Democratic Republic of the Congo
Earth : Africa : Central Africa : Democratic Republic of the Congo
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (République Démocratique du Congo; also:DRC or D.R. Congo) is a country in Central Africa. It straddles the Equator and is surrounded by Angola to the southwest, (Angola's discontiguous Cabinda Province lies to the west and north of a very narrow strip of land that controls the lower Congo River and is only outlet to South Atlantic Ocean), Republic of the Congo to the northwest, Central African Republic to the north, South Sudan to the northeast, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania in the east from north to south, and Zambia to the southeast.
The country has formerly been known as Congo Free State, Belgian Congo, Congo or Zaire. The country is also known as Congo-Kinshasa to distinguish it from its northern neighbor, the Republic of Congo (Congo-Brazzaville).
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly known as Zaire) is no longer considered risky, however tourism is not recommended at this time. The country has had a tumultuous recent history. Congolese politics have been dominated by the civil war in neighbouring Rwanda, with the influx of refugees from that conflict adding to the factional disputes following Mobutu's overthrow. Active civil war has been taking place on Congolese territory since approximately 1998. Joseph Kabila has established a government of national unity; however, bitter divisions still exist nationwide, and the situation is unstable at this time.
This country is truly vast. At 2,345,408 square kilometres (905,567 sq mi), it is larger than the combined areas of Spain, France, Germany, Sweden, and Norway.
Mobutu Sese Seko was president from 24 November 1965 until forced into exile on 16 May 1997 when his government was overthrown militarily by Laurent Kabila.
Kabila immediately assumed governing authority, but his regime was subsequently challenged by a Rwanda- and Uganda-backed rebellion in August 1998. Troops from Zimbabwe, Angola, Namibia, Chad, and Sudan intervened to support the Kinshasa regime. A cease-fire was signed on 10 July 1999 by the DRC, Zimbabwe, Angola, Uganda, Namibia, Rwanda, and Congolese armed rebel groups, but sporadic fighting continued.
Kabila was assassinated in January 2001 and was succeeded by his son Joseph Kabila. In October 2002, the new president was successful in getting occupying Rwandan forces to withdraw from eastern Congo; two months later, an agreement was signed by all remaining warring parties to end the fighting and set up a government of national unity.
The country straddles the Equator, with one-third to the North and two-thirds to the South. As a result of this equatorial location, the Congo experiences large amounts of precipitation and has the highest frequency of thunderstorms in the world. The annual rainfall can total upwards of 80 inches (2,032 mm) in some places, and the area sustains the second largest rain forest in the world (after that of the Amazon). This massive expanse of lush jungle covers most of the vast, low-lying central basin of the river, which slopes toward the Atlantic Ocean in the West. This area is surrounded by plateaus merging into savannas in the south and southwest, by mountainous terraces in the west, and dense grasslands extending beyond the Congo River in the north. High, glaciated mountains are found in the extreme eastern region.
Several parks are on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Everyone traveling to the Congo for any purpose will need a visa. You will need the completed application form, one passport-sized photograph, vaccination certificates, and evidence that you have sufficient funds to cover your stay, which includes evidence of a hotel reservation.
Single-entry visas are not issued. All visas are multiple entry, and can last 15, 30, or 90 days.
Note that if you have a Rwandan or Ugandan stamp on your passport you might have trouble entering the country.
Local airlines will transport you inland, mainly with Russian planes: Hewa Bora, Wimbi Dira Airways, Bravo Air, CAA (Compagnie Africaine d'Aviation).
No trains available yet, some short trains in North east, or 100 miles west of Watsa use to have a weekly trip further west.
The roads as a whole are too rocky or muddy for cars without 4 wheel drive. Old VW bugs are ok, but other cars will hang up on the rear axle in no time. Cars are only used around larger cities.
From Uganda to Congo via Bunagana Kisoro Border. There are many buses which operate daily between Bunagana /Uganda and Goma every day between 7AM and 1PM. Prices for the bus is US$5. A valid visa for both countries is required in either direction.Entry and exit procedures at Bunagana border are "easy" and straight forward, and people are very helpful in assisting visitors to get through without troubles.
