Captivating Congo: What you need to know before visiting Democratic Republic of Congo

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If the Democratic Republic of Congo conjures images of dripping jungles inhabited by gorillas, warlords and the Ebola virus, you’re getting only a tiny part of the picture. The Congo remains a mystery to many despite it’s far reaching history and culture. For most part, what is known about one of the largest countries in Africa is its troubled history. From the time of King Leopold invasion to the civil wars that have plagued the country for years. However, a deeper look into this beautiful region will have you delightfully surprised and hopefully booking your first trip.

From high-class business hotels to an obsession with mayonnaise, here are a few interesting things about Congo which you might be unaware of:

1. Music is its biggest export

On a list of the greatest musicians to ever come from the African continent, high on that list will be artists from the DRC. Some of the biggest names from the country such as Koffi Olomide, Papa Wemba, Franco or Mbilia Bel can easily fill the biggest clubs from Johannesburg in South Africa, through Nairobi Kenya all the way to Paris faster than your favorite western artist. The main style of music being Congolese Rhumba, cous cous and Ndombolo all accompanied by a particular dance.

These days the younger set has moved on to the more provocative, suggestive and energetic moves of Ndombolo. It’s loud, some would say crass, and it’s extremely popular.

The musicians have also spawned a well-dressed segment of society known as sapeurs. For sapeurs, it’s mandatory to wear the best European-cut suits, matching Italian leather shoes and sunglasses, even at night. So if you see a yellow Ferrari on the streets, a sapeur who has made it to the top is likely at the wheels.

2. A long and rich history

When we say that the DRC has a long and rich history we weren’t lying. For example, did you know that during the reign of Mobutu Seseseiko as the president, he built one of the longest airstrips in Africa at the time in the middle of nowhere for the landing of the sleek supersonic Concord jet? Or that the DRC played a big role in the world War II? The uranium used in the Manhattan Project, the top secret mission that led to the construction of the atomic bomb in World War II, came from the Shinkolobwe Mine in Katanga province.  Infact, the first nuclear reactor built in Africa can still be found in Kinshasa.

3. The Locals eat Mayonnaise with everything

A legacy of the Belgian colonial period is the overwhelming love for mayonnaise on almost everything — meat, fish, fried plantains, peas and salad are just a few examples. Many then mix it with the extremely potent local chili pepper sauce — known as piri piri, or pepper pepper in Swahili. This tones down the fieriness of the pepper and adds flavor to the mayo — a delicious combination.

Kinshasa, Lubumbashi, Goma and Bukavu all offer a variety of restaurants and international cuisine ranging from Congolese to Belgian. Because the country has a large Lebanese population, there are excellent, well-priced Lebanese restaurants. The same goes for Indian.

4. The wildlife is phenomenal

Thanks to several years of reasonable stability and improved infrastructure, some of the Congo’s best preserved wilderness is more accessible than ever to enterprising tourists. Western lowland gorillas, forest elephants and chimpanzees, the mandrill (a primate with distinctive body features, a long face and brilliant colours), different antelope species and a rich birdlife are just some of the larger wildlife species on display in the country’s parks.

5. The DRC is not overrun by the Ebola Virus

Media reports, travel advisories and films such as “Outbreak” and “Congo” have perpetuated the impression that it’s as easy to catch the Ebola virus while in Congo as it is to catch a common cold.  And while the country has been the scene of outbreaks like the 1995 outbreak in Kikwit that killed 200 people, the more recent ones have been quickly contained and remain rare. In addition, public health campaigns are ongoing to educate the population about the disease and the dangers of eating bush meat.

6. Potential to be a tourist paradise

Before the 1990s, when DRC was largely stable, the region was a prime tourist destination. But then the civil war started and the country was probably best known for its warlords, rebel groups and mineral conflicts.

Currently as a sense of stability returns, more and more people are realizing and appreciating the beauty of the country and are looking to explore it.

For example, surrounded by the Virunga Mountains, the area around Goma bears a beautiful resemblance to alpine lakes in Europe. Two national parks are nearby — the Virunga National Park to the north and the Kahuzi-Biega National Park outside Bukavu.

Both are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The Virunga National Park encompasses numerous habitats, from lowland plains to the Rwenzori Mountains, which reach heights of 5,000 meters (more than 16,000 feet).

It’s home to the world’s largest concentration of hippos and also to the continent’s most active volcanoes — the Nyiragongo and the Nyamulagira.

The Kahuzi Biega National Park is home to one of the last troops of eastern lowland gorillas, a subspecies indigenous to the country.

Chronic instability, poaching and absence of funding have made park management difficult over the last two decades, but a dedicated group of Congolese rangers in both parks continue to do their best.

7. Hotel sector is decent and growing

Until 10 years ago, Kinshasa only had two hotels of any international standing, the Memling and the Grand Hotel, which had once been an Intercontinental.

Following Mobutu’s overthrow in 1997, and during the subsequent war between 1998-2002, the Grand Hotel also was home to government ministers and the upper ranks of the Angolan, Namibian and Zimbabwean armies, which had been sent to defend the government of Laurent Kabila. During that time, it wasn’t uncommon to see antelopes running through hotel corridors.

Today, as international business people flock to the country, a lot more hotel brands are setting up shop in the capital and across the country. The same is true for accommodation in the copper-mining capital, Lubumbashi. The eastern cities of Goma and Bukavu also have a fair number of hotels, some of which are nice, with most having spectacular views of Lake Kivu.

Soon to be opening in the city of Goma in the year 2020 is the Goma Serena Hotel, a member of the Serena Group of Hotels and the only 5-star hotel in Goma. The meticulously styled Pan-African themed accommodation consists of 109 rooms in a variety of room types all offering sweeping views of Lake Kivu.

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