February 23, 2018: Into the Unknown
My guide Badji picked me up at my Pointe Noire hotel at 11am. He was with his brother who thankfully spoke good English. We took a taxi south for about 45 minutes towards the Angola border. The road was very rough.
About 8 miles from the border, we picked up a man in an orange jumpsuit holding a giant oar. We then continued down the road for a few minutes before pulling onto a dirt road for about a mile. We unloaded the taxi and walked down to water.
Then we got into a traditional boat that looked like a canoe- Badji called it a pirogue. The man in orange rowed us through a narrow channel lined with tall grass that then opened to a lake. While the novelty of rowing in a traditional canoe is exciting for maybe 10 minutes, the reality is that canoes are very slow and very uncomfortable.
I asked how long the trip was going to be but got no response. We eventually rowed off the lake onto a river and took the river for a long time then it emptied into a very large lake called Lac Cayo. We crossed the lake and eventually reached a village. The entire boat journey took about three horribly uncomfortable hours. As we pulled into the village, I was told to not take any pictures.
We unloaded from the canoe and immediately were greeted by the man who introduced himself as the chief: principales personnelles. He introduced us to about 10 other men and had us sit down on plastic chairs under a tree nearby. About 30 yards away I noticed one woman with a very young child along with a few more men hanging out to watch us.
Badji and the chief started talking in French. I couldn’t understand anything but it appeared to be introductions. When deemed relevant, Badji’s brother would translate for me.
The chief told us that his word would protect us from any harm here. We all shook hands.
They went back to speaking to each other and for 20 minutes I had no idea what was going on. My translator said that the chief said that photography is not allowed in the village. Apparently ten years ago, a French tourist took pictures from a boat and the villagers did not like it. After further discussion, the chief said he would allow photography with his explicit permission only.
I asked when the last tourist visited and the chief said that I was actually the first tourist to set foot in the village.
I was not the first visitor to the village. People from nearby villages come by to trade and government officials visit to collect taxes and for other official business.
The chief explained that traditions are important here in the village, but the further details of what those traditions are were not translated to me.
Badji then presented the men some boxed wine and a bottle of low quality whiskey on my behalf. A villager brought over some dirty glasses and proceeded to pour the alcohol to the very top of the glasses. The chief, three other villagers, and everyone from our group got a glass. We toasted to me (not my call) and drank it down.
At 4:30pm, we ate dinner. Badji brought fish in Pointe Noire that he shared with my group.
It was now 5:30 pm and we had now been in the village for about 3 hours and it was then time for a village tour. The chief led me and my interpreter around the village. About 140 people lived here although women and children (80% of the population) actually live in Pointe Noire as that is the location of the nearest school. Everyone returns to the village during school holidays.
I asked the chief how he likes having his family so far away for so long. He said he would prefer that his children learn the ways of the world because if they stayed here they would become fishermen. He actually went to university but couldn’t find employment afterwards so he returned to become chief.
I jokingly asked if he likes not having sex despite having two wives. He laughed very hard and says he goes to Pointe Noire once every week or two.
The village looked overgrown and decrepit, but the chief assured me that the village will be clean and well cared for when the women and children are back. He showed me the soccer field that they built. The weeds were around 4 feet tall but will be cut down before July.
He asked about life in America. I tried to make him feel good by (truthfully) explaining how the American diet is horrible and that the food isn’t fresh. While fish eaten in the village is caught that day, even the freshest fish in America is flash-frozen. I explained how that- and our dependence on cars causes high obesity rates.
I also told him how central Pointe Noire is as/more expensive than any American city except perhaps New York City or San Francisco. He was pleasantly surprised and asked if I had a car. I said yes, but it is an old one. He said that having a car in Congo will give you many wives. A new car in Congo costs at least $20,000 USD- much more than the US due to import costs and taxes. I explained that in Los Angeles, people judge you based on what type of car you have. He laughed and said materialism must be the same around the world- but it manifests itself differently. I laughed back.
