Given how vast the Congos are, and how important they are to the African continent, it is a wonder that so few people have managed to visit even in the best of times. Yet given how bad the infrastructure is, how famously unstable their governments are, and how volatile sweeping regions of these already massive countries can be, it is a wonder that anyone has bothered to visit in the past decade at all.
The Congos are the proverbial elephants in the middle of the living room. They occupy a huge space not only geographically but also psychologically to the Africans – the famous river that stretches all the way from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes of east Africa; the massive mineral deposits that have yielded untold riches for most of the wrong people; huge reserves of wildlife and rainforest; animals found nowhere else on the planet; vast, undeveloped stretches where most foreigners only dream of exploring. And yet for those few who try to get in, millions are desperate to get out.
History in these countries has never been boring, and it has rarely, if ever, not been brutal. The Democratic Republic of Congo has had its name changed four times since its inception as Congo Free State in 1884. Tribal wars and massacres have persisted from time immemorial up to the present day. Brutal dictators have come and gone. A massive multinational war, killing millions, came and went. Riots and looting, coup attempts and assassinations, the spectre of Ebola and cannibalism have all existed in a frighteningly short timespan within the Congos. The four horsemen arrived together and never really left, though these days they are taking a breather – we can hope they stay that way.
On my first visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo officials laughed at me when I said I was a tourist – what a ridiculous notion!
It is hard to say whether one can really know Africa without knowing the Congos. For all their importance, they are so easily overlooked because of their problems, but as their situations stabilise, their role in the continent and the world will grow to where it should be. It is far more than just their own countries at stake, for their prosperity will mean the prosperity of all Africa. Those who make the effort to visit will be surprised at a genuinely hospitable group of people who have adapted to life in difficult situations. Optimism is easy to find, and foreigners arriving with the same attitude will not be disappointed.
Time will tell if the old days of Zairian overlanding, extended wilderness trekking, and wild nights in Kinshasa will return. The Congolese are resilient, a cultural power in their own right, and have responded to renewed stability by trying to move on.
It may come as a surprise to some observers that the Congo countries are improving – in fits and starts, and certainly not in a uniform fashion, but economic development and new opportunity are rampant across both nations. The fact that one can travel around with a credit card, and pull out fresh US dollar bills from bank machines in major cities, is a telling example of the Congo becoming reintegrated into the wider world.
New roads, shiny new towers and new businesses galore have appeared since the first edition of this guide. Tourists are arriving in increasing numbers, and of course the ubiquitous business traveller has become ever-present in regions that were once completely off-limits to outsiders. This means that, more than ever, the Congo is a place open for tourism and business in a way that it has never been before. Indeed, on my first visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo officials laughed at me when I said I was a tourist – what a ridiculous notion!
These are still not the easiest destinations in the world – prices are high and corruption remains a problem. But the signs of improvement are there, and should make anyone optimistic for the future.