The Democratic Republic of Congo – a country on few people’s list of “top 10 must-see destinations.”
In a cruel twist of fate, the DRC – a country containing the world’s largest deposits of natural resources, is one of the poorest on the planet.
Having seen more than it’s fair share of heartbreak, the DRC has seen a string of wars (both civil and international), political instability, and one of the world’s lowest levels of human development leave it a fair distance behind its neighbors Rwanda and Uganda in both standard of living and desirability as a tourist destination.
Definitely not a travel destination for the faint of heart.
But that being said, it’s always easier to look at the negative – to come up with a reason not to go.
The challenge is to look at this much maligned country – larger than Greenland, with 75 million inhabitants – to find the good and the beautiful hiding beneath the surface.
Where is the Democratic Republic of the Congo?
It is bordered by several other countries as follows:
To the East by Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda
To the North by the Central African Republic, Republic of the Congo, and South Sudan
To the South by Angola and Zambia
To the West by the Atlantic Ocean, and a small, separate region of Angola
The capital city of Kinshasa is the nation’s largest city, with over 9 million residents, and is situated towards the westernmost region of the country, which consists of 5 regions:
DRC Quick Hits: Useful and Interesting Facts
Climate notes: The Congo is also the home to the world’s largest rainforest outside the Amazon. Being located in the central sub-Saharan region of the continent, the Equator transects the DRC slightly north of its central section.
As a result of this, the DRC experiences the highest thunderstorm frequency in the world and witnesses an annual rainfall that can easily exceed 80 inches (2,000 millimeters).
Official Languages: Although the official language of the DRC is French, there are 4 other recognized national languages – Kituba (“Kikongo”), Lingala, Swahili, and Tshiluba.
Population: Official estimate of 77.4 million, the 4th largest population in Africa.
Area: 2.34 million square km, or almost 4x the size of France.
Currency notes – the currency of the DRC is the Congolese Franc (“CDF”) or the “Second Franc” – as it was called when it was established in 1997 to replace the New Zaire.
Banknotes were originally issued in 1998 in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 20 and 50 centimes and 1, 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100 francs. In 2000, the 200-Franc note was introduced and that was followed two years later by the 500-Franc note.
Coins were also issued when the Second Franc was originally introduced. However, thanks to the ravages of extreme inflation, coins are no longer in use. The 50-Franc note is the smallest currently in use today.
There is one exception to be aware of regarding the currency. If you are traveling in the DRC’s eastern regions, the only negotiable instruments being circulated are the 50, 100, 200 and 500 denominations. So keep this in mind.
Here are the exchange rates at the time of this writing:
To get today’s rates, click here.
Interesting facts – the following is a list of 6 interesting facts regarding the Democratic Republic of the Congo:
- ATM’s did not make their appearance in the DRC until 2010.
- Congolese children are oftentimes accused of practicing witchcraft and will get severely beaten or killed due to the locals strong belief in the black arts.
- Geographically speaking, the DRC covers a larger land mass than the countries of France, Germany, Norway, Spain, and Sweden combined (roughly 3.5 times the size of the US state of Texas).
- Be careful where you point your camera: Photographing the residents of the DRC should be avoided unless you get express permission – and they may get very upset if you try to take pictures. Many locals believe that “capturing” a person’s image removes their soul or spirit. In fact, it is illegal to take pictures in some areas of the DRC. Perticularly avoid photographing police/military and their buildings.
- The Congo is the only place in the world where you can see the Eastern Lowland gorillas, but the bush-meat trade, deforestation, and pollution have endangered them to the point that many experts believe they will become extinct within the next 8 to 10 years.
- Would you believe that the DRC has a space program? Despite the fact that this nation has seen its share of conflicts and has struggled economically, the government is very supportive of the privately funded exploration endeavor.
DRC Visa Requirements
The DRC has one of the most closed visa policies in the world, only allowing citizens of 6 countries to enter either visa fee or visa on arrival: Burundi, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Mauritius, and Tanzania.
Everyone else has to apply for a visa at a local DRC diplomatic mission. Should your country lack one, you can send an application to their immigration center by email. If accepted, your confirmation letter will allow you to obtain a visa on arrival.
In any case, you will need an invitation from a local entity. Your hotel should suffice in most cases.
Getting Around in the DRC
Unfortunately, transportation infrastructure in the DRC leaves a lot to be desired. The country is huge, and a combination of insufficient funding plus decades of instability have resulted in a country that’s relatively difficult to get around.
