A road in Katanga province, DRC
When you’re working in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), you have to leave plenty of time for getting around. Infrastructure is poor, bordering on nonexistent in some places. And since the country is the second largest in Africa – slightly greater than the combined areas of Spain, France, Germany, Sweden, and Norway, according to Wikipedia – it takes an extra long time to travel anywhere.
During a recent 10-day work trip to Katanga province in the far southeast, I spent nearly half the time on the road. It was a great way to see the country, actually, but it was tiring. We drove on sand roads for hours, rode in prop planes, and crossed a river via a car ferry made of two canoes lashed together and planks laid on top.
The DRC has an estimated $24 trillion in untapped mineral wealth in the eastern provinces. But due to weak governance, a succession of conflicts and outright plundering, that wealth hasn’t translated into paved roads, widespread electricity or comfortable living for ordinary citizens. It’s actually a much more complicated situation than the sentence I just wrote makes it out to be, so if you’re interested in understanding something of the DRC’s history and how it got to its current state, I highly recommend reading “Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa” by Jason Stearns.
This was my second work trip to the DRC, and quite enjoyable. I met wonderfully gracious people, heard some great stories (about pit latrines, no less!) and had some unforgettable experiences (see above: car ferry made of two canoes). The following pictures are not from those work stories, though. These photos are my iPhone pics from the places my fellow travelers/workmates and I saw over our 10 days together.
President Joseph Kabila election poster in Manono, Katanga province, DRC. Kabila was elected for a second term in 2011. He has been president since 2001, when his father and former President Laurent Kabila was assassinated.
The bridge was too dangerous to drive across, so we drove around it during the journey from Lubumbashi, the capital of Katanga province, to Kilwa. The 345 km (214 miles) trip took seven hours, about five hours of it driving on sand and uneven packed dirt.
Handwashing station in the dining room of a guesthouse in Kilwa, Katanga province, DRC. I think these stations are genuis: they use very little water and they’re a visual reminder, right there in the eating area, that you’ve got to wash your hands before chowing down. Nothing like a little peer pressure to maintain hygiene.
Waiting area for the United Nations flight from Lubumbashi to Manono, Katanga province, DRC. The U.N. has been in the DRC either as observers or peacekeepers since late 1999. Most recently, one peacekeeper was killed and 10 were wounded during fighting in August in a province far north of Katanga.
Since the U.N. flights carry only about a dozen people and their luggage plus fuel, people as well as bags are weighed to ensure the prop planes aren’t overloaded. One of my traveling mates said that once, his co-worker wasn’t allowed on a flight because he weighed too much. Ouch.
For some remote parts of the DRC, U.N. planes are the only flights and definitely the fastest transport for getting to a city. The flights are reserved for official use by U.N. workers, government officials, visiting dignitaries and NGOs, but judging by a letter I saw hanging in the Lubumbashi U.N. airport, there was/is abuse of this system. The letter warned that there would be repercussions for people trying to get their friends and family members on flights.
Passengers on U.N. flights pay for their seat just like on a commercial flight. However, all those payments don’t come close to covering the costs of operating the flights. Donations from countries including the United States help pay for operating costs. Interestingly, the U.N. planes I rode in were not owned by the U.N. but leased from a South African company. The pilots were South African, too.
The plane I rode from Lubumbashi to Manono (left) and my boarding pass for the flight (right). That particular plane ride was incredibly bumpy for all 1.5 hours. I thought I might get sick, so I tried to focus on making pictures instead.
Crossing the Luvua River near Kiambi, Katanga province, DRC. This car/moto/people ferry consisted of two long canoes lashed together and laid across with wood and iron planks. The ramp for loading and offloading vehicles was not very safe: two long and wide iron planks hooked to the ferry and then laid in the sand near the river. I saw one vehicle drive trying to drive onto the ferry actually slip off the “ramp.” Somehow the car made it aboard, I don’t remember exactly how. I just remember thinking, “Am I about to see someone’s death or serious injury?” And then I hoped our vehicle would make it onto the ferry without incident. It did.