Visiting the Democratic Republic of Congo: Media vs. Reality
When we told friends and family that we were heading to the DRC as the core focus of our month in Africa, we got more than a few raised eyebrows. Is it safe? What does one do when visiting the Democratic Republic of Congo? Also, who visits the DRC voluntarily? Those were the questions that we answered for the most part in the lead up to our trip, and they’re the same questions we continue to answer from friends, family and guests who are intrigued by the DRC as a destination.
As a couple based in the Caribbean, we want something entirely different when we travel. We look for rich culture, city buzz, off-the-beaten path destinations, dramatic scenery; something different from the laid back beach scene that we’re accustomed to living in Anguilla. In the past two years we’ve traveled around the Middle East into Jordan and the West Bank, through Central and South America, and through Western Europe with a little sprinkling of North America for good measure. We’re lucky enough to have created a great balance with being based on a quiet island and getting our culture and city fixes elsewhere when we’re able. This year, our trip to the DRC, Uganda, Rwanda and South Africa brought experiences that were stark contrasts to life in Anguilla, from gorilla trekking in the Virunga National Park to wine tasting in Franschhoek.
It’s a bit of millennial mentality, I suppose. We’re not alone in wanting something unique; wanting to experience something that feels authentic and untouched. We could have gone gorilla trekking in Rwanda or Uganda, but we were more intrigued with the lesser-visited Congo for the experience. For us, the gorilla trekking was the anchor but it wasn’t the only factor. Scott and I both (independently) had been long intrigued with the Congo, a place that I had always thought of as the heart of Africa. In my mind, there was something raw about it. In comparison with Rwanda or Uganda, I thought the experiences would perhaps be less sterilized (in a good way). Looking back, I know we made the right decision for us, and our time in the DRC will forever be one of the best travel experiences of my life.
So, what is it really like to visit the DRC? What can you expect?
Firstly, if you’re doing something similar to what we did, you’ll be at the eastern border of the DRC in Virunga National Park, where your permit is valid. What I can share from our experience is from one small section of the DRC in an area that the country is trying to prime for increased tourism. Our experiences were confined to Africa’s oldest park, Virunga National Park, and only a small section therein, so my personal experience can only reflect on that.
The media would have you believe that you would enter the DRC, descending on a place of utter anarchy with bullets flying. We crossed the border from Gisenyi to Goma on foot, getting our passports stamped and our yellow fever documents approved by the DRC border patrol. Once we had crossed into Goma, we were immediately greeted by our driver from Virunga National Park.
If you’re coordinating a visit to Virunga you will either be working with a tour operator or directly with Virunga National Park. Let’s be real: you’re not going to visit the DRC on a whim, and you’re not going to be backpacking your way through it solo. Not only would that be pretty ill-advised, it’s not allowed from what I can tell based on the entry requirements for visitors. The park’s website is extremely well done and gives you options for armed transfers from the border to your destination, and then within the park. You must show proof of your itinerary to enter and be granted a visa so this has to be done in advance. With this aspect taken care of, we felt pretty secure from the get-go. One of the things about visiting a developing country for the first time is that there’s always a sense of uncertainty early on. Scott and I have both experienced that, and we’ve talked with many other travelers who have felt the same thing. Quite simply, you don’t know what you’ve gotten into. Usually the first day helps assuage any fears (or not, depending on the destination), and you feel more confident as the hours and days wear on.
To be honest, I actually felt pretty comfortable shortly after entering the Congo. We drove through Goma, a city that was far more developed that I had imagined, with cell phone shops and grocery stores that serve the local and expat population residing there. Many non-profits working within sub-Saharan Africa have an office in Goma, and a host of UN aid workers are also based there. To be honest, this trip was an eye-opener for me in a few respects. I studied Social Policy and International Development in graduate school with the genuine desire to work in sub-Saharan Africa. I have friends from school who went on to work for the UN and other non-profits throughout the region, including in Goma. My take after visiting is that the light shed on aid workers in the region isn’t always positive. We had great conversations with people on the ground who shared their thoughts on the UN’s ability (or lack thereof) to intervene in violent situations. For many local residents in Goma, an expat population also means a hike in the prices of goods which makes some items even further out of reach. It’s an interesting dichotomy and we didn’t get to really explore it first hand enough when we were there, but suffice it to say that the feedback about UN presence there isn’t necessarily positive.
Our experiences being transported in the Virunga armored vehicle were great. We were able to watch the world pass by and we felt secure. There was a ranger in our car at all times. In fact, when we were leaving Mikeno Lodge and heading to Bukima Tented Camp on our first day (two different camps about an hour apart in the park), Scott and I were in the car with our driver, Christian, when a ranger stopped us to ask why we didn’t have an armed guard with us. We were on the way to pick him up from the nearby station as it turns out, but that interaction confirmed how strict the park rangers and employees are about the safety of tourists.
