Last post on the Congo

I think I could keep on doing more and more posts on the Congo, I just enjoyed my time in that country so much. However I will limit myself to this one further post, writing not about my adventures but about the (admittedly few) ‘sights’ there were to see on my trip.

Firstly, in Mbandaka, is the rock and plaque marking the equator. Well, more accurately a rock with a flat surface where there was once a plaque (since stolen by someone to cover a hole in their roof?), and a sign, now graffitied, marking “Here passes the equator line, Equator town 1883, near the geographic equator 0.18°”. In other words, someone once thought the equator passed through there (probably H M Stanley); now with more sophisticated equipment we know that it is in fact a few kilometres away, but the sign remains. As does an official sat nearby, checking IDs and demanding money from any visitors. So – where else but in the Congo – you pay a corrupt official to allow you to take a photo of a graffitied sign marking a spot that isn’t actually on the equator at all…

The second ‘sight’ was in Lisala, the birthplace of former president Mobutu. The commemorative plaque in the main square gives not his original name (Joseph Désiré Mobutu) but the name he awarded himself: Mobutu Sese Seko Kuko Ngbendu Wa Za Banga. This apparently means something like ‘the all-powerful warrior who goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake’. I don’t know about the fire, but he certainly left in his wake a country depleted of all the assets left to them at independence (working electricity and water supplies, industries, etc). More interestingly, there was still the shell of a house of his in this town. Looted of anything of value when Mobutu fell (apart from the marble that rebels couldn’t remove), you could still see that the house would have been lovely in its day, with lots of open terraces and balconies and a wonderful setting on a hill overlooking the river. Now it is used as a makeshift school, but I hope one day someone can restore its grandeur and turn it into a hotel.

Finally, I had a bonus at the end of my trip, as the enforced delay in waiting for rearranged international flights gave me the opportunity to visit the bonobo sanctuary outside Kinshasa, which rescues and rehabilitates orphaned bonobos. Bonobos (sometimes known as pigmy chimps) are man’s closest relative. Watching one female breast-feeding and playing with her baby, the veins and wrinkles clearly visible on her hairless arms, only the face reminded you that she was not a human being. According to the information posted they are the only animals besides humans to kiss using their tongues, although I have to admit I didn't see any of them kissing. They are interesting animals though and I spent an enjoyable few hours at the sanctuary.

The babies are much hairier but very cute.
As you can see, apart from the great river itself, there are not actually that many tourist sights in the Congo. Tourists are extremely rare, and in most villages we visited the people did not understand what we meant when we said we were tourists. "Why have you come here?" To see the country. "Yes, but why? What do you want here? Have you come for our diamonds?" was not atypical. One day we wanted permission to walk around in the forest behind a village, so asked the chief's permission as is customary. As he could not comprehend the concept of tourism our guide ended up telling him that we were kind of ambassadors for our countries - that we wanted to see whether the Congo was now a safe place to invest in. We got permission for our walk, but were accompanied by a party of village elders (so no chance of my stopping to look at birds) and I felt quite guilty that they thought our visit might lead to some kind of investment.

Notwithstanding that local people didn't understand the purpose of our visit, and that they nearly all asked us for donations (food, money, clothes - or in one case a man asked me for my watch), they were friendly and welcoming. & they are truly poor. For those in paid employment, $360 a year is a typical salary (for example for a junior teacher or civil servant), whilst it costs $120 a year to send one child to school. So I suppose their asking these visitors in their nice clothes, with their cameras, and their generator on their obviously comfortable boat, for a handout of some kind is not unreasonable. Not that many of them even knew what a camera was.

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