A Tale of Two Congos
“The tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed somber under an overcast sky—seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.” —The Heart of Darkness
There is something about the word. Of all the countries in Africa, none seem to have quite the same sordid reputation for savagery and despair as the Congo.
Perhaps it is Joseph Conrad’s infamous novel that drives this association. But sometimes fact is as foul as fiction. In the Congo, the facts are appalling.
In the late 19th century, Belgium’s King Leopold exploited the Congo as his personal playground, killing up to half the population. A hundred years later, a civil war ravaged the country, killing over five million. In the interim, first the Belgians and then a series of maniacal local leaders brutally dominated the country.
There are two Congos: Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC or Congo-Kinshasa), formerly a Belgian colony, and Republic of the Congo (Congo-Brazzaville), formerly a French colony. Both gained independence in 1960. When most refer to the Congo, they mean the much larger and more unwieldy DRC, to which the saying goes something like, “It is neither democratic nor a republic, but it certainly is the Congo.”
My initial idea was to compare and contrast the two Congos – the DRC is literally the poorest country in the world and is also considered one of most dangerous, while the Republic of Congo sits 60 spots higher on the income rankings and is considered safe.
But after visiting both, the more significant difference seems to be between the historical perception of both countries and reality today.
Our flying time to Brazzaville from Kinshasa will be 4 minutes at an altitude of 8,000 feet.
As I sit on an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 767-300 wide-body jet with over 200 other people, I wonder about the sanity of taking a 4 minute flight between the two closest capital cities in the world. But everything I read online strongly advised against the alternative: a slow-moving and overcrowded ferry.
Brazzaville’s reputation as safe and quiet proves well-founded. I spend my days wandering around the city, visiting markets, eating in outdoor restaurants, and drinking beers on the Congo River.
It is Kinshasa that gives me heartburn.
The same maniacal drivers, dismaying poverty, mounds of trash, belching black tailpipes and persistent street hawkers that you’ve seen in many other African cities, but here it’s all bigger, faster and louder than you’ve experienced before.
This is a city where Rwandans, who experienced a genocide less than twenty years ago, told me I needed an armored car to travel around safely.
I can see Kinshasa from Brazzaville’s riverside. The two cities are closer than San Francisco and Oakland. The World Bank predicts the two cities will become Africa’s largest metropolitan area by 2025. Yet, bureaucracy and corruption makes the crossing challenging and expensive. Normalizing for income, the same trip between San Francisco and Oakland would cost $2,000.
I ultimately fly from Brazzaville to Addis Ababa and then to Kinshasa; or about 3,700 miles to cover a distance of 50 miles. I murmur a silent prayer of apology to the carbon footprint gods as the plane lands.
At the Kinshasa airport, UN planes outnumber commercial aircraft by 10 to 1. That major airlines like Ethiopian fly wide-bodied jets to Kinshasa is by itself testament to Kinshasa’s progress.
After exiting the airport, I expect dirt roads packed with hordes of destitute people. I nervously check and re-check to ensure all the car doors are securely locked, as the State Department emphatically advises. Yet I am greeted with a freshly paved six lane wide highway. Traffic flows orderly. Buildings look respectable. Locals wander from store to store on weekend shopping excursions.
I ask Diego, my new Congolese friend, about politics. It seems that in both Congo-Brazzaville and Congo-Kinshasa things are currently quite calm, but there is uncertainty about the future – namely, whether the current leaders of the country would step down peacefully. Sadly, autocratic leaders staying on past their expiration dates is one of the stereotypes about Africa that has substantial truth behind it.
I soon learn that everything that was possible in Brazzaville is also feasible in Kinshasa. Although Kinshasa’s population of ten million is twice the entire country of Congo-Brazzaville, the city does not feel overwhelmingly crowded. My sidekick is a petite American female who regularly explores the city on her own. Walking around the city is no problem. We wander through the central market and not a single one of the thousands of other shoppers hassles us. I once again enjoy cold beers on the Congo River and dinners of fresh goat and chicken kebabs on the street.
Lasting Reputations, Evolving Realities
While the “most dangerous” city in Africa still faces serious crime and poverty, its characterization as a destitute hellhole feels unwarranted.
To be fair, Kinshasa and the DRC have improved in the last five years. As one Congolese woman tells me, “Kinshasa is much more modern now; there have been many changes in the last 5 years.”
Another Congolese gentleman tells me, “We run a country almost half the size of the US on the budget of a small town.” New York City spends ten times more on public schools than the DRC does on its entire national budget.
Yet, reputations linger despite evolving realities. For many, including myself until recently, a book published over a hundred years ago serves as the definitive source on the Congo.