Travel to the Congo is not as intimidating as it once was, particularly flying in to Njili Airport in the capital of Kinshasa. People in other parts of the world hear about all the fighting in the Congo (of which there has, indeed, been a great deal) and have the general impression that the whole country is a dangerous place to go. But the Congo is the size of the entire U.S. east of the Mississippi (click here to see our map overlay) and most of the instability now is confined to the northeast and far eastern parts of the country. If IMCK were located near Birmingham, AL, it would be as if the unsafe areas were in New York and Pennsylvania with a bit of it trickling down along the eastern seaboard as far as Richmond, VA. or Raleigh, N.C. Add to that the fact that roads are virtually non-existent through much of this area and you will find that it is very far away indeed from IMCK.
A trip to Congo from America usually involves flying to Europe and from there to Kinshasa. It is a long trip, taking almost a full 24 hours. Most of the flights offer plenty of movies but you might prefer to take your Kindle, or sleeping pills and ear plugs. Once in Kinshasa, you will probably spend a day or so there before taking a 2-3 hour flight inland to the city of Kananga, which is a mere ten miles by Toyota Land Cruiser to IMCK at the village of Tshikaji. In the process, you go forward six time zones to Kinshasa and a seventh one inland to Kananga. As the crow flies the distance is over 6.500 miles to Kinshasa from Washington, D.C. That makes for one very tired crow. But, of course, the airlines going through Europe do not follow crow routes so the total actual distance traveled is about 7,600 miles. Add another 500 to Kananga.
When is the best time to go? Conventional wisdom holds that the best times for travel in the Congo are during the dry seasons, all other things being equal. The months of June, July and August are the main dry season in the Congo south of the equator, which includes IMCK. January often sees a dip in rainfall, sometimes known as the “little dry season.” Rainfall is also somewhat lighter in May and September.
BEFORE YOU GO
Get your paperwork in order. Get your shots and your pills. Pack your stuff. Here are the specifics.
Most of the information and links here pertain to U.S. travelers and travel from the United States. Would-be travelers from Europe or other originating points will need to research the appropriate web sites and instructions for their respective situations.
You will need your passport with a Congo visa, letter of invitation from whomever you are visiting — IMCK if that is your destination — and an international vaccination certificate showing immunization for yellow fever.
Before you can get the visa, you will need the letter of invitation and either your airline tickets or reservation information, or an itinerary from a travel agent. For visits to IMCK, contact the Administrator, Mr. Kastin Katawa by clicking here and make arrangements for your visit. Be sure the purpose and planned activities are well worked out with Mr. Katawa. Agree on the dates and ask him to email the letter of invitation to you for printing. Once the dates are agreed to, go online or contact a travel agency by email or otherwise to make your bookings and get the documentation for the reservations.
Once you have the letter of invitation and the airline bookings in hand, you are ready to apply for the visa. Obviously you must first have a valid passport. If you do not, and want to do each step yourself, either click here to apply for one (or for an update) on line or go to your nearest post office where you can do so in person. Be sure that your passport is valid for at least six months and that it has several blank pages where immigration officials can stamp you arrivals and departures. Once your passport is in order, you can apply for the Congo visa. Click here to read about the requirements (including two extra passport photos) and the fees and to see the documents you must send with the application, as well as the address where it should be sent. Click here to fill out and print (2) copies of the application form. If you are coming to Congo strictly for mission and humanitarian work, register as a tourist if the only other option is business. Allow plenty of time.
If you prefer to use a service to obtain the visa (as well as the passport update, if needed), click here for one that has been quite reliable. You can Google for others if this one poses any problems. Using a service can take much of the headache out of the process but adds about $100 to the cost. It is a good way to go if you are in a hurry or want to be super sure that everything is done absolutely correctly.
You may want to consider getting travel insurance for such things as trip cancellation, baggage loss and emergency evacuation in case of medical crisis. There are various options on line and you may wish to shop around. Or your travel agent may have a recommendation or a package offering.
Keep all your papers together where you can get to them safely and easily as you travel. It is a good precaution to make and keep photocopies of all important papers (including the front page of your passport and your visa page) in a separate place in case of loss.
PREVENTIVE HEALTH MEASURES
At IMCK, you will be located at one of the better health facilities in Congo, with well trained doctors and staff and (hopefully, if recent measures have taken effect) a well stocked pharmacy. However, here are some things you should do in preparation.
