Democratic Republic of Congo

ethical Travel CongoOne of the first things that comes to mind when people think of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) could be the great Congo river – which generates one of the richest ecosystems on earth. The Congo river is the life support for the worlds second largest rainforest, which holds more than 10,000 animal species of which many are endangered, such Okapis, forest elephants, chimpanzees, and gorillas. Furthermore, the DRC evokes images of vast mineral wealth, such as the desired Coltan, gold, diamonds, and oil in the Katanga region, along with the many protected national parks such as the famous Virunga National Park (one of the first African National Parks) in the east of the country, which is one of the only places left that houses the Mountain Gorilla. Above all, we should mention the hundreds of ethnicities that make up its rich cultural diversity.

At least this is the picture we should have in mind. But instead the colonial history of the country has shaped its present situation which is one of corruption, war (mineral conflicts), human rights violations (rape, murder, child soldiers) and poor social and economical rights – ranking the country as one of the lowest in human development. Furthermore, a mismanagement of protected regions facilitates poaching, bushmeat hunting and deforestation. This cocktail of safety issues has kept tourists away in the past – however there are numerous tour operators now re-entering this mysterious nation with incredible natural wanders to explore.

So what went wrong in the DR Congo? The Belgian colonisation left an immature political divided nation, and as a result the base for mismanagement, corruption, and a foreign favoured investment structure that has lead it to be one of the world’s poorest countries, when instead it should be one of the richest countries.

West and Eastern countries and their corporations are at the base of the many past and present mineral conflicts, and look set to continue to facilitate these in the future. However, there might be a sparkle of hope for a better future, as a few dedicated individuals and NGO’s supported by local communities pressure the government and foreign corporations into pulling out of environmentally sensitive areas.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo is located along the equator, in the heart of the African continent. The country, with a population of 75 million people, is the second largest African country and borders with nine other African nations, clockwise: South Sudan, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Zambia, Angola, The Republic Congo, and the Central African Republic.

The Virunga National Park, listed as endangered UNESCO World Heritage, is a great example of this change. The protection of the park has been pressured by oil corporations such as Shell and SOCO international, but the continuous efforts of the park manager and rangers, backed up by the local community stopped the companies from effectively depleting the park’s natural resources. Not only did it stop resource extraction of the park, but it eventually also opens a window of opportunity for the successful development of the region as a tourism attraction, which benefits the local community, and the protection of the park and the mountain gorilla. Based on the success of the neighbouring countries, tourism could also be a huge opportunity for stability, prosperity and development in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Up to present, governments continue to give negative travel advice for the Eastern region in the DRC, as rebels are known to pillage, take hostage, assault civilians. However, there are an incredible amount of fascinating experiences waiting for adventurous and experienced travellers who still wish to see the country.







Ethical Travel Issues and advice

The Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the least developed countries. According to Amnesty International, human rights abuses, including killings and mass rapes, were committed by both government security forces and armed groups in the past. Furthermore, violence against women and girls was prevalent throughout the country.

Land Grabs: According to the international agency OXFAM, 227 million hectares around the world have been sold, leased, or licensed in large-scale land deals since 2001. However, most of these deals could be categorized as land grabs, a form of colonialism, where the rights and needs of the people living on the land are ignored, leaving them homeless and without land to grow enough food to eat and make a living.

The DRC has been one of the countries most targeted of the African continent, due to its huge potential of arable land, an estimate of 120 million hectares, rich mineral wealth, and vast hydropower potential. FAO estimates that 49% of the agricultural land has already been offered for lease to foreign investors. The major foreign governments who invested in the DRC are China and South Africa, but also many corporations from western countries.

Proponents of land acquisitions argue that these foreign investments help countries to increase living circumstances and wealth of their citizens by creating jobs, infrastructure and export earnings, but the fact is that many of these deals are land grabs, creating a more negative outcome for communities. Even when investments are profitable they seem not to contribute to poverty reduction.

The amount of land dealt in DRC is dramatic and can have destructive consequences for the future, locally and globally. The reason for this is that the land in question will be located in tropical forest areas and thereby be associated with significant environmental and sustainability consequences, such as increasing CO2 levels, but also agricultural intensification, forest degradation, displacement of local populations, increasing local food insecurity and increasing poverty.

