See the great apes

According to Charles Darwin, the great apes are our closest link to the animal kingdom. He even went far as to say that we’re a product of natural selection and evolution.

Whatever ideas you believe, to observe the mountain gorillas in the wild is a must-see when you set foot in Congo. You might even agree with the natural scientist, not for his revolutionary theory but for allowing us to see how these gentle animals reflect the way we spend our lives doing everyday activities.

Tour operators in Kinshasa and Goma offer trips to the Virunga National Park, where the last of the mountain gorillas can still be found. For a few hundred dollars, you will be issued a permit to enter the park. Escorted by rangers, you’ll be allowed to observe a family of gorillas as they forage for food for an hour at a comfortable distance. Since these animals are susceptible to disease, surgical masks are required.

Mountain gorillas face the threat of extinction. Recent census shows there are only around 790 gorillas in the wild. If not protected, these creatures will disappear in a generation or two.

Go on a cruise on the Congo River

The mighty Congo River snakes across the entire length of the Democratic Republic of Congo. This body of freshwater is 4,700 kilometers long, making it the ninth longest river in the world. The Congo River also serves as the main transport route for goods between Kinshasa and Kisangali, which is 1,750 kilometers away.

A private operator offers a rather expensive river cruise between the two cities – but if you’re a backpacker eager to experience the boat trip as the locals do, a small amount of money can get you aboard a barge ferry, complete with a decent cabin and cafeteria food. A ferry leaves the capital once a week.

Four barges are tied to a single ferry. These barges serve as a makeshift market, as canoes from villages along the river paddle to the passing barges to sell their goods. Local produce such as pigs, vegetables, and even bush meat are exchanged for medicines and industrial goods. Observing how business is done on the lower deck on the rooftop of the lead boat should be one of the highlights of your trip.

Learn to dance the soukous

The soukous is a dance music genre that originated in Congo. The dance requires sensual gyrating of the hips while letting the hands float away from the body. It began as the African rumba, before the genre went into exile along with the Congolese artists in the 1970s. The political situation in Kinshasa had deteriorated during the Mobutu era, and the succeeding civil wars brought the country into a standstill.

But a group of musicians found their way to Paris, and their music became an instant hit. Overnight, soukous went global, and singers such as Papa Wemba and Kanda Bongo Man became international superstars.

The soukous can be both the dance as well as the music. The upbeat sounds tempered with string and percussion instruments and sweeping vocals invite guests to fill the dance floor. The hip-swinging, fast-paced ndombolo, a subgenre of the soukous, was taken out of the airwaves by the government in the early 2000 and once again in 2005 because of the suggestive dance moves. It only became more popular after that.

Soukous is still being played, complete with live bands in bars and pubs around Kinshasa.

Meet the Pygmies

The Mbuti people are Pygmy hunter-gatherers. They live in the Ituri Rain Forest, which covers much of Northeast Congo.

The Mbuti were the first people to settle in the Congo River Basin. Even the ancient Egyptians might have possibly referred to them as “People of the Trees.” The Pygmies live in bands composed of 15 to 60 individuals. It is estimated that there are only 30,000 to 40,000 of them left.

It’s possible to arrange a trip to an Mbuti village when you visit the Okapi National Park. The trip includes a hike across the jungle, a hunting expedition, and an overnight stay in the village. Those who went there claim seeing, at seven in the morning, six-year-old girls smoking a pipe longer than their body. Many are impressed by the tribe’s gender-equal social structure.

Ride a chukudu

Lack of transportation, even paved roads, encouraged the Congolese to innovate. Trees grow everywhere, and goods from cities still have to be delivered from the marketplace to homes. The Congolese answer to this logistical nightmare is the chukudu.

The chukudu is a kick scooter made from solid wood, with forked steering bars for directions. Even its wheels are made of wood wrapped in rubber tires for better traction.

The chukudu is thought to have originated in the Goma/Lake Kivu region. Though it lacks pedals or even breaks, the scooter can transport hundreds of kilograms of goods. It has become so essential for small villages that it’s even used to transport people.

This article is also available in: Spanish