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.
In 1965, General Joseph-Désiré Mobutu seized power in Kinshasa and declared the region that is now Congo-Kinshasa independent of the Republic of the Congo. He renamed the region Zaire and more or less maintained control over it until 1996, when fighting from bordering Rwanda spilled over into Zaire. The Mobutu government supported Zairean Hutus and encouraged them to massacre Tutsis of both Rwandan and Zairean descent living in Zaire. Tutsi militias were finally successful in ousting Mobutu, and their leader, Laurent-Désiré Kabila, became president of Zaire, changing its name to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. His son, Joseph Kabila, is now the president, although various rebel groups maintain control in outlying areas. Both opposition parties and its own members constantly threaten the Kabila government.
The Top 5: Local Advice
1. Photography is illegal without a permit in Congo-Kinshasa. If law enforcement (or scammers pretending to be “undercover police”) catch you taking pictures of anything, especially monuments or government buildings, you will likely be harassed and probably fined. Taking pictures of locals is socially taboo, and people may react aggressively if you try to do so anyway. If you must photograph, ask permission first.
2. French is the official language, and almost all locals have at least some grasp of it. They will often speak Lingala, the tribal lingua franca, to one another, and the knowledge of a few phrases will gain you the respect and courtesy of those to whom you speak.
3. Congo-Kinshasa uses the Congolese franc (franc congolais). Some hotels and businesses will accept and give you change in American dollars. Credit cards and traveler’s checks are not accepted outside the nicest hotels in Kinshasa; use cash.
4. Internet access here is quite good for Central Africa. Although only the most upscale hotels and restaurants use wireless access, Internet cafés are common in Kinshasa and the larger towns.
5. At six in the morning and six at night, flag-raising and -lowering ceremonies occur wherever there are flags in public places. The Congolese take this ritual very seriously, and cars and individuals are expected to stop and watch respectfully or risk being harassed by the police or locals.