The Virunga National Park, the oldest national park in the world, is one of the sites threatened by land acquisitions. The DRC government has granted oil concessions worth 85 percent of the park to SOCO. Also other companies like Total have been awarded concessions. In the search for oil park rangers have been attacked, local community members have been killed and many opposers have been threatened. If oil drilling would happen in the park, its biodiversity would be damaged and an estimate of 50.000 people would be affected through pollution and displacement. However, the corporations mentioned above did pull out due to a massive international backlash. Virunga, the Oscar nominated documentary, was partly responsible for the international outrage.

Ethical Photography: Travelling presents an opportunity to photograph in lots of different destinations and situations, but sometimes there may be culturally sensitive issues to think about before reaching for the camera or other photo-taking device. There are lots of people in the world who do not have clean water, electricity, schooling or enough to eat, let alone access to mobile telephones, the internet and printed media, so they have no idea where their photograph may end up or how it could be used. Sadly, in this day and age, child prostitution, child trafficking and other crimes against children are facilitated via the Internet, and photography can play an unwitting and innocent role. Photography and its use is no longer straight forward, so perhaps it is time to stop and think a little about the ethics of photography.

Taking photos of the friendly people of DR Congo is a highlight for many travellers and photographers. Smiles are universal ways to engage, as is showing people the photo you just took of them. If you show an interest in their work or ask them questions, they’ll be happy to have their picture taken. In some touristy places it has become common for people to ask for money for their photos to be taken. Do as you wish, but a photo of someone you shared a laugh with may have a better lasting impression than one you paid for. Don’t forget the same holds true for any porters and guides that may help you along the way. Take an interest in them and you’ll be rewarded with more great photo opportunities.

Cultural interactions and photography: The cultural diversity of the Democratic Republic of Congo is one of its major assets for tourism. Hundreds of different groups living in the Congo basin, and scattered elsewhere in the Central African nation, colour the Congolese identity. Their rituals, ceremonies, traditions, and daily life are incredible to spectate, and although beneficial for both tourists and community, these interactions can create conflicts. Tourism creates the possibility to exchange culture and to participate in events of local communities, but in some occasions these interactions can create hostile environments. Therefore, as a tourist you should ask yourself;

  • Can I be here or is this place/event only accessible to community members?
  • To what extend can I participate and interact or should I observe?
  • Is it appropriate to photograph what I observe?

Therefore, you should:

  • Inform yourself on the local culture, events and traditions
  • Ask your surroundings (local tourism point, social networks, community elder) for the possibility to attend/observe/participate in the cultural happening/daily life.

To photograph or not? The ethics of photography is a well-debated and hot topic especially in tourism, where interactions between tourists and locals are fragile. Since the rise of the social media we’re daily bombarded by hundreds of pictures that make us relive travel experiences of friends and family. However, one of these pictures, a ‘perfect’ shot of a begging child at the side of the road or a quick picture of the old woman at the Saturday fish market, could have done harm without the photographer being aware of his actions.

Travelling puts us in a unique cultural setting, which a camera allows us to capture, but at the other side of the lens stands a person who might feel discomforted, embarrassed, shy, angry or happy when he hears that click of the button. Taking a photograph of a person either in a public or in private setting can be very intrusive. It can create discomfort between the local community and the tourist making the photograph.

It is not always clear what is right or wrong, but try to ask yourself how you would feel if a tourist would pop-up and take a picture of you and your son playing a game of football in the park. Is it fair to take a picture without asking for permission? Is it legal? Is it appropriate?

Taking the Soul: In some cases, photography is not only about ethics, but can create serious damage. There are communities scattered across the world, and also in DRC, that believe that taking an image of someone can take away the soul of the person. There have been some observations of this believe with Congolese communities, but this has not been anthropologically confirmed. Ask your guide when you plan to visit some communities, to avoid any serious conflicts.

A general rule: ask permission of the person you’re photographing or the person in charge of the event. Yes, asking permission could ruin the spontaneity of the situation, but in that case spent some time with the person who you want to photograph, get to know them better, show interest in what they are doing and built up trust. Some other tips to ease up the interaction are to engage with a smile, to show the picture to the person, or to support by buying local products. One advice is not to give money to individuals, but rather to give some contribution to the community leader

More responsible photographer tips:

The forests of the Democratic Republic of the Congo represent the second-largest tropical rainforest in the world, which provide shelter for many endemic species such as the bonobo, the mountain gorilla, and the okapi.