At a minimum, be sure you have a current yellow fever vaccination (they are good for 10 years) and that it is properly recorded in your international certificate of vaccinations — a yellow card that you should carry with your passport. Click here for the U.S. Public Health Service website with information and advice about other vaccinations and precautions that may be recommended for Congo.
Well before you leave, visit your doctor or local public health clinic for a consultation on the Malaria prophylaxis (daily or weekly pills to be taken during the trip) that you should take. Get a prescription for the amount needed for the duration of your trip (plus extras that you may need to take for a few days or weeks after your return, depending on the medicine) and get it filled. The Public Health Service website above also has information on this.
Finally, make sure that you take an adequate quantity of any regular medications that you normally use on a regular basis (prescription and non-prescription) so that you do not run out and have the risk of being unable to refill them while in Congo. For prescription items, be sure to take copies of the prescriptions with you in case there are any questions. Keep these with your other papers detailed above.
WHAT TO TAKE
A small backpack is a handy thing for carrying stuff around the IMCK campus and Tshikaji village or even in to Kananga. For relaxation time, take some books or your pre-loaded Kindle. You will want a flashlight and should take extra batteries for that and for your camera or whatever else needs them. Any extras you are left with at the end of the trip would be valuable gifts for someone.
Congo has a GSM phone network which is incompatible with most U.S. phones unless they are dual-band. There is 3G coverage in many of the main towns, on which some Blackberries will work. Coverage is not complete. Local ‘pay as you go’ SIM cards are available for dual bands but you should consult with your local service provider on options before counting on that. There is an Internet cafe in Kananga at IMPROKA (dependent on electricity supply) and WI-FI at Tshikaji/IMCK.
Your laptop may be of some utility at IMCK using the WI-FI or Ethernet at the guest house (if it is working). You may take it in your carry-on with confidence.
Depending on what you will be doing and who you might we working with or establishing a relationship with, consider taking some small gifts — flashlights or folding umbrellas are useful. Men always love receiving a tie and women a square head scarf, even if previously owned. Bottle openers, watches, sunglasses, pens, markers, paper, earrings, calculators, and shoes or clothing you might choose to leave behind are all candidates.
For you comfort, bring insect repellant, light weight wash & wear clothing (laundry can be done at the guest house for a nominal fee), personal hygiene items, sun screen, and incidental medications that you might simply get at the drug store or from the medicine cabinet at home — pain medication, allergy pills, diarrhea and other stomach ailment medicines, etc. Some people ask their doctor for a precautionary prescription of an antibiotic.
If you will be there during any rainy period, take an umbrella and/or a poncho. Good walking shoes are a must but know that they will collect a layer of dust, as most walking is on dirt paths. A Leatherman or Swiss army Knife may be useful and makes a nice gift (carry in checked bags, of course). You may want to take a compact video camera — there are many opportunities.
The electrical voltage and the outlet style use in Congo are the European standard 230 volts, 50 Hz with the standard European two-pronged outlet. Be sure to take a voltage converter along with any appliances that are not designed for multivoltage situations. Most camera and computer battery chargers nowdays are of that type but read their specs carefully.
If you will crave snacks during your stay, take them. Nuts and candies are popular. The guest house has a microwave which can be used for popcorn. The meals at the guest house sometimes are missing what we might consider to be essential condiments — syrup for pancakes, jelly for toast, even mustard and ketchup. Take bottles or cans of these in your checked luggage and you, as well as fellow residents and diners, will be happy for the pep they add to your diet. Crystal Light, McCormick’s packages of flavorings and cheese are other possibilities for carrying in luggage.
Check the new luggage weight and size limits carefully as you pack. Some may surprise you, both positively and negatively. Airlines differ. But be sure to leave room for things that IMCK may ask you to bring that are in short supply. Suture sets are lightweight, take up little space and are often in short supply. Discuss other needs with IMCK as you are arranging and organizing the trip.
