Hostile environments, Part #7: Democratic Republic of the Congo
This enormous territory, the size of western Europe, must be one of the most dangerous places anywhere in the world. Her creation within these borders was an imperial Belgian historical accident and it is impossible to govern so mammoth a territory, with all its varying geography, different peoples, languages and cultures, as one in a country almost totally devoid of national infrastructure. Nevertheless we will seek to summarise the trans-continental dangers entailed in travelling across this country.
The first thing any visitor to DRC should consider is how mentally to divide it up so as to render comprehension of the colossal dangers involved in visiting there manageable. Most people divide it into four regions: (a) the capital Kinshasa and the west; (b) the second city Kisangani and the north: (c) Goma, Bukavu and the Great Lakes region in the east; and (d) Lubumbashi and Katanga in the south. Even this dissection is crude. DRC is an extremely complex place.
Travel between each of these four areas to another one is invariably highly problematic. You can (allegedly) travel from Goma to Kinshasa using something calling themselves roads but that are in fact jungle tracks, in one week sat atop a truck full of fruit and vegetables, if you are lucky. If you are unlucky, the driver loses his way and you all die in the jungle.
Travel from Kinshasa to Kisangani is by boat up the Congo River. It takes several days. The boat is unlikely to be seaworthy and it may sink, whereupon you will drown. Even if you make it to the shores, you will be dead because the jungle will get you.
There is no known way of travelling by land from Lubumbashi to either Kinshasa or Goma; the only plausible option involves chartering a private plane the ownership of which is in the exclusive provenance of the various mining companies in Katsnga; and an occasional MONUSCO (UN Congo mission) flight that you will need good credentials to board. The domestic commercial flights have a habit of crashing jn the jungle with no survivors.
Allegedly there is a 'road' from Kisangani to Goma; but we do not hear good things about it from those who have attempted to use it. If your vehicle breaks down - highly likely - you will be dead. Apparently most people trying to use this road turn back when they appreciate the mortal peril in which they are placing themselves.
Language can be a problem as so many languages are spoken across DRC. French may get you some way in cities. The most common language is Lingala, spoken by members of the military across the country. However it is not easy to learn; there are very few textbooks. There is one reasonable guide to basic Lingala in English. There are others in French.
The map below is totally fictitious. Do not imagine that the red lines represent roads, other than roads to your death.
Kinshasa is a horrifyingly enormous city of 17 million people in the middle of the jungle and by consensus the most dangerous city in Africa.
The usual method by which you will be murderously assaulted is by a gang of men with machetes. This can take place in broad daylight in the centre of the city. Walking around any area of Kinshasa is highly contra-indicated.
If you do want to walk around Kinshasa, your best method of defence is probably a reliable machine pistol such as the Uzi 9mm or the Heckler & Koch MP5. Carry a lot of ammunition, and open fire immediately upon assessment of risk. Do not hesitate.
Driving round Kinshasa is also extremely dangerous. You may be stopped and shot by either (a) the Police or military; or (b) some persons purporting to be the Police or military. (It is impossible in most cases to tell the difference.) Remember that their guns are probably unloaded because they cannot afford the ammunition; and at the first sight that they may be getting difficult, open fire immediately. Do not give them your documents - only photocopies. If you give them original documents then you will need to kill everybody at the checkpoint in order to retrieve your documents. Do not get out of the car. If you are asked to do so, open fire immediately.
It is advisable to travel in a convoy with armed security personnel and ideally with diplomatic licence plates.
The train from Kinshasa to the port town of Matadi is perfectly safe and usable, altough query why you would ever actually want to use it.
Public buildings and hospitality venues frequented by foreigners are generally safe; but beware of unwelcome surprises as you leave. People might be hiding in the bushes or a checkpoint up the road may have been informed.
It would be a platitude to enjoin you not to go out at night. The nights are no more dangerous than the days. The city is extremely dangerous at all times.
There are a number of bars and nightclubs in Kinshasa that are tolerably safe; take local advice. They all of them have dangerous men carrying knives in them; but they are probably interested in stabbing one another, not you.
Kisangani, a city in the middle of a large wooded plane, is relatively safe by DRC standards, although usual precautions apply. It is not generally necessary to carry firearms.
Kisangani taxis are generally safe. The city's public transport is exceptionally good by African standards.
There are various international roads from Kisangani to neighbouring countries.
Most visits to the city of Kisangani are trouble free. Few problems with food related illnesses are reported but still take care with insects and unboiled / unpurified water.
There have in the region's recent history been problems with the area to the north of Kisangani, that became associated with child soldiers, uncontrollable militias, and inter-ethnic bloodshed and atrocities. Take local advice before travelling north out of Kisangani.
Goma is the de facto capital of the Great Lakes region that includes eastern DRC and western Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. The city itself is slightly dangerous, although nowhere near as dangerous as Kinshasa. You can walk around it day and might, if you take care. Public transport is limited.
The main problem with the entire Great Lakes region is that it is the subject of an ongoing and interminable conflict between the region's two ethnic mortal enemies, the Hutus and the Tutsis, and their proxies.
This conflict has calmed down to some degree recently, by reason of an influx of Chinese investments. A number of the regional roads have been improved.
The risk of robbery in rural areas around Goma remains high by reason of the ethnic conflict and the extreme poverty of the peoples.
Goma's proximate active volcano causes havoc whenever it erupts, sometimes laying waste to large stretches of the city. Be constantly packed and prepared to evacuate at any time. Have your evacuation route (probably most sensibly to Rwanda, one kilometre away from Goma city centre) planned.
Domestic flights within DRC are generally regarded as extremely dangerous so do not fly in or out of Goma using one.
There is a reliable Ethiopian Airlines flight to Addis Ababa.
You would be unlucky to have problems with food borne diseases. The climate is moderate and there are far fewer risks of insect or bug attack than in many parts of Africa.
Visiting the Virunga National Park, to see the mountain gorillas,is perfectly safe.
All things considered, Goma is a lot safer than it used to be.
Lubumbashi, once known as Elisabethsville, is a safe and sleepy city in southern Katanga province. You are unlikely to have any problems staying in Lubumbashi.
The city is notorious for its egregious quantity of prostitutes, that serve the international expatriate mining community in the region.
Take normal precautions typical to staying in African cities, particularly with regard to sexual health if you indulge in such matters.
Regional domestic flights are operated virtually exclusively by private aeroplanes owned by mining companies in the region. Overland regional travel is not possible.
A handful of international flights are available.. international road routes to neighbouring countries are unproblematic.
Kinshasa high levels of violence aside, your gravest danger on the DRC is moving around it, by reason of the appalling quality of things that are called roads; atrocious vehicle quality that may lead to breakdowns; the absence of reliable maps; the absence of mobile telephone masts; the lack of electricity, food or running water in the interior; and the total absence of usable accommodation that may cause you to end up sleeping on the jungle floor. The DRC interior will simply kill you if, as is highly likely, you get stuck somewhere.
In practice, few people aim to cross the interior and most visitors confine themselves to just one of the four parts of the country in any individual visit.