The state of the roadways in the DRC is poor at best, and the same can be said for the rail system. Traveling by plane is the preferred method for getting around quickly.
Air travel doesn’t have a perfect safety record, but it’s the best of the options available.
Here are a few suggestions for different transportation venues.
If there are no major security issues to contend with during your stay, you can travel via the ferry that operates on the Congo River.
Every week or two, the ferry travels from the capital city of Kinshasa to Kisangani in the northwest. If you’re quick enough to catch it, the ferry stops briefly at several interesting places along the way.
You can treat yourself to some of the cafeteria food served on-board, provided you can offer the boss a suitable bribe for such things.
Despite the lack of cleanliness, comfort, and the occasional security problems, traveling by ferry on the Congo is a great adventure for the intrepid backpacker.
The few trains that are still operating in the DRC run on tracks that are over 50 years old and were originally laid by the Belgian Government when it was still the ruling entity. Furthermore, all of the cars, including the engines/locomotives, are dilapidated and very old.
You’ll be lucky if you can find a hard seat to relax on and even more fortunate if you can catch a train that has a dining car. If you are that lucky, be prepared to see a very limited menu at best. Chances are, whatever is available to eat will be gone about halfway through your trip.
Most cars are going to be overcrowded with locals and it isn’t uncommon to see people riding on the roof of the cars. Additionally, trains run erratically as fuel and funds run out on a regular basis. Not to mention the fact that breakdowns and repairs occur frequently.
Service is so erratic that you may not be able to catch a train but once every 2 to 3 weeks. On a positive note, few fatalities occur on the railways, making train transport a relatively safe, albeit unreliable way to travel. So keep that in mind when trying to choose a transportation option.
If you’re going to brave the roadways of the DRC, you’ll be wise to do so by truck.
Smaller vehicles do not navigate the roadways well in the DRC due to the condition of most of them. Consequently, a great deal of traveling over land is done by truck, which is great if you are traveling on a budget. If you go to one of the local markets in the larger cities, you will most likely find a truck park sitting adjacent to them. In most cases, it is relatively easy to find a truck driver that is heading your way.
If you can find a truck that is hauling bags of softer items such as peanuts, your trip will be more comfortable than say riding in the back of a beer truck. This is especially important if you will be traveling in the back of that truck for a few days or so.
Hopefully, the passenger seat in the cab will be available, but don’t count on it. You’ll have to negotiate the fare with the driver as no two charge the same rates. Ask the hotel staff where you are staying what the going rate averages and use this to protect yourself from being charged up to double as a foreigner.
Most trucks depart at the end of the day, as it will be cooler during the evenings and overnight, but some drivers are very flexible about their times of departure. Food usually isn’t an issue as you can either buy some from the driver or when he stops at a roadside vendor every 5 to 6 hours. It pays to have your arrangements planned out 24 hours in advance and it is best if there are others traveling with you. (NOTE: Women should never travel alone in the DRC.)
What to See and Do in the DRC
Because the DRC is still a developing nation, you would think that sightseeing opportunities are rare. Don’t be fooled. Once you venture out from the few urban areas, the adventure is just beginning whether you are exploring the massive rainforest or the great savannas of the higher country. Still, you want to be sure and include the following on your itinerary:
Academie des Beaux-Arts – this is the best place to meet some of the DRC’s most renowned artists such as Roger Botembe, Lema Kusa Oder, and Alfred Liyolo, all of whom teach here. You should also visit the private studio of Henri Kalama Akulez.
Congo River – this is west central Africa’s largest waterway and it is easy to see why this is such a popular attraction given the landscape surrounding its path. The ferry ride alone is well worth the money spent.
Mount Nyiragongo – you will find this volcano in the DRC’s easternmost region near Goma. With its red lava lake, this is one of the most popular areas to explore.
Lowland Gorilla Trekking – Entering from Rwanda or traversing the massive width of the country, you can trek for lowland gorillas in the Goma/Kivu region.
Vaccination Requirements and Suggestions for Staying Healthy
Diseases such as Dengue Fever, Malaria, Yellow Fever, and a number of other tropical maladies are quite common in the DRC. You will not be able to enter the country if you have not had a Yellow Fever vaccination and there are health officials at every entry point to ensure that you have had yours before allowing in.
Mosquitos carry malaria, which is extremely common here. Areas in close proximity to rivers are more prone to mosquito infestations and malarial outbreaks. On a side note, the Kivu Region is somewhat safer because of the higher altitudes in this area, which don’t allow disease carrying mosquitoes to thrive.