We were fortunate enough to have shared our Mt. Nyiragongo hike with three great guys, including a grad student from Belgium doing work in Virunga National Park. At this point – days into our time in the Congo – we commented to him on how safe we felt, and he echoed those sentiments having spent longer periods of time in the DRC during a couple of separate trips. He mentioned feeling safer in the DRC than in Johannesburg for example (having been to both now, I agree with him there), and commented on how seriously the park takes the safety of tourists. Virunga is incredible – there’s no arguing that – but there’s a lot of uncertainty for potential tourists to the area. If anything were to happen to any tourists in the park, it would undoubtedly scare away others considering a visit to the region. The priority for the park is to evacuate tourists first if a situation were to arise.
Fortunately for us, there were no dodgy situations. If I knew nothing from the media, and only knew the DRC based on my personal experiences, here is what I can tell you:
The landscape in Virunga National Park is quite possibly the most dramatic and beautiful in the world.
This won’t come as a shock, but the landscape there is best described as untamed. It’s wild and lush, and over-the-top stunning. We stayed at a few sites while exploring the park, but our first morning waking up at Bukima Tented Camp with breakfast for two and a backdrop of lush verdant jungle and Mt. Mikeno in the distance was unreal. Also, for the record, they make the world’s best French toast; a shocking and pleasant surprise.
There’s the vibrant green of the jungle, the ochre-tinted dirt roads, the world’s largest lava lake boiling and bubbling, stunning wildflowers around every turn, and plants overgrown because they’ve never been forced to stop. If the DRC wasn’t plagued by this idea of instability, it would seem like you were dropped into a slice of wild perfection.
Not only were the people so kind, warm and welcoming, English was more broadly spoken than we expected.
We don’t ever travel to foreign countries expecting other people to speak our language. I always try to have a few basic phrases under my belt to show that we at least care enough to try. We have a few French phrases in our arsenal (enough to be polite), but my grasp of Swahili, Lingala and other tribal languages is non-existent. Going in to a place where tourism is just a budding industry, I expected there to be a much more substantial language barrier. Generally speaking, there wasn’t. Most people we interacted with had enough English to get a point across. Also, miming really does get you far in a bind.
The wildlife is unbelievable.
I’m sure anyone who’s been gorilla trekking anywhere in East Africa is wowed by their experience and we were no exception. For me, this was the ultimate wildlife experience. As great as traditional safaris are, this really trumped that experience for me. In the DRC, we had armed rangers with us at all times. We trekked for two days: one day we were with one other traveler, and another day we were with two other travelers. Each time we had a tracker, a guide, and a couple of additional rangers around, and they helped guide us through our hour with the gorillas to make us feel comfortable with our surroundings. You are surrounded by gorillas – some babies and some 500 pounds silverbacks – so if you’re anything like me, you may be a bit intimidated at the start. That quickly turns into being utterly mesmerized for the remainder of the hour. It’s awe-inspiring and if you’re debating whether you should do it (whether in the DRC, Rwanda, or Uganda), go! It’s worth every penny.
The Congolese exemplify ‘survival of the fittest’.
Life is unforgiving in the Congo. If you can’t survive, you die. It’s harsh, but it’s reality.
It’s really, really difficult emotionally for many of us to grasp. Even if you grew up in a lower-class American or European family, you likely had access to decent healthcare, decent school systems, and food, or had access to programs that helped fulfill your basic needs.
This just isn’t the reality in the Congo. We saw a higher concentration of children in the DRC than I have seen anywhere ever. Every town we drove through, dozens upon dozens of kids were running around, helping their parents, carrying water and oil. I can’t even begin to describe how many children under the age of 5 we saw. I commented to someone on how many kids there seem to be in the DRC and that the population was certainly growing. An expat there explained that families have many children because they know a few will die.
Ahhh. Can we stop for a moment and grasp that? Families have many children knowing that there’s a fair chance that some will die. We drove through and saw very few medical clinics, and the ones that we did see were incredibly basic, if they were manned at all. Children die. People die. Life goes on. That’s part of life in the Congo.
That being said, the ones that survive are survivors. Most weren’t given life’s comforts. Kids from a very young age are helping parents by lugging heavy containers of water home (kids as young as 3 and 4). We regularly saw small children, boys and girls, carrying large containers on a thick rope that they’d tie around their heads. By pre-teen years, they’re taking care of their younger siblings. We saw many, many scenes of children taking care of children. Kids as young as 8 or 10 were carrying smaller children on their back or hip.