The local currency of the Congo is the Congolese Franc, but U.S. Dollars are also accepted almost anywhere with certain caveats. (Click here to find out the current exchange rate.) The caveats are that you should carry to Congo only bills between $5 and $100 (inclusive) that have been printed since 2006 and are in good condition with no tears or markings. You may be able to get away with making some tips with $1 bills (also of recent vintage and mint condition) but you may prefer to change some of your dollars into francs for that and other purposes where dollars may occasionally be inappropriate. The amount represented by $1 in francs would actually be quite a handsome tip in many situations. Banking is poorly developed in the Congo so you should take advantage of opportunities to change money when they are presented. The cashier at the Good Shepherd Hospital can change money for you if you have not found a place to do it before that.
Credit cards are not likely to be accepted outside of Kinshasa. However, if you plan to use them, you should call your credit card company before leaving home and let them know to expect charges from the Congo or you may find your account temporarily frozen as they try sort out whether the strange usage from Africa is authorized or not. In general, the better strategy is to carry dollars in a money belt under outside garments, where it is safe from pickpockets.
HOW TO GET THERE
Your itinerary will take you first across the Atlantic and usually through either Paris or Brussels, from whence most of the flights from Europe to Kinshasa depart. Ethiopian Airlines offers one notable exception of flying through their hub in Addis Ababa. They should not be dismissed. They are often cheaper (and with equal or better service) than the American and European airlines going through Europe; however, they only originate out of Washington Dulles so much depends on where you would be starting from. Air France, Brussels Air, Lufthansa and Continental (and their partners) seem to predominate on the routes through Europe. South African Airways offers another alternative through Johannesburg instead of Europe but it may not be cheaper.
There is also one option for coming in to Congo through Lubumbashi, rather than Kinshasa. This is on Ethiopian, which flies from Addis to Lilongwe, Malawi and from there to Lubumbashi for no more than going to Kinshasa. This may be of interest to those who are working in both Malawi and the Congo. The Lilongwe Lubumbashi flight does not go in the opposite direction. Kenya Airways will take you from Nairobi to Lubumbashi and South African goes from Johannesburg to Lubumbashi but both of these are generally more expensive.
In looking for good ticket deals, you should certainly do your own on-line checking first to see what can be found. However, do not dismiss the possibility of going through a travel agent, especially if you are coming to IMCK on mission or humanitarian business. Key Travel has obtained discounts of as much as 25% for mission and humanitarian travel. You can find other such agencies that specialize in mission travel discounts by googling on line. Everyone has their favorites. Undiscounted round trip airfares to Kinshasa from the U.S. east coast will generally run from $2,000 up (less on Ethiopian out of Washington).
Once you get to Kinshasa (or Lubumbashi), you will be at the mercy of the domestic Congolese carriers to get inland to Kananga, which is ten miles from IMCK. The Congo flag carrier is Hewa Bora, which flies seemingly new 737s (the MD-80s seemed to be phased out now) but does not have the world’s greatest record for either safety or on-time performance. In fact, it is generally advisable to book with two or three days between connections in and out of the country to avoid missing a flight on the not infrequent occasions when Hewa Bora cancels a flight entirely for the day, for no apparent reason and with little warning. This means a forced overnight or two in Kinshasa (or Lubumbashi) going both ways. There is an alternative to Hewa Bora — Compagnies Aeriennes (CA) — but they are not necessarily any better. Most travel agents and the online booking sites have trouble getting reliable and low cost seats for you on these Congolese airlines so it is usually better to go through MPH (see “Where to Stay” below) to get those bookings. Or at least see if they can do any better for you than the travel agencies.
BRIBERY AND AIRPORT CULTURE
You have read about it, so you might as well know. Because governmental structures are so weak and public revenues are so tenuous (or ripped off by a few at the top), public employees like police, army, bureaucrats, airport workers, public health workers, etc. go for long periods with little or no pay from the government. As a natural consequence, many of them turn to the people they “serve” as a source for the income that they do not receive from their nominal employer. Thus, you may encounter attempts at bribery — more on the way out than the way in — when your hand luggage is searched and an excuse is perhaps found to question an item, which will then be “allowed” through with an appropriate “gift” to the inspector. Simply refusing and out-waiting the inspector (who usually has a long line behind you that he cannot afford to hold up for long) often takes care of it. Apart from the airport, you may occasionally encounter police or soldiers at roadblocks demanding payment for passage or for “road maintenance.” However, these cases have greatly diminished and expatriates visiting IMCK are usually not even stopped.