Passenger and VIP ferries also locally known as 'Carnot Rapide' operate daily between Brazzaville and Kinshasa roughly every two hours between 8AM and 3PM. Prices for the ferries are: 15 US$ for the passenger and US$25 for the VIP ferry (Carnot Rapide). The latter is recommended as these are brand new boats and not cramped. A valid visa for both countries is required in either direction. The bureaucracy at either end require some time. Entry and exit procedures in Brazzaville are "easy" and straight forward and people are very helpful in assisting to get through without troubles. In contrast, these procedures are a bit difficult in Kinshasa and depend much on whether you are an individual traveller or assisted by an organisation or an official government representative. There are also speed boats to hire, either in a group or alone (price!), however, it is not advisable to book them as they really speed across the river along the rapids.
Due to the immense size of the country, the terrible state of the roads and the poor security situation, the only way to get around the country quickly is by plane. This is not to say that it's safe — Congolese planes crash with depressing regularity, with eight recorded crashes in 2007 alone — but it's probably the safest option. The largest carriers are Hewa Bora , Wimbi Dira  and Compagnie Africain d'Aviation . Congo Express  is a partnership between South African Express Airways and a BizAfrika Congo, using planes leased from SA Express (and therefore likely a safer bet). They fly only between Kinshasa and Lubumbashi.
As smaller vehicles are unable to negotiate what remains of the roads, a lot of travel in the Congo is done by truck. If you go to a truck park, normally near the market, you should be able to find a truck driver to take you where ever you want, conflict zones aside. You travel on top of the load with a large number of others. If you pick a truck carrying bags of something soft like peanuts it can be quite comfortable. Beer trucks are not. If the trip takes days then comfort can be vital, especially if the truck goes all night. It helps to sit along the back, as the driver will not stop just because you want the toilet. The cost has to be negotiated so ask hotel staff first and try not to pay more than twice the local rate. Sometimes the inside seat is available. Food can be bought from the driver, though they normally stop at roadside stalls every 5/6 hours. Departure time are normally at the start or end of the day, though time is very flexible. It helps to make arrangements the day before. It is best to travel with a few others. Women should never ever travel alone. Some roads have major bandit problems so check carefully before going.
At army checkpoints locals are often hassled for bribes. Foreigners are normally left alone, but prepare some kind of bribe just in case. By the middle of the afternoon the soldiers can be drunk so be very careful and very polite. Never lose your temper.
A ferry on the Congo River operates, if security permits, from Kinshasa to Kisangani, every week or two. You can pick it up at a few stops enroute, though you have to rush as it doesn't wait. A suitable bribe to the ferry boss secures a four bunk cabin and cafeteria food. The ferry consists of 4 or so barges are tied around a central ferry, with the barges used as a floating market. As the ferry proceeds wood canoes paddled by locals appear from the surrounding jungle with local produce - vegetables, pigs, monkeys, etc - which are traded for industrial goods like medicine or clothes. You sit on the roof watching as wonderful African music booms out. Of course it is not clean, comfortable or safe. It is however one of the world's great adventures.
French is the lingua franca of the country and nearly everyone has a basic to moderate understanding of French. In Kinshasa and much of the Western DRC, nearly everyone is fluent in French with Kinshasa being the second or third largest French-speaking city in the world (depending on your source), although locals may be heard speaking Lingala amongst themselves. Much of the eastern and southern half speaks Swahili or related languages. The rest of the country speaks either Kikongo, Lingala, Tshiluba, or a smaller tribal language.
The "Academie des Beaux-Arts" is often considered a touristic site and is in itself and with its gallery a good place to meet the famous artists of this country. Big names like Alfred Liyolo, Lema Kusa oder Roger Botembe are teaching here as well as the only purely abstract working artist Henri Kalama Akulez, whose private studio is worth a visit.
Congo is the centre of popular African music. The rhythms are irresistible, once you get the feel for it. Try visiting a local bar or disco, in Bandal or Matonge (both in Kinshasa), if possible with live soukouss music, and just hit the dance floor!
The currency is the Congolese franc. Banknotes are issued in denominations of 1, 5, 10, 20 and 50 centimes, 1, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200 and 500 francs. The only Congolese bank notes currently in circulation in most places are the 50, 100, 200 and 500 franc notes. They are almost worthless, as the highest valued banknote (the 500 franc note) is worth only about US$0.90.
U.S. dollars in denominations above $2 are much preferred to francs. In contrast, U.S. coins and $1 and $2 U.S. notes are considered worthless. Note that if you pay in dollars, you will get change in francs. Though francs may sometimes come in bills so old they feel like fabric, U.S. notes must be crisp (less than 3 folds) and be printed in or after 2003, or they will not be accepted.