When we did our hike to Mt. Nyiragongo, our porters ranged in age hugely from about 15 to 60. These men hike this route multiple times a week, carrying up to 35 lbs. on their back during the steep climb. Many wore t-shirts during the hail and rainstorm. When we were freezing in our jackets, beanies, and ultra-warm gear, they were in tees, some wearing sandals at the top of the volcano. During our dinner at the top of Mount Nyiragongo, our cook, Martin, prepared a hot meal for us in a cabin. He had rice and ratatouille cooking over coals, and used his hands – no mitts – to move the boiling pot. Not even a flinch.
The Congolese people as a whole are fiercely strong and determined because they have to be.
We never felt unsafe.
I think that was part of what made us feel so secure was that we were escorted by rangers. We met some Belgians during our trip who were traveling in the same circuit as us and they had an interesting run-in being transported from Goma to Bukima for gorilla trekking. They were a few hundred meters behind a rebel/ranger conflict which ended in the rebel being killed in the street. Shockingly they didn’t seem as fazed as I would have by this, but it was a stark reminder of realities on the ground. That day, we were escorted in an armored vehicle with a driver and two rangers. Whether this was coincidence or extra safety measures, I can’t be sure. Despite hearing that, we never felt targeted except for by children who were very excited to see ‘mzungus’, and often gave us a thumbs up when we passed by.
As an aside, what made us really sad was some children who opted to try to get a handout instead of just saying hello. I struggled with this a lot, not just because these families clearly needed money (it was hard seeing this level of poverty) but more because these kids were being conditioned from a young age to see people in Virunga armored vehicles as wealthy tourists and targets for money. While we supported the local economy through tipping our drivers, guards, guides, etc., we never gave money to people on the streets. Not only would it cause us some serious harassment in starting that, I think it also reinforces this idea of asking tourists for handouts being an acceptable practice.
There’s a sense of community.
As I mentioned above, there are many kids and many families that live in close proximity to one another. We would often see kids playing and growing up together who likely weren’t actually related but grew up as brothers and sisters. There was a palpable sense of community despite (or perhaps because of) the hardships that many people have to endure learning to survive in the DRC. Coming from a world where two-year-olds play with iPads at dinner, it was actually refreshing to see kids playing together, smiling, laughing, and kicking around balls made of sticks and mud.
Weapons are everywhere.
You see images of rebel groups around the world, standing in the back of a truck with machine guns raised as a show of power. When you grow up in a community where that’s not the norm it’s intimidating, but what about when you grow up surrounded by guns? One of the comments I made to Scott during our time in the DRC was how present weapons are everywhere you look. Kids are exposed to this from a young age: rangers carry guns strapped over their shoulders, rebels carry guns, military guys sitting at checkpoints every few miles carry guns. Kids carry machetes to help their parents with gardening. For people who don’t grow up in a society where this is common, it’s a shock at first to see guns all around. For kids growing up in the DRC (and plenty of other places in the world), this is commonplace. Children grow up seeing powerful players in their societies armed with weapons and grow desensitized to the sight of machine guns and machetes. It didn’t make us feel uncomfortable from a safety perspective during our time there, but it reinforced this idea of the value of life being looked at differently than what many of us are used to.
If you were to ask me about my favorite travel experience to date, the DRC is at the top of the list, perhaps tied with our trip to the Middle East in 2014. I love other cities more, and I’d return to other countries sooner, but I found the DRC to be so authentic and so incredible in many ways. We were shocked by the warmth and welcoming feel from everyone we encountered. People were excited to have us, to share their country, their history, their food, and their wildlife experiences with us. Kids were generally so excited to see us drive by, waving as fast as their hands would move. The natural environment is remarkable, from the volcanoes to the wildlife. There’s something almost spiritual about it that I can’t quite describe. Suffice it to say, the media does a great job of scaring people away from the DRC, and very few outlets are sharing the good there. Even TripAdvisor has a security warning about activities in the DRC:
If you haven’t seen the Virunga documentary, it’s a must. Also just released is a new documentary called When Elephants Fight, a documentary produced in part by one of my classmates at LSE. There’s no doubt that there’s a lot of work to be done in the DRC and a lot of awareness that still needs to be brought to some serious injustices in the country. That being said, I think that there’s so much potential for tourism, at least in Virunga National Park, and tourist dollars flowing into the economy is one of the keys to providing opportunities to youth in the region.
What the media is sharing isn’t false, but it’s only part of the story. For travelers willing to embark on an adventure, there’s so much good to uncover.
Have you been to the DRC? What was your take on the trip?