Also be prepared for pandemonium at the airports. Waiting lines are unknown in parts of the Congo and you may feel pushed around by a pressing crowd of people all demanding to be served at once (unless, of course, you are prepared to be just as aggressive as the rest of them!). That is where having someone local and experienced to take you through “protocol” can be well worth the expense (around $50 in Kinshasa).
The other source of discomfort for most U.S. travelers can be the importuning throng of would-be porters who may surround you either inside or outside of the terminal, all loudly and insistently offering their services for carrying your luggage and finding ground transportation for you. Again, having a “protocol” facilitator lined up before hand can be a great relief.
But generally what you may encounter is classified more as annoyances than actual danger or risk of loss — and what traveler has not encountered annoyances?!
As described above, getting through the crowds can be one reason to have a “protocol” facilitator. The other reason is that such a person can help immensely in getting you through the various official way stations, checkpoints and paper working bureaucrats that are set up around the airport to make your progress more interesting than rapid. Jeffrey Travel is perhaps the best service at Njili Airport in Kinshasa and can serve to describe how the “system” works — assuming, of course, that you have contacted them in advance and made the arrangements. They have a reasonably nice lounge at Njili. When you arrive and make your way through immigration (having your passport, health card, invitation — see above — and the address of your intended hotel in hand), they will have someone with a placard and your name on it to meet you on egress. They will escort you to their lounge where you will sit comfortably (with a soft drink if you wish) and some French language magazines for your reading pleasure while the Jeffrey people fight the crowds around the baggage carrousel and collect your checked luggage. Then, assuming you have arranged for ground transportation with them, they will usher you to a waiting air-conditioned van outside for the ride to your hotel. Kinshasa is a city of ten million and like all other big cities in the developing world, it will soon become apparent to you that all ten million of these people are walking, riding or driving on the exact same street that you are on. Municipal garbage pick-up is something that has not yet been invented here and you will not find most parts of the city to be beautiful. But it is big and it will take an hour or two to traverse the distance from the airport to MPH (if you are staying there) or to most other hotels, all of which seem to be on the opposite side of the city from the airport. All of this will cost you about $50.
On the return trip, Jeffrey will pick you up more or less at the appointed time and drive you back to the airport, where they will once again deposit you in their lounge while they negotiate the mysteries of getting you a “Go-Pass” and other procedural matters. Congo has a system of “Go-Passes” ($10 for each domestic air trip and $50 as a departure fee from the country) which must be purchased and which get carefully checked as you board the plane. Once these steps are done, Jeffrey will accompany you to the ticket counter where your bags will be weighed and inspected (the first time) and the checked bags will be checked. If you have e-tickets, you will discover to your amazement that computers in this vast, dimly lit and dingy looking hall can actually produce boarding passes. (Note: this has been the experience on Ethiopian. Some other airlines have ticket offices in downtown hotels where Jeffrey should know to have stopped first, on the way to the airport) After that, you go through immigration and a second baggage check for your carry-ons with the familiar x-ray scanners, etc. Now you are in a waiting area with duty-free shops and such. Eventually your plane is called. But wait! First, a final makeshift inspection point is set up out on the veranda just before you cross the tarmac to the waiting plane. Here, is where you may be asked for a “gift.” But you make it through because you must, you show your carefully saved Go-Pass, your passport (again) and your ticket. Finally you are on the plane and headed home!
Interestingly, there is a similar process for the flights to and from Kananga. Jeffrey will handle the ground transportation and protocol at the Kinshasa end (for another $50, the transportation alone is a big part of that) but the most surprising thing you will find is that you must show your passport when going to and fro within the country just as you do for international travel. Ostensibly this is because Kananga is on the edge of diamond mining country (centered in nearby Mbuji-Mayi, which, by the way, literally means goat pee!). However, it is also because people make their livings off of all the fuss and bother and, perhaps most importantly, because, under the so-called central government of the Congo, the various provinces are, in many ways, still semi-autonomous regions.
What do you do in Kananga, with no Jeffrey, you might ask. Assuming you are going to visit IMCK, they will send someone to pick you up, who will also serve to get you through the incoming protocol in Kananga. There is no fee. Similarly, when they drive you back to the airport for your departure, they will get you into the waiting lunge while they check your bags for you and take care of the other niceties, including the Go-Pass. Again, no fee is charged for their service or for the transportation. However, you can make a donation to IMCK and that will be as welcome as your visit itself. They are very appreciative of every little thing.