Five national parks (Virunga NP, Garamba NP, Kahuzi-Biega NP, Salonga NP and Okapi Wildlife Reserve) were rewarded with the UNESCO protection label, between 1979 and 1996, as they make up one of the richest biodiversity in the world. However, poor management over these protected areas, due to armed conflicts, lack of funds and corruption, puts the parks under grave threat and listed them as World Heritage in Danger.

Poaching: is one of the major growing problems in the Congo basin, even within the Congolese National Parks and other protected areas. There are two major causes for the increase in poaching. First of all, the international demand for ivory and other body parts of protected species, but secondly also the poor living circumstances of the Congolese, which forces them into illegal hunting practices.

  • Bushmeat Trade: According to the WWF, commercial bushmeat trade is the leading cause of wildlife loss. Over a million tons of bushmeat are traded each year, which literally causes the forests to become empty of species. It’s mostly monkeys and antelope that are targeted, but also bonobos and gorillas are at risk. Although, bushmeat is mostly the only source of proteins and income for many families, the practice is not sustainable due to the wasteful and unselective hunting methods, and a lack of regulation. As a result, the impact on long-term, won’t be only ecologically, but also socially and economically, as they will lose their source of income and also foreclose the option of wildlife based tourism, which is a potential driver for economic growth and employment.

The advice to travellers is not to eat any meal containing illegally hunted meat, as you will be partly responsible for continuing the demand of bushmeat, and therefore further depleting DRC’s rich biodiversity.

  • Illegal international trade: International demand for ivory, from South East Asia, drives the killing of elephants and leading to their extinction in the next 50 years, according to the World Wildlife Fund. It is estimated that only 400,000 African elephants remain and that 100 elephants are killed each day for their ivory.

The Garamba National Park, located in the North of the country, is one of the regions seeing an unprecedented increase of elephant poachers. The park is home to 1,700 elephants and with just 150 rangers patrolling the area, an easy target for armed poachers, who have far greater means, stretching as far as helicopters with gunmen. The supplier of ivory increasingly facilitate the demand of ivory, as elephant tusks are not only traded for money, but also for arms and ammunition. In the Garamba National Park armed militants, such as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) of Joseph Kony, have stepped into the peaching business for exactly that reason. Other involved are: Congolese Armed Forces (FRADC), Sudanese militias, illegal gold miners, and others. A single tusk can fetch between $20,000 and $175,000, depending on its size.

Recent efforts, such as the ‘Enough Project’, supported by the NGO ‘African Parks’, have mapped the illegal poaching to understand how illegal exploitation of resources, like ivory, help finance the activities of some of the world’s worst abusers of human rights. More information you can find here:

The advice to travellers is to never buy ivory, because you are not only responsible for the distinction of the African elephant, but also for crimes against humanity. 

Water equity: Water is life. It’s universal basic human need and one of the world’s most precious natural resources. In developed countries people tend to forget the value of this resource, as access to clean water is a normality. The behaviour of over consuming water in developed countries creates ethical challenges for tourism, as tourists continue this same behaviour in destinations where communities have lack of access to water and sanitation.

According to the United Nations, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is one of the three countries of the world where more than 50 per cent of the population does not have access to safe drinking water, yet the country possesses half of Africa’s water reserves.

A legacy of conflict, environmental degradation, rapid urbanization and under-investment in water infrastructure has seriously affected the availability of drinking water in DRC. But there are positive signs of recovery.

UNICEF has established in cooperation with the government a programme called ‘Healthy Villages’. This programme empowers villagers to improve and maintain their own sanitation systems and to adopt healthy hygiene practices. Other programmes, such as the Belgian Development Agency’s (BTC) water programme, contribute continuously to the water network development. It’s clear that there is progress, but more is needed.