In some shops, the symbol FF is used to mean 1000 Francs, and 1 U.S. Dollar is considered equivalent to 1000 Francs.
There are some supermarkets in Gombe commune of Kinshasa that sell food and drinks, soap, kitchen devices and bazar: City Market, Peloustore, Kin Mart, Hasson's.
SIM cards and prepaid recharge for mobile phones are available in the street and at Ndjili airport, at a reasonable price.
Mastercard/Maestro ATMs are available now in Kinshasa at the "Rawbank" on boulevard du 30 Juin (Gombe District), and in Grand Hotel. It spits out U.S. dollars. Visa card is also usable with "Procredit" bank ATMs in Kinshasa, avenue des Aviateurs, or outside in front of Grand Hotel (only US$20 and US$100 notes).
Congo has one national dish: moambe. It's made of eight ingredients (moambe is the Lingala word for eight): palm nuts, chicken, fish, peanuts, rice, cassave leaves, bananas and hot pepper sauce.
Do not drink the local water. Bottled water seems to be cheap enough, but sometimes hard to find for a good price. The usual soft drinks (called sucré in Congo) such as Coke, Pepsi, Um Bongo and Mirinda are available in most places and are safe to drink. Local drinks like Vitalo are amazing. Traditional drinks like ginger are also common.
The local beer is based on rice, and tastes quite good. It comes in 75 cl bottles. Primus, Skol, Castel are the most common brands. Tembo, Doppel are the dark local beers.
In rural areas, you may try the local palm wine, an alcoholic beverage from the sap of the palm tree. It is tapped right from the tree, and begins fermenting immediately after collection. After two hours, fermentation yields an aromatic wine of up to 4% alcohol content, mildly intoxicating and sweet. The wine may be allowed to ferment longer, up to a day, to yield a stronger, more sour and acidic taste, which some people prefer.
Beware of the local gin. The distillation process, if not controlled properly, can generate methanol instead of ethanol, which is toxic and can cause blindness.
There are more and more hotels in Kinshasa, with smaller hotels available in Gombe and Ngaliema area.
At present, the country cannot be considered a tourist destination. Travel by car is extremely dangerous, particularly outside Kinshasa, Goma and Kisangani. Certain regions are controlled by rebel forces and cease fire agreements are weak. Several countries have issued travel warnings. A UN peace keeping mission is trying to prevent warfare.
Public transport is also unreliable at best, predominantly due to a lack of vehicles, and bad road conditions during the rainy season. Safety equipment is missing.
You will need a yellow fever vaccination in order to enter the country. There are health officials at entry points, such as the airport in Kinshasa who check this before you are allowed to enter.
Congo is malarial, although slightly less in the Kivu region due to the altitude, so use insect repellent and take the necessary precautions such as sleeping under mosquito nets. The riverside areas (such as Kinshasa) are quite prone to malaria.
If you need emergency medical assistance, it is advised that you go to your nation's embassy. The embassy doctors are normally willing and skilled enough to help. There are safe hospitals in Kinshasa, like "CMK" (Centre Medical de Kinshasa) which is is private and was established by European doctors (a visit costs around $20). Another private and non-profit hospital is Centre Hospitalier MONKOLE, in Mont-Ngafula district, with European and Congolese doctors. Dr Léon Tshilolo, a paediatrician trained in Europe and one of the African experts in sickle-cell anaemia, is the Monkole Medical Director.
Drink lots of water when outside. The heat and close proximity to the equator can easily give those not acclimated heatstroke after just a few hours outside without water.There are many pharmacies that are very well supplied but prices are a few times higher than in Europe.
Photography is officially illegal without an official permit which, last known was $60. Even with this permit, photography is very difficult with the Congolese becoming extremely upset when photographed without permission or when one is taking a picture of a child. These confrontations can be easily diffused by apologizing profusely and not engaging in the argument. Sometimes a small bribe might be needed to "grease the wheels" as well.
Never under any condition photograph government buildings or structures which include but are not limited to police stations, presidential palaces, border crossings, and the anywhere in the airport. You will be detained by police if caught and unable to bribe them for your transgression.
When motorcades pass, all vehicular traffic is expected to provide a clear path. Do not photograph these processions.
At approximately 6AM and 6PM daily, the national flag is raised and lowered. All traffic and pedestrians are required to stop for this ceremony, with reports indicating that those who do not are detained by security personnel.