WHERE TO STAY
If you going to visit IMCK on a mission trip or anywhere on a limited budget, you may find the Methodist Presbyterian Hostel (MPH) is your best choice in Kinshasa. There are better and higher priced hotels in downtown but MPH offers a fair number of simple air conditioned rooms with in-suite bathrooms at reasonable prices. They also have dorm style rooms with shared hall baths for lower pricing. They serve family style meals (you might be there for hamburger night or pizza night!) which they try to keep as western as possible using locally available foods. They are also very helpful in making reservations on domestic flights and for other transportation needs around Kinshasa. Click here for details from their web site. Their gift shop on premises is a nice option for guests who need to grab a Congolese carving, painting or piece of locally crafted jewelry on the way home. MPH does have wireless Internet (unless there is a power outage) for a nominal fee. It is not cable-comparable high speed, however.
In Tshikaji at IMCK, your primary option is the IMCK guest house. Accommodations here are even more basic with about a dozen rooms sharing baths with toilets and showers that have running water (usually) but not always hot. The beds are reasonably comfortable, supplied with linens, and most rooms have fans. The kitchen tries to cater to western tastes with local foods but the menus run heavily to chicken, rice, beans and greens with occasional fresh water fish, meat pies and eggplant. One bright spot is lots of fresh fruit. You can write to the manager, Mme. Didine or to Administrator Kastin Katawa for reservations.
IMCK does have a slow wireless Internet access through a satellite dish that works intermittently. It is more useful for uploading and downloading emails than for surfing the web. Sometimes the wireless router malfunctions but one can make or maintain a connection through one of the Ethernet cables provided in the guest house dining room.
LANGUAGE, CULTURE AND FOOD
French is the official language. If you do not have an iPod or Android with a French translation app, you would be smart to take a small pocket French dictionary or phrase book. Very few people, even at the hospital and the schools, aside from the Administrator, speak English, though some who have learned a smattering may be eager to practice.
The local language is Tshiluba, a Bantu language. You will hear it all around you but are not expected to learn it, especially if you speak even a little French. But if you really want to learn more, click here for an on-line translator from French and here for Peace Corps lessons from French.
Culture-wise, perhaps the most significant thing you should be prepared for is the unrestrained willingness of people to ask for anything and everything at any moment they believe is opportune, including as one meets while walking down a path. You are shielded if you do not speak the language but children have often learned to parrot English words and sentences asking for money, soccer balls, etc. Maintaining a good nature and looking for ways to respond that encourage responsibility, rather than dependence are the keys.
Congolese will often ask what the staple food is in America (or elsewhere) and may be surprised to hear a response describing a wide variety of foods. To the Congolese (and in many sub-Saharan countries) a staple food means an unvarying diet of one particular food every day, day after day. In the Congo (and, again, in much of sub-Saharan Africa) that staple is something locally known as “bidia.” It is made by boiling corn and manioc flours together until they form a thick, heavy dumpling-like paste, which is then formed into half-plate sized loaves for each person. One dines by pinching off pieces of this dumpling with the fingers, kneading it slightly into a ball and dipping it into one of several possible sauces — meat/gravy, fish, eels or chicken (if one is rich and lucky), beans (as in baked beans), palm oil, greens, crushed peanuts, etc. This diet (without the rare option of meat) provides little nourishment other than carbohydrates but is greatly favored because the heavy dough fills the belly and gives the sense of having eaten a large quantity in an area where one or, less often, two meals a day is/are the norm. Despite the uninviting description, you should try this quintessentially African meal…at least once. Like Mikie, you may find that you actually like it!
Everyone wants to know about wildlife and especially about snakes. The short and generally accurate answer is that you are unlikely to see any. Yes, there are snakes about and even some poisonous ones like the much storied Mamba, but wildlife does not coexist well with human populations and if you carry (and use) a flashlight at night and avoid venturing into clearly overgrown and undeveloped areas, you need have little to fear around Tshikaji/IMCK. Click here for one extremely rare daylight sighting of a moderately poisonous “Kadiya Biula” (litterally, “eater of frogs”). See if you can make it out. In this case, when discovered, it suffered a quick demise by vigorous beating with sticks. That is how it goes. Enjoy your trip!