It is clear that for tourism truly to be sustainable, it has to be developed and managed with respect to human rights of the local population, which also includes the right for water and sanitation. Tourism does challenge this, as, first of all, tourists consume much more water than local resident’s and combined with all tourist facilities, they put enormous pressure on the destination’s often so scarce resources. According to researcher’s, tourism consumes in some areas as much as 50 % of the total water consumption. Besides undermining the local people’s right to water access, tourism development also contributes large amount of sewage and wastewater.

Unsustainable development of tourism, poses real risks to local community’s health, well-being and socioeconomic mobility, but also harming livelihoods and food security. Ultimately, tourism can harvest the destructive seeds of its own success.

More than 50 per cent of the Congolese populations does not have access to clean water, so be responsible in your use of water:

  • Choose facilities that are environmentally responsible, such as in their water-use.
  • Take short showers: On average, a shower uses 10 litre of water per minute.
  • Don’t let the tap running when brushing your teeth:
  • A running tap can use 6 litres of water per minute.
  • Don’t use detergents or toothpaste in or near watercourses, even if they are biodegradable.
  • For personal washing, use biodegradable soap and a water container (or a lightweight, portable basin) at least 50m (160ft) away from the watercourse.
  • Try to avoid buying bottled water. Fill a reusable water bottle or canteen with filtered water or use water purification tablets.
  • If water from streams, wells, cisterns and taps is not safe to drink: purify your water with iodine or a portable water filter and carry it in a reusable bottle.

Tourism Concern has extensively campaigned on water equity and have published reports & articles on the topic. To learn more check out the following Tourism Concern articles:

Useful Information

The Democratic Republic of Congo finds itself along the equator, in Central sub-Saharan Africa, which determines the overall climate. With the exception of the high mountains, the region has an equatorial or tropic climate. This means that the weather is hot, with temperatures high across the year.

The Northern part of the country has rain around the year, but the main wet season runs through the winter, from October to April. In the South, the rainy season is shorter, December to March, with dry summer months. The coastal strip on the Atlantic has a relative dryness, and more hours of sunshine, compared to the interior of the country. From June to September this region has a dry season.

Temperatures remain high throughout the whole year, but rarely rise above 35 C. However, there is no relieve at night as temperatures rarely fall below 18 C. Across the rainforest temperatures average 25 C, and rise in the South to 35 C. These high temperatures, together with a high humidity level makes that the weather feels oppressive most of the time.

In the mountain area, along the Eastern border of the country, temperatures are lower, and may dip to 10 C at night, but are also known for frequent heavy rain, and brief periods of dry, sunny weather.

Did you know that the Democratic Republic of Congo has the highest frequency of thunderstorms in the world? 

The Congo river, the second longest African river, is the most striking natural feature of DR Congo, which slides all the way from the Atlantic deep into the heart of the Central African country. Together with five other countries (Cameroon, Central African Republic, The Republic Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon) the region along the Congo river is called the Congo basin. The basin covers vast part of the DR Congo and is one of the most important wilderness area on Earth. It is a low-lying area with many swamps, lakes and rivers, forests and savannas, and is surrounded by upland regions, where high plateaus rise to mountain ranges. These mountain ranges are situated in the East of the country, and are protected by several National Parks, with the Virunga National Park as the crown jewel.

The DR Congo is considered as one of the most important centres of biodiversity on the planet as it houses the second largest tropical rainforest in the world, and is home to over 15.000 plant and animal species.

Beside forests, DR Congo is endowed with natural resources, which has been the main reason for internal and international conflicts in the East of the country, the Katanga region, causing what is called the ‘African World War’, that killed more than 4.5 million people. Cobalt, copper diamonds, gold, silver, uranium, coltan, timber and oil should make the country relatively rich, but instead, foreign colonisation left an immature political divided nation, and as a result the base for mismanagement, corruption, and a foreign favoured investment structure that has lead it to be one of the world’s poorest countries.

Deforestation is the main environmental issue the country is facing. A fast growing population depends on the wood for fuel and protection of forests makes place for subsistence farming, which is the main source for food and income. The rising pressure on the environment along with the unregulated and often illegal logging means shrinking forests and disappearing wildlife. Due to the growing population forests are converted into plantations, such as palm oil, and other cash crops. To make villagers aware of the importance of reforestation and the protection of rainforests, ITEC (Centre of Education and Integrated Training) raises awareness through education and planting threes. Nonetheless, it’s not the biggest threats the country is challenged with. It is the rigorous demand for timber world wide that continue the extraction of timber from around the Congo basin forests.

