A tourist in Kinshasa

Fifteen years ago, a close friend and I began keeping (and comparing) lists of all the countries in the world, ranking our priorities for where we most would like to travel. There were only about 30 in which I never wanted to set foot, and two-thirds of those were tiny islands (e.g. Vanuatu, Dominica, Comoros). They don’t interest me. Among the other places to which I was sure I would never go was the Democratic Republic of the Congo. To which I can now say: never say never.

Since then I fell in love with bonobos and learned about the sanctuary for them outside  Kinshasa, all of which led to the trip we just completed. Visiting Lola ya Bonobo was why we went and what we wanted to do with 90% of our time in Congo. But since we were going to be in the neighborhood, Steve and I both yearned to see the mighty Congo River and a bit of Kinshasa (the capital city and home to more than 11 million Congolese). In email, someone at Lola said we might be able to arrange a little city tour, but no details had firmed up by the time we arrived.

What we glimpsed on our ride from the airport to Lola — insane traffic, filthy streets, open sewers — was so bad it almost erased my desire to see any more. IMG_6523.JPG

Still, I couldn’t help noting that almost everyone looked clean and well-fed. Some had a definite sense of style.

DSC08146.jpegThen we heard from Claudine André, Lola’s founder, that the center city, where all the ex-patriots live, was very nice, with some good hotels and many restaurants. She claimed that the cost of living there was the second highest in the world (after Luanda in Angola). When Steve broached the question of whether a little tour might be possible, Claudine  made it possible.

The Kinshasa home where Claudine has lived for 40 years is beautiful.

So it was that on the final morning of our stay, Lola’s driver, Constant, wound up chauffeuring Claudine, Steve, and me to her house in the city. We dropped her off and got a chance to meet her gigantic manual, Leon, (a dog herding breed originally from Turkey). Then we set off with Constant.

He drove us through a pleasant private housing complex filled with comfortable looking homes…DSC08137.jpeg…and views of Brazzaville, just across the river. DSC08135 2.jpeg

It’s the capital of the Republic of Congo, a separate country that was once a French colony. (The DRC was the domain of the Belgians.) Today there’s almost no commerce between the two, which baffles me.

We drove around the central core for a while, where the streets were wide and the Sunday morning traffic was light. DSC08143.jpg

A few buildings looked inviting…

The National Library was one of them.
The American Embassy less so.

We drove on and finally stopped at a cafe by the side of the river where we drank a couple of Cokes.

The entrance to the cafe.

IMG_6588.jpeg The terrace commanded good views of the river. The rapids begin here, and soon become so violent that boat traffic between Kinshasa and the ocean is impossible. DSC08173.jpg

It wasn’t much of a tour. But it was enough to transform Kinshasa from a scary dark hole in my mental map to a bustling metropolis. It’s not one I yearn to see again. But who knows? Sometimes you wind up in unexpected places.