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Flag Source: CIA World Factbook
As in much of Central Africa, Congo-Brazzaville has impenetrable rain forests, so settlers arrived much later here than in the rest of Africa, and except for some small groups of pygmies, the region was uninhabited until a number of Bantu tribes moved in during the medieval period. The dominant Bantu tribes sold slaves to European traders from the 15th century through the 19th, after which the French and the Belgians scuffled for control over the area. It was during that period that Pierre de Brazza, an Italian explorer working for France, founded Brazzaville.
By 1891, France had wrested complete control of the Congo River basin from its Belgian and Bantu overlords and immediately began to exploit the region’s forestry and diamond industries. After several years of civil unrest (not all of which was related to the independence movement), France granted independence to the region in 1960 as part of the Congo Republic, which in
cluded both Congo-Brazzaville and Congo-Kinshasa.
For the next 30 years, a Marxist-Leninist ruling party led the country, sometimes brutally. With the help of foreign intervention, the country democratized in 1991, but in 1997 tensions between supporters of the presidential candidates Lissouba and Sassou-Nguesso sparked a civil conflict that was fully resolved only in 2007. The country is still recovering from the destruction and loss of life, particularly in Brazzaville, and Sassou-Nguesso appears to have firm control over the government for the time being.
The Top 5: Local Advice
1. Internet cafés are plentiful in Brazzaville and Pointe Noire, and many hotels and restaurants offer free wireless Internet access. That said, there is virtually no Internet access outside these cities. Intrepid expats and locals have been known to set up satellite connections while living in outlying areas, and you can find the equipment for that in either of the two large cities. Newspapers and radio stations offer local news in French; for English-language news, your only option is the Internet.
2. Like other countries in the region, Congo uses the Central African CFA franc as its official currency. Crédit Lyonnais maintains the only two ATMs in the country, in Brazzaville and Pointe Noire. Keep some cash on hand at all times. Although major hotels will accept credit cards, most other vendors will not.
3. Visiting foreigners are required to register with the police upon their arrival in Brazzaville and Kinshasa and again whenever they enter a different town or village. This rule is patchily enforced outside the two main cities, but registering in advance will foster goodwill (particularly in the tiny villages of the north), and may preempt harassment by corrupt officials.
4. Although French is the formal language of Congo, the local dialect may take some getting used to; its vocabulary and accent are quite different from those of European or Canadian French. English speakers are rare outside of Pointe Noire. Among locals, Lingala and Monokutuba serve as the lingua franca. If you hope to make yourself welcome, it won’t hurt to learn a few phrases.
5. Although most unrest has died down (especially in tourist areas), Congo is still recovering from its civil war, which ended in 2003. Locals will often be happy to discuss local politics with you, but be sensitive. Quite a bit of tourist infrastructure was either destroyed or allowed to deteriorate during the war, and because travel guides for this region are updated only infrequently, some sites may not live up to your expectations. Take that in stride. The country still has plenty to offer the persistent traveler, and if you don’t let minor inconveniences get in your way, you’ll be able to appreciate everything Congo-Brazzaville can give you.