I had the opportunity and pleasure of visiting the DRC in March 2019.
I must say (ashamedly) that I expected ‘very little’ and in the first instance, ‘very little’ is what I saw.
It did not help that my trip to the Congo was via Rwanda, which doesn’t offer a shortage of contrasts between the 2 bordering African countries.
Coming from Kamembe (city of Cyangugu), Rwandan border to eastern DR Congo, into Bukavu is literally like day and night. Rwanda looks at least 1 century ahead of the Congo- well manicured hedges and greenery around the smoothly tarmacked and marked roads, orderly government buildings, etc. brief glimpses of systems that are working in Rwanda.
My introduction to Bukavu after the order and pristineness of Kamembe was something that caused a reflexive (how I absolve my consciousness of my bias) negative reaction, which coupled with my ‘other’ acquired impressions of the Congo, threatened to have me see the Congo through mud-tainted glasses for the duration of my trip.
But, before you judge me harshly, let’s consider where I would have acquired such a bias from.
The media is responsible for the images we have seen of the Congo and subsequently the impression we have of that country and any other country for that matter.
We, unfortunately, are also responsible.
Whether the media has shaped our prejudices or not, our ignorance also contributes to how impressionable we are.
When my friends and family learnt of my impending visit to Congo, I did receive wishes that insinuated that I should keep safe.
And when I got there, the questions I received from friends and family in Kenya mostly alluded to how I was finding the “jungle”.
Of course their impression of Congo, like mine, was informed by the media, their own ignorance and the rhetoric that exists of the Congo.
My stay in DR Congo started off quite low beat, not because of my biases, but because I happen to be a creature of habit or of my own routines.
This would have happened to me had I gone anywhere in the world, but I admit again, it’s more so when I visit countries where I cannot easily access the comforts I am accustomed to- smooth roads, water, even my family, etc.
But, I really was taken aback by the hospitality of the Congolese people. Our hosts were generous with their time, their hearts and their words.
Surely, I needed to snap out of my rigid mind and soak up as much as I could about Bukavu and it’s people.
And that’s exactly what I did.
It’s amazing how always true this is…
That an altered perspective moderates what the mind exaggerates.
I started to be mindful and to use a lens that wasn’t filled with other people’s interpretation of the Congo based off of their limited reality of the place, and started to focus on what I was seeing.
When I decided to start being mindful and take on the contrasts as not something my mind should reject, a beautiful unfolding happened.
I could not soak up the culture and scenery fast enough.
I have been to many places around the world, but there is a comfort my soul experiences when I visit a country within the African continent.
Africa, is like my comfort food.
Bukavu, which is on the East of the DR Congo and part of the South Kivu region is a bustling and alive city with, I’m told about 1 million people (there appears to be contrasting information on the actual population).
It is hugged by hills all around.
There are hills and hillside living everywhere you look.
The view is truly intoxicating.
And the majestic lake Kivu surrounding the city with views of it from practically every corner.
The lake had a presence about it. It felt so alive and omnipresent. It meandered through this city eavesdropping on every aspect of life in Bukavu.
As we drove around the city, I would catch glimpses of lake Kivu from people’s backyards, from behind bushes- the only thing that interrupted a view of lake Kivu from anywhere in Bukavu, were man-made or other natural features- homes, buildings, hills, etc.
It truly felt like lake Kivu was the main character and everything and everyone else was a sub.
You can imagine my utter shock at finding out that lake Kivu isn’t even the largest lake in the Congo!
Not even close.
The Congo took the lion’s share when it comes to natural resources (as you’ll find out below).
So, in Africa, there are lakes that are commonly referred to as ‘the African Great Lakes‘ and although there may be slight discrepancy over which ones make up 10 of the African Great lakes, there are at least 7, which hold no dispute and among the 7, lakes in the Congo feature 4 times.
Which are these lakes?
Lake Tanganyika, the longest freshwater lake in the world; also the second largest lake by volume and second by depth in the world.
Then, there’s lake Albert, located between Uganda and the Congo and is approximately 100 miles long and 19 miles wide.
Another majestic lake in the Congo is Lake Mweru, which although doesn’t feature in the African Great lakes list, it still deserves mentioning. According to wikipedia, it is approx. 81 miles in length and 35 miles in width. It’s also a freshwater lake and it sits on the longest arm of the Congo river.
Then, there’s lake Kivu, which is considered an African Great lake. Lake Kivu is shared between the DRC and Rwanda and its main outlet is the Ruzizi river in Burundi.
And finally, another great lake in the Congo is lake Edward, the smallest of the African Great lakes, but often mentioned alongside lake Victoria and lake Albert as being the only 3 truly Great lakes because they are the only 3 that empty into the white Nile, which then feeds into river Nile.
Lake Edward is shared between Uganda and the DRC.
I must admit, finding about all this left me in awe of this country.
I was definitely proud that Kenya featured in the African Great lakes, ok, only twice, but we’re rocking it too- lake Victoria and lake Turkana.
Lake Victoria, is considered at the top of the list of African Great lakes. It’s the largest freshwater lake in Africa and the second largest in the world (largest being lake Superior in North America). Lake Victoria is shared between Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.
Something special I also learnt of our Kenyan-only African Great lake entry, lake Turkana, is that it’s the largest permanent desert lake in the world and the largest alkane lake. Apparently, its water is not fit for human or animal consumption. Something to do with its hydrocarbon composition, which is what alkane refers to or at least that’s the most I could find that made sense (chemistry was never my forté).
The Congo’s list of some of its largest lakes is pretty impressive in itself considering there are upwards of 30 other lakes fully or partially within the Congo.
And let’s not forget all the rivers in the Congo beginning with none other than Congo river.