I then showed him pictures of Los Angeles, my office in El Segundo, my college in St. Louis and my family. He could not believe that my grandpa could be 94, as he had never heard of anyone living that long.
The chief said America looks beautiful but he is scared of “your gun problem”. Funny how someone who lived through the Great Congo War and living just 2 miles from the conflict zone of Cabinda is afraid of the guns in America. I do not know the murder/crime/gun violence rates in Congo and how it compares to that of the US. What is certain is that international media covers the mass shootings in America (Parkland was all over the news) and that gives America a dangerous reputation.
My interpreter conveyed to the chief that I had been to 49 countries. He was very impressed as he had never left the country. He asked what languages I knew. I said really just English. He was surprised. I explained that luckily my mother tongue happens to be the language of travel. While English is only the official language of a handful of countries, it is the unofficial second language of many more. Nearly every country has English speakers. I explained that virtually nobody in my city speaks French, save for a single French elementary school. He could not believe it and became convinced that English was indeed a better language to learn than French. He said he would tell his wives to ensure his children became versed in English.
The final stop in our village tour was a very large baobab tree. They are among the oldest trees in the world. This particular tree was over 1,000 years old. Many people carved their names into the tree The chief said it was reserved for the oldest person in each family. Since the chief’s father was still alive, the chief has yet to carve his name into the tree. He asked if I would be willing to carve my name to commemorate my visit. I said yes.
The chief called out and someone brought in a 20 ft hand-made wooden ladder and a machete. He leaned the ladder against the tree and gave me the machete. I had to climb way way to the top and reach up high to find a space to carve BRYCE FEV 18 (Fev is French for February), but eventually did it. It was dark by the time I got down but was able to snag a picture of the tree and my carving.
The chief then asked if I wanted a beer. I said yes and gave 500 francs (about 90 cents) to the only lady in the village. She handed me a warm Stark beer. The mosquitoes were getting bad so the villagers lit up small smokescreens that shielded is from them. For the next two hours they spoke to each other exclusively in French but I didn’t mind. I thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere, the 85 degree weather and the incredible lighting ever so slowly striking its way horizontally across the sky.
At 9pm I went to bed in a spare hut. Surprisingly they had a bed covered with a mosquito net although I had to bring my own pillow and sheets. I actually slept pretty well.
February 24, 2018: The Push Out
The next morning we got up at 5:30 am and quickly headed out on the boat. The chief pushed our canoe out.
Unfortunately the current was against us this time and after an hour we had only made it to the edge of the first lake. We pulled over into a bunch of seemingly random reeds and found a group of fishermen. Our oarsman then recruited one of them to help row.
With two oarsmen, we moved much quicker but still took 3 hours to get back to the starting spot. Then we walked a mile to the road and caught a taxi to the airport to fly back to America.
The village visit will go down as one of the most interesting experiences of my life. I cannot believe that I got to be the first tourist to ever go to somewhere and to have a frank dialogue with the chief.
I tried my best to be a good ambassador for Americans and Westerners in general, as this would be many of these people’s first impression of a tourist. Many tourists leave a legacy of rudeness, moral superiority, and a lack of empathy. This creates a negative worldview of tourists and the West for the villagers. Just like the French tourists who took photographers ten years ago, my actions and behaviors will be remembered for quite some time.
All said and done, I would recommend Congo only for someone with considerable travel experience. Congo is no luxury safari, smiling faces everywhere, taking pictures with groups of happy orphans kind of place. This is the “real” Africa where people live their lives and work in the absence of tourists and large mammals. The struggles of traveling here (not just bribes) are real- I think of these instances of quick snapshots of the realities that Congolese face everyday. However, overcoming those struggles makes the connections made and small mental victories even greater.
The people didn’t kowtow or tout which I really appreciated. With the exception of a few run-ins with the corrupt police, I never felt threatened or in danger. Will Congo ever be at the top of someone’s travel list? Probably not, but it will stand out as one of my most memorable destinations.