Many wildlife species are endangered or threatened with extinction. Besides deforestation, even more, illegal poaching, commercial bush meat hunting and ivory trade, and armed conflicts and the battle for mineral extraction, threaten the forest protection and wildlife’s conservation. All of the above are facilitated due to a lack of management, funding and awareness.

The commercial bushmeat trade has been the leading cause for wildlife loss. In the DRC over a million tons of bushmeat are traded each year. The most common targets are animals such as monkeys and antelope, but also rarer species such as gorilla’s and bonobos are at risk. There are two sides in this story that need to be understood, and both are grey. First, illegal international trade is partly responsible for the killing of many species, but maybe even more the domestic trade as it is for many families the primary source for food and income. The most dramatic have been the wars, during the past two decennia, that have created millions of refugees and IDP’s who are left no other choice than taking part in the bushmeat trade.

Polluted water is a third major environmental issue. According to the United Nations, an estimate of 51 million people (2011), or three quarters of the population has no access to safe drinking water, in a country that holds half of Africa’s water reserves. The reasons for this are the mineral conflicts and mining activities that have caused environmental degradation and created a crippling infrastructure. About 70% of the population receives water from the state water utility, which is often contaminated. Communities who have no access to pump water rely on local streams and ponds that contain waste, chemicals and bacteria.

The DR Congo has over 200 ethnicities, each with slightly different values, norms and customs. However, it is possible to say that the Congolese people are relatively open-minded, show a genuine interest in the people they meet and will definitely express how they are feeling with many gestures and facial expressions.

One thing is very important during a conversation with a Congolese; politics, war and ethnicity should definitely be avoided during a first contact, unless the Congolese counterpart starts on these sensitive topics.

The following are some of the do’s and don’ts when visiting the DRC:

First of all, greeting a person, is like in many African nations, very important. Getting to know the person and making the personal connections is regarded as more important than the actual business. Shake hands with the right hand and show respect by holding the right forearm with your left hand while shaking hands. You will often see men share a touching of the sides of their forehead, first right and than left. When greeting a woman, wait until she extends her hand. When greeting elders, with until they offer their hand. When greeting a superior, they will decide to shake hands or not. During the conversation, holding hands between same-sex is a sign of friendship (same-sex relationships are still taboo).

Secondly, when talking with a Congolese, understand that eye-contact is indirect. This might feel bizarre, but in many cultures other than the Western, eye-contact is 20% instead of the 80% in the West. Eye-contact can be intimidating and may be seen as impolite, a sign of disrespect to superior people. Furthermore, women and children might look downward as a sign of respect.

Thirdly, Congolese have a set of gestures for calling and pointing at people. Never use your index finger to point at someone, but instead hold out the arm with the palm open and upward. Calling someone to come over is done by extending the arm with the palm turned down and bringing in the fingers towards you, like a scratching motion.

A last thing that you should definitely take into a account is the matter of showing affection in public. Affection between couples is often discreet and not shown in public, with exception for the nightclubs and bars. It is normal to hold hands, but not acceptable to kiss in public.

The importance of dressing? Congolese people take much pride in their appearance and invest much time and money in the way of dressing. Congolese like to be fashionable, and this means bold, bright and brilliant. Traditionally, the Congolese dressing is centred around colourful materials, called ‘liputa’, both worn by men and women. Now, many women still dress in the traditional ‘pagne’, which is a colourful cloth wrap, but younger generations start dressing more conform the Western values.

The Sapateurs take all of this to an extreme. They are a subculture that regards dressing as a way of live, maybe even a religion. It’s all about standing out, style and attitude. They not only follow the latest fashion trends, but even have a code, such as not wearing more than three colours, and the way to fold a handkerchief. The subculture originates from the period of Mobutu’s rule, who suppressed the freedom of citizens to express themselves through fashion.

What does this imply for the tourist? Not so much. Congolese are pretty liberal, as long as it is tasteful. Women should avoid short shorts, not because it’s offensive, but because it’s seen as bad taste. Furthermore, there are no issues such as bare arms or cleavage.