The Congo river is a majestic river, topping the charts on most measures- second longest river in Africa after river Nile, the second largest river by volume; largest being Amazon and the world’s deepest river. And…the only river to cross the equator twice.
The Congo river is 4,370 km long. I cannot even conceptualise how grand this river is. Forget the presence I thought lake Kivu possessed. Congo river would dwarf lake Kivu in unflattering ways.
The rest of the rivers in the Congo…well, that’s for you to go on and research.
If all you know about the Congo is negative, allow me to school you some more on some amazing facts about the Congo.
DR Congo or The Congo- Same or Different Countries?
DRC, not to be confused with The Congo, is a separate country to its smaller neighbour to the West thanks to the legacy of European imperialism in Africa. The 2 European countries in question here being Belgium and France, which colonised DRC and The Congo respectively.
The two countries each gained independence from their colonisers in the same year, 1960 though in different months.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is also referred to as Congo- Kinshasa whilst the Republic of Congo is popularly referred to as Congo-Brazaville, both after their capital cities respectively.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is the larger of the two countries and actually the Congo river is the flowing wall that separates them.
Where is DR Congo?
The Democratic Republic of Congo, is the third largest country in Africa. The largest being Algeria. It is in Central Africa and is bordered by 7 countries. The DR Congo borders Central African Republic and South Sudan to the north, Angola and Zambia to the South; Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi to the East and the Republic of Congo to the West.
The DRC has an estimated population of approx. 80 million placing it as the fourth most populous country in Africa after Nigeria, Ethiopia and Egypt.
Clearly, if our colonialists hadn’t meddled, the two Congo countries together would have been I’m sure the largest country in Africa.
The Congo Basin
The Congo basin, which is the vast drainage area for the Congo river featuring its tributaries and sub-tributaries, is as impressive as the river itself.
The basin covers an area of 3.4 million square kilometres that stretches to most of the republic of the Congo, the democratic republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, western Zambia, northern Angola, parts of Cameroon and Tanzania.
That guys, is a whopping 7 countries!
The Congo basin is home to the second largest tropical rainforest, second only to of course, the Amazon. Rainforests occur when there is a high annual rainforest and with the equatorial climate most of the Congo basin experiences, the rainforest is made up of an evergreen forest.
The biodiversity contained in this natural resource is enchanting.
The Congo basin rainforest is home to some rare species like the white rhino, the okapi, an animal closest in looks to the giraffe and the zebra, the bonobo, African forest elephant, mountain gorillas and the common chimpanzees. All of these animals are endemic only to this rainforest, meaning they cannot be found anywhere else in the universe.
Virunga National Park
The Congo basin is also home to the first African National Park, Virunga National park, located in the eastern part of the country. Virunga National Park is one of the most biologically diverse places on earth with over 3,000 species of fauna and flora more than 10% of which are endemic to the region. It is no wonder that Virunga National Park is listed in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The DRC Congo tops the charts on many other fronts…
The DRC is the world’s largest producer of cobalt ore, which you may know (or not) is used in the production of most electronic devices’ batteries.
The Congo is well known as the largest producer of coltan, commonly recognised as being used in the production of mobile phones. Coltan is specifically used to make tantalum capacitors which are used in a wide range of electronic devices- phones, computers, audio devices, jet engines, medical devices, hearing aids, etc. and lenses, cameras, printers, etc.
DR Congo produces 80% of the world’s coltan.
The DRC is arguably the world’s second largest producer of diamonds. Arguably because the country has been implicated in “conflict/blood diamonds” and the presence of informal production.
Russia is the largest producer, producing 30% of the total world’s diamonds.
Back to my trip…
Once I had dug a little about this country, I couldn’t help being overcome by sadness that with the huge endowment of natural resources, the DRC was plagued with instability arising from historical unrest and more recently, the Second Congo War, which took place between 1998 and 2003 and notably the deadliest conflict the world has witnessed since world war II.
To my shock, I learnt that during the period the war took place up until 2008, over 5 million people were reported to have lost their lives from either being direct casualties of the war or from war-related eventualities such as disease, hunger, etc.
How did I not know about this?
The decision for Kenya not to be involved with the war perhaps the reason for my ignorance.
I cannot fathom a country being in active war for a period spanning 5 years (2 weeks shy of 5 years). It is no wonder 16 years on, the country still appeared to be in dire straits.
I got a sense that the state of things in the Congo was somehow directly related to its endowment of natural resources.
That their blessing was also their curse.
That when you’re that endowed, it is that much easier, not always though, for forces to conspire against you.
I however found the Congolese people I encountered, most of whom were in the medical profession (because of the nature of my trip)- surgeons, anaesthetists, etc., charismatic, industrious and very patriotic to a fault.
A lot of these doctors had trained in Belgium, but decided to leave their comforts in Brussels and return to their home to practice amidst some of the most difficult conditions.
These were young, promising men and women who I’m sure had to confront themselves before making the decision to return to a country that was coming out of 5 years of conflict and pain knowing all too well what they’ll be met with.
They nevertheless carried the vision most returnees hold in their hearts; the realisation that things will not change unless they made them change.
And what do you know…these doctors have established very efficient healthcare in the hospitals they practice in across the DR Congo, restoring not just lives, but health and hope to the local communities.
While I was there, I felt camaraderie between these doctors and a clear passion in their work and in setting high standards in their industry.
My trip to the DR Congo was a timely cleansing of my own ignorance and a reminder of the beauty that lies within our continent if we allowed ourselves to see it.
To overturn years of brain wash we continue to perpetuate years after Europeans planted this seed of self-hate, which most of us have refused to call out as being the utter lie that it is.
DR Congo…it was a pleasure meeting you and I look forward to our next meeting.