It’s my first visit to Kinshasa and the drive into the heart of the city is an exhilarating experience. The smell of fresh produce from the teeming markets and chicken grilling on charcoal fires is sporadically overpowered by the sweet, rotten stench of mountainous piles of garbage and acrid exhaust fumes. The constantly heavy traffic further announces itself in an unending cacophony of tooting horns. The sky is bruised and the air is heavy and humid and there is a dense sea of bodies and battered vehicles all around us. Many of the buildings are either unfinished or on the point of collapse.
As my travel companion and I are driven along the Boulevard Lumumba, the 200m Tower of Limite stands beside us as a poignant symbol of the unattainably ostentatious ambitions of Congo’s former dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), then known as Zaire, for 32 years. The unfinished skyscraper is incongruous in a sprawling city with very few high-rise buildings.
At a four-way stop, I turn my attention from the tower to a giant robotic traffic cop as it swivels and raises its metal arms to direct traffic. Constant, our driver, tells us locals prefer the robot traffic cops, which were built by a local entrepreneur, to the human ones because “they are never corrupt”.
Less than an hour after leaving the city, we arrive at Lola ya Bonobo. This sanctuary provides a safe haven for about 70 bonobos, a profoundly intelligent species of great ape found only in the DRC and severely endangered by poaching and habitat encroachment. An eccentric and intrepid French family runs the sanctuary.
The bonobos themselves are endlessly entertaining, settling even the most minor disputes with sex rather than confrontation. The staff at the sanctuary, most of whom live in the surrounding villages, see the bonobos as family and have an incredibly strong bond with them.
After three days at the sanctuary, it’s time to head back to Kinshasa. We arrive in the early evening and immediately head out for drinks on Avenue Nyangwe. There’s a long row of ramshackle bars with open terraces, where Congolese rumba is played from huge speakers so loudly that it distorts. Meanwhile, vendors weave between the drinkers, selling anything from phone chargers to grilled grasshopper kebabs. The beer is cheap, large and cold, and we eat grilled goat and manioc (a traditional Congolese dish similar to stiff pap, but made from cassava flour) from a roadside barbecue.
The roads are much quieter at night and we drive to a nearby club called Carré in Bon Marché that draws a young dapper crowd from Kinshasa’s middle class. We watch men watching themselves dance in a large mirror that takes up an entire wall of the venue. According to Andrew, an English expat and our chaperone for the night, these mirrors are ubiquitous in most of Kinshasa’s clubs.
Andrew has formed a band called Tokoss & L’Orchestre Kinsonique with another English expat and three Congolese musicians, and he invites us to watch them rehearse at his flat the following night. Their repertoire is a mixture of funk, soul, reggae and afrobeat, and they sing in English, French and Lingala. The Congolese musicians are supremely talented. During a break, the softly-spoken lead singer, Royce, tells me he once sang with Brenda Fassie when she visited Kinshasa in the late ‘90s.
After the rehearsal we eat falafel at a Lebanese restaurant around the corner and then drink beers on the terrace of a small, quiet bar called Le Surcouf, which feels like it’s been air-lifted from a rural French town. We’re joined by Will, an English freelance journalist who has also made Kinshasa his home and has a very obvious affection for the place that extends far beyond the insulated expat enclaves you find in so many African cities, Kinshasa included. Both he and Andrew are exceptionally at ease in their adopted home; everywhere we go locals greet them and us with characteristic Congolese warmth.
On our last night in the capital, we attend an exhibition at Bilembo, a former cotton factory turned art gallery and cultural centre, with a well-maintained garden and a shop selling local artisanal wares, ceramics and paintings. We peruse the exhibition, which offers a glimpse of the history of the Congolese textile industry and showcases colourful handmade designs.
Even after only a few days in the city, it’s clear that there’s so much more to Kinshasa than I’d been led to believe. Not surprising, I suppose, considering that the city is home to an estimated 10 million people, making it the second-largest French-speaking city in the world after Paris.
In a brief chat with Chantal Seraho, South African Airways’ DRC country manager, she expresses a firm belief that Kinshasa, which she describes as a “festive, musical place full of innumerable resources” has “truly vast tourism potential that just needs to be developed properly”.
On our last morning in the city, we treat ourselves to excellent coffee and croissants at the upmarket Patisserie Nouvelle near UtexAfrica, the most expensive residential complex in Kinshasa. Afterwards, we take a drive out of town alongside the mighty and meandering Congo River. There are any number of idyllic shaded areas with empty chairs and tables right on the river’s edge, a testimony to Chantal’s assertion about the tourism potential. If we had been in Cape Town, every one of these spots would be packed.
We stop for a cool drink at Chez Tintin, a famous riverside drinking spot with worn-out statues of characters from the Tintin comic books scattered around the premises, and an expansive lawn overlooking a set of surging rapids. A few men fish from the rocks with hand nets or paddle dugout canoes a little further upstream. Brazzaville, the capital of the confusingly similarly named, but considerably smaller, Republic of Congo, is just visible through the haze on the opposite bank of the river. We take pictures and buy beers for a few young local fishermen who come to sit beside us, and I contemplate the long, turbulent and fascinating history connected to this vast, snaking body of water.