If medical assistance becomes necessary, go to your nation’s embassy. Here you will find able, willing, and (usually skilled enough) doctors who can assist you if your situation warrants it. The Centre Medical de Kinshasa, or CMK (founded by European doctors) as it is more commonly referred to, is a private facility and probably one of your safest choices. In the Mont-Ngafula district, the Centre Hospitalier MONKOLE is staffed with Congolese and European doctors. This is also a private, non-profit facility.
A Brief Word about the Culture of the DRC
With hundreds of different ethnic groups living throughout the country, the DRC is considered one of the most culturally diverse nations in the world. The more traditional lifestyles have undergone considerable change since the late 1800’s. This has been attributed to a number of elements and events such as colonialism, the fight for independence, the Mobutu Era’s eventual stagnation, and the First and Second Congo Wars of recent times. Although the DRC’s history has been marked with conflict and turmoil, much of the individuality of these different cultures and customs has remained intact.
While only 30% of the DRC’s total population (an estimated 77.4 million in 2014) lives in urban areas, they are extremely open to Western Civilization when compared to the rural populace, which leads us to another facet of the culture, namely the music of the Congo. Soukous is the music of the land and is a blend of the Cuban merengue and rumba style with the ethnic sources of the DRC. Additionally, the music genres produced in other African countries are derived from the Congolese Soukous. If you visit a local bar or disco/nightclub, you will be able to enjoy the irresistible rhythms of this music.
Another aspect of DRC culture is the many sports that are played in the country which include basketball, football (soccer), and rugby. While there are numerous stadiums throughout the country, the DRC is renowned for its production of professional basketball players, most notably Bismack Biyombo, Christian Eyenga, and Dikembe Mutombo. These three are also well-known for the many humanitarian efforts they have been involved in.
Staying Safe while visiting the DRC
It goes without saying that the Democratic Republic of the Congo has not been immune to conflicts, fighting, and other regional violence. Indeed, this has been the case since winning its independence from Belgium in 1960. We still see regional violence occurring sporadically in today’s world. Consequently, there are certain areas within the country that you should stay away from even today. For instance, the LRA (Lord’s Resistance Army) is still very active in the jungle area bordering the Central African Republic, South Sudan, and Uganda.
There are still some areas that are safe to visit near the border with Uganda. However, you should avoid traveling north and east of Bumba and Kisangani. Since the earlier years of the ’90s, we have seen continuous conflict throughout the northern and southern regions of Kivu. It was during the First and Second Congo Wars that this area witnessed the death of 5 million at the hands of bloody violence as well as disease and famine. It should be noted that the peace treaty of 2003 put an end to this conflict.
Unfortunately, as of 2012, this area has become the home to the largest peacekeeping mission involving the UN because of warlord, faction-based, low-level violence that erupts sporadically. Goma is another area where the threat of fighting remains high. Regardless, I am not trying to frighten you away from travel hacking the DRC, but your well-being demands a certain air of caution when traveling through certain areas.
The key is to stay alert and be aware of your surroundings at all times, something you should do no matter what country you are traveling in. Robberies are common in Kinshasa, especially in those areas close to centrally located hotels and markets. Furthermore, an increasing number of robberies are being committed by aggressive gangs of children who live on the streets. According to authorities, the criminal activity in the northern and southern Kivu region has been increasing where crimes that target the international visitor are concerned.
Should you be traveling in or out of the Goma area, be advised that banditry and robbery have become somewhat common after the sun goes down. Try not to walk alone on city streets at any time of the day or night, especially if you’re female. If the hotel you are staying in has a safe, use it if they will allow you to. You should store your important documents and your passport in it. If you have cash and valuables on your person, keep them concealed. Keep your purse close to your body or your wallet in a front pants pocket.
Be aware that there are certain gangs who have been known to use young girls to lure the unsuspecting visitor into a trap. While some individuals pose as police officers or members of the country’s security forces, others will promise discounts on diamonds or gold. There is also an elevated risk of arbitrary and unjustified arrests of international travelers by security personnel who demand a bribe before releasing their captives.
Despite the fact that the DRC has had a less-than-stellar safety rating and that is not near as risky as it once was to travel there, only the seasoned international traveler should venture off there. For the average backpacker, cultural experience seeker, luxury safari aficionado, or unseasoned tourist, this is a vacation that you might want to rethink. However, if you are an international travel aficionado that wants to journey out and experience the potential adventure of a lifetime, then the DRC might just be the thrill ride you have always been looking for.