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In paths untrodden
"You must be crazy for wanting to go there!" was the most common response people gave me when I mentioned my plan of holidaying in the Democratic Republic of Congo. "Why Congo? There is war, corruption, people can be aggressive and you certainly won’t feel welcome over there."
But, I thought, there must also be good music, dancing, vibrant Kinshasa, the famous sapeurs (dandies and style philosophers), and nature as well as culture. Doubt started to cloud my excitement as I listened to people’s opinions, but the ticket was paid for, the schedule well thought through, and my curiousity won over fear.
The Democratic Republic of Congo... what a country! A two-week holiday can never be enough to grasp this enormous piece of territory, but it can certainly provide a good first impression. I didn’t go there as an anthropologist, journalist, political scientist or whatever, just with my family as a tourist ready and willing to be hit with the overwhelming Congo-vibes. WOW was the very first impression and it remained the whole trip.
The Kabila mausoleum in Kinshasa is one of the many places to visit
The truth of course was that there was everything there, what people had told me to expect as well as my own imagination, and more. When crossing the border overland with Rwanda at Kivu, the lovely lady police officer checking our passports hit on my sister. Dangerous in a way we didn't anticipate, but nonetheless perfectly fine.
Lake Kivu, a contemplative spot in a busy country
Tour operator Go Congo picked us up and brought us to a hotel in Goma, right at the side of Lake Kivu. Exploring the area only for a short time, I could draw a few conclusions. The busy market in Goma is perfect for some serious shopping: food, beauty products, clothes, hundreds of bras, tools for every possible mission and in all sizes, everything can be bought there.
Bras were among the multitude of goods for sale at Kinshasa's market
We then visited a village of the Twa people just outside Goma. They were more than ready to perform some dancing for us tourists after some negotiation on price – it was here that I found out nothing is for free in Congo. The roads are horrible, but are being rebuilt gradually. At the moment, they are pockmarked with massive holes and there is dust everywhere. The eruption of the Nyiragongo volcano in 2002 is still visible in most parts of Goma, and the impression is that people only fixed the most necessary, and left the rest as it is.
From Kivu we took a plane to Kinshasa. After stories of Congo having the highest rate of crashes and planes with old and ill-maintained parts, I just hoped for the best. Nonetheless, seeing a crashed plane as we were landing was not entirely reassuring.
And yes, the stories about Kinshasa are true. It is a huge, hectic, humming city. With over ten million inhabitants, it is more of an agglomeration of different smaller (but still vast) cities that are called different areas of the city. Think of Nairobi and multiply it by ten, that will give you an idea of how it goes in Kin.
Crocodile for sale at the market
Since I am a fan of big cities, I was comfortable and we spent some days there. There is actually a lot to see and do compared with other African cities. The Laurent Kabila mausoleum, an ethnographic museum with chairs of Mobutu in its collection, markets, the main road made by Chinese (I get excited by such things), Mobutu’s gardens, the stadium where Muhammad Ali became the world’s greatest and, surprisingly, very good restaurants.
Stadium where the legendary 'rumble in the jungle' fight took place between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman
But the most enjoyable of all was just the 'daily tangle' - the tumult as the many, many people on the streets come from, and head to, their various destinations. Also unforgettable are the many cafes and terraces full of people drinking beer and discussing the latest news.
Next, we went by car to the Bas-Congo province where we made a pit stop in New Jerusalem, the holy centre of the Kimbanguists. Here on a hill is a massive church where the (according to one of the members) 17 million believers from all around the world should go as if it is their own Lourdes. We had the opportunity of meeting Simon Junior, grandson of Simon Kimbangu, who founded this religion. We were named by the preacher, had to make a speech and were invited to sit in the front row when the holy man was given respect (and donations) by the people.
Simon Kibangu Junior and followers
Boma and Matadi were other stops in the Bas-Congo. Matadi, the former Thysville can be reached from Kinshasa over beautiful Chinese roads. It is a city full of old Belgian colonial buildings, and an attractive outlook over the city and Congo river on top of the hill. Boma is the old Belgian colonial capital of the Belgians, worth visiting for the architecture and history, but is tiny and not remotely comparable with the contemporary capital city.
Belgian colonial relic, Boma
It was an intense journey, which left me even more confused about this country as big as Western Europe. It didn’t feel as dangerous a place as people – often with more experience – told me, but to say I was at ease is exaggerating. Closing the car doors when inside was common practice, something that I’m not used to or happy with. Furthermore, my senses told me it wouldn’t be wise to wear jewellery and in marketplaces I avoided walking with a bag. Moreover, since police outfits can be bought, these officers made the scene less safe.
It hurts to see how the rainforest gets destroyed by people that simply need the wood to cook, because of a lacking of policy. Animals were only to be found at the markets, not in the wild. On the other hand, it is amazing to see how such an affected people continue with strength, trying to make something out of their lives.
Tongue-in-cheek souvenir paintings, Kinshasa
Congolese rumba is heard throughout the streets, and Primus, the number one beer in the country, is drunk everywhere. Somebody told me the Congolese are the best people to invite to a party, as because of their history, they live like there’s no tomorrow.