Over half of the Congolese population lives below the poverty line. Not only is the DRC one of the poorest countries in the world, where many people survive on less than one dollar a day, but the country is also affected by the eastern conflicts and the rising political tensions. This means that people have to deal with the financial side and a constant life insecurity, which obviously makes that having food security is clearly, for many, a struggle each day. According to the United Nations, an estimate of 43 % of children under the age of five suffers from chronic malnutrition. It’s clear that people’s needs are immense, because of the extreme poverty, conflicts and lack of services and infrastructure. Therefore, in the rural areas, many communities rely on subsistence farming.

The staple food in DRC is cassava, which is eaten by 500 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa, as it is a vital source for carbohydrates. The vegetable is ground into a paste and is served with plantains, fish or bushmeat.

Other crops are grown such as rice, maize, sweet potatoes, pumpkins and tomatoes. Furthermore, people rely mostly on bushmeat and fish. The most common fruits are oranges and bananas and nuts are also widely grown.

You should definitely try some of the following:

  • Kwanga: a type of fermented bread, made of cassava, cooked in banana leaves.
  • Lituma: a plantain dish, made from mashed plantains, rolled into balls and bakes.
  • Fufu: a sticky dough-like dish made from cassava flour. The fufu is rolled into balls and dipped into a spicy stew.
  • Pili Pili: literally translated: Pepper Pepper.

Red hot Tip: Eat in the Kingshasa’s Nganda restaurants, which are ethnic restaurants serving food from specific parts of the country. It’s more a mix between a bar and a restaurant, where people from specific social classes gather 

Almost 80 million people live in the DR Congo (2015), and belong to one of the more than 200 different ethnic groups. The majority of these are Bantu (Bantu is a label for people speaking Bantu languages, living in an area stretching East and Southward from Central Africa). The four major tribes are: Mongo, Luba, Kongo (all Bantu), and the Mangbetu-Azane who make up about 45 % of the population.

The large ethnical diversity explains why DRC in one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world. You can find more than 211 mother tongues scattered across the country. This cannot only be confusing to the visitor, but also for the Congolese. If you randomly pick out two Congolese, it is extremely unlikely that they will speak the same native language.

However, there are a few official languages that are spoken throughout the country and make communication much easier. The official language is French, which is understood in most part of the country. Lingala is the dominant language spoken in the North west, Kikongo in the South West, Tshiluba in the centre and Kingwana (a dialect of Swahili) in the East. Lingala and Kingwana are the two biggest language groups.

The Democratic Republic of Congo has embraced the principles of secularity, which is the base for its constitution in Article 1. In practice these religious freedoms have largely been respected by the government. The Congolese society is predominantly Roman Catholic (50%), followed by: Protestants (20%), Kimbanguists (a Christian inspired Congolese church, 10%), Muslims (10%), and other (syncretic sects and indigenous believes, 10%).

The Catholic church remains strong until today, since the arrival of Portuguese missionaries in the 15th century. One of the Cristian denominations that has been growing strong in popularity is the Kimbanguist Church, which was founded by a Congolese priest, preaching for pacifism and equality between blacks and whites. As it posed a threat to the former Belgian colonialist regime the priest was condemned to life imprisonment, where he died.

Muslims are a minority in the DRC and practisers are concentrated in the East of the country where Arab traders spread the Islam through the slave routes. Although most of the Congolese are Christians, many of them also still value some of the indigenous believes, such as animist practices, which include spirit worship of ancestors, witchcraft and sorcery.

Witchcraft: Many people in Congo believe in ‘evil spirits’ and witchcraft. Children are believed to have close ties with the spirit world and are often accused of sorcery and banned out of their families.

Although, by law the Congolese society is based on religious freedom, still there exists societal discrimination, going as far as abandoning and abusing people. This is also the matter for children abused of witchcraft. There have been reports where children are attacked, tortured, killed or driven from their homes. In the Congolese society the term ‘witch’ is often applied to persons with developmental, behavioural, and psychological problems, which is seen as being possessed by the devil and believed to have the ability to cast spells on others. The reality is that thousands of children are homeless because of these believes and similar ones.

Witchcraft can truly spread fear in a community. The movie ‘Kinshasa Kids’ portrays this very present societal problem, and has been awarded the ‘Odyssee – Council of Europe price for Human Rights’.