cão in 1485, but it is best known as the start of the infamous Matadi to Kinshasa railway, completed in 1898, and still running until the civil war a few years back. These days getting to Kinshasa is easy, as you can drive for seven hours along one of the few decent paved roads in the country, which is used to move goods between the capital and the port on massive HGV’s.
I spent the next four days on a whirlwind tour of Kinshasa, picking up the shopping list of items I required for my travels within the country. This included changing my single entry visa to a multiple entry visa (to allow a visit to Brazzaville), trying to find the address of the elusive tourist information building, booking flights to Goma for a trip to the national parks as well as flights west for my eventual return to Angola via Cabinda. I soon learnt that people in the Congo are loathe to tell you they do not know the directions to somewhere, and will often have a guess rather that recommending you ask elsewhere.
Interspersed with all this red tape, getting lost and waiting in dingy government offices I also tried to see some of the sights Kinshasa has to offer. As a city, Kinshasa is quite light on tourist attractions, but I still managed to find Mobutu’s old presidential park (complete with empty animal cages and abandoned amphitheatre), the Museum of Kinshasa, the zoo and of course the Congo River itself. Getting anything done was a struggle that involved multiple taxi rides across a hot, bustling, congested city, but it meant getting a real flavour of the place. Everyone was friendly (including the police), and when things got too much there was always an overly priced Western supermarket or Lebanese-run restaurant to duck into for a quick air-conditioned break.
My carrier of choice from Kinshasa to Goma was Hewa Bora Airways. On the negative side, they are banned from EU airspace for not complying with air safety and aircraft maintenance regulations. One of their planes also overshot the Goma runway in 2008 and burst into flames, killing forty two people. On the plus side, their flights have a reputation for running on time, and of those killed in the aforementioned accident, all but one were people on the ground as opposed to passengers on the plane.
It is a testament to the sheer size of Congo that you can take a three hour internal flight. Touching down in Goma felt like a different world to Kinshasa. First off, being a passenger plane we were in the minority on the runway. Most planes here are either UN or mining, bringing in cassiterite for export to the ports of Kenya. There were none of the high rise buildings or queuing lanes of traffic. It was also around ten degrees cooler and rainy, being high up in the green hills looking out over the Rwandan town of Gisenyi. This used to be a lakeside resort for the Belgians back in the early nineteen hundreds, and many of their hotels and buildings are still standing. Side by side with these colonial remnants are reminders of the more recent troubles here. The UN has a heavy military presence, as this is a base for their MONUC peacekeeping force, helping to maintain stability in one of the most war-torn parts of Congo. Although the Second Congo War ended in 2003, this area has remained volatile due to the presence of large numbers of FDLR rebels in the bush.
Despite these problems, there is a spirit of optimism in the air today. One day in town I stopped to see why a crowd had gathered, and watched a local charity organising an arms exchange. For every weapon handed in, locals were given $50 and a piece of cloth. There was all the pomp and circumstance of an official African engagement, as charity representatives mingled with local dignitaries and the press. I did not know whether to be impressed or appalled by the amount of weapons being handed over and stacked up on the ground for disposal.
Goma is one of the main access points for Virunga National Park, where you can engage in all sorts of outdoor activities. It is a very well run park, and it was easy to set up day trips through a tour operator in town. I went and checked out the mountain gorillas for a day, and scaled Mount Nyiragongo, the volcano overlooking Goma that erupted in 2002 and destroyed the centre of town. During my time in Goma I ate a lot of good food (I can particularly recommend the poulet a la mwamba) and drank a lot of Congolese Primus beer. I also checked out one of the obscenely loud clubs, partly out of curiosity and partly because they blasted their music so loud until 6am that it was impossible for me to sleep in my nearby hotel room anyway!
When my time in Goma was finished, I headed back to Kinshasa, hoping to check out Brazzaville before going home. Once again I crossed my fingers and took a Hewa Bora Airways flight back. Upon arrival I marched confidently into the Congo-Brazzaville Embassy, planning to collect my passport (which I had left there a week ago) and go spend a relaxing day over the river. What I actually did was spend 5 hours in the embassy waiting for my passport (which they had assured me was ready days ago), an hour fending off numerous bribe requests at the ferry port and a whole 45 minutes wandering around Brazzaville before having to catch the last boat back for another shakedown. If worked out as an hourly rate, it had to be the most expensive city break in the history of tourism:
• Changing my Congo-Kinshasa entry visa to multiple entry: $165
• Buying a visa for Congo- Brazzaville: $80
• Return boat ride: $50
• Shakedowns: $20
• Taxi to get me to and from the ferry port: $35
Total = $350
After a fortnight in the DRC it was time to head back to Angola. Rather than try to renegotiate the frankly terrible Angolan road I had come up on, I decided to fly. There used to be direct flights from Kinshasa to Luanda with TAAG, the Angolan national airline, but after a political row over expelled refugees a few years ago this was cancelled. Instead I took a tiny plane from Kinshasa to Matadi, where I had started my trip, then it was a ten minute hop over to Boma and finally Moanda, a Congolese town on the Atlantic coast. From there it was a bumpy 25km shared taxi ride north to the border with Cabinda, then a further forty five minutes to Cabinda Airport, which has daily TAAG flights to Luanda.
As with many poor African countries I have visited, I was both impressed and saddened by the optimism of the people. Everyone was very keen to tell me how hard life was, and how much better things must be where I am from (Europe, not Angola). Yet they would always equally stress how much better things are for them now, as opposed to before, during the war. Whenever I pressed people as to why their situation was so difficult, it was always the fault of the fighting. Why do they have no roads? They were all destroyed in the war. Why is there no electricity? Damage to infrastructure during the fighting. Nobody dug any deeper and asked why these things had not been fixed yet.
Whenever corruption was mentioned, it was always as a petty inconvenience, a fact of life, something that only affected them at a local level. To the Congolese I met, corruption was the police hassling them at checkpoints. It was having to pay a little extra to get that document they needed, or see through a business deal. Few people mentioned President Kabila’s rampantly corrupt central government. It seemed fine that provincial governors wore imported suits and drove expensive cars. They are leaders after all; they have to look the part. Politicians are rich because they are successful individuals. Successful in politics and also successful in business. Their gain was not perceived as anybody else’s loss.
One person I met in Goma said he was disheartened by the central government’s decision to spend money on celebrating their fiftieth year of independence from Belgium when there remained so much reconstruction to do, but even he said of President Kabila “at least he’s not Mobutu.” Another old man said to me “We should be re-colonised. Things will never be as good if we rule ourselves.” Of all the things I saw in the DRC, it was this resignation that shocked me the most.
Words and pictures by Giovanni Contadino