Un an plus tard

It has now been more than a year since I left DR Congo – I can’t quite believe it! Where has the time gone? Sun, French and spontaneous camping trips in the bush have been swiftly replaced with drizzle, marketing speak and pizza and prosecco nights. London has swept me up in its bustle and if I’m honest with myself I have only occasionally looked back at my previous expat African life and wondered how much of an effect it’s had on my outlook now. Recently however I was catapulted back into the world of cassava, pagne and gorillas when I was invited to a screening of a documentary about Congo at the London School of Economics.

The award-winning documentary was called ‘When Elephants Fight’ and was created and directed by American filmmaker Mike Ramsdell, in order to highlight the conflicts that have arisen around Congo’s vast minerals resources (such as gold, cobalt and coltan) which are mined for use in everyday electronics such as mobile phones throughout the world.

You can watch the trailer here:

Congo is home to vast amounts of these minerals (for example a fifth of the world’s coltan) but instead of using the wealth generated by these resources to support the country and its immense population, the revenue has been side-lined into funding rebel groups and years of war in the DRC, leaving those who work in the mines and the surrounding community in dire poverty and little hope for a fairer, safer future. The documentary’s message about this complex issue was actually a simple one. The way electronic companies source minerals from Congo won’t change unless we, the consumers of products that the minerals go into, demand transparency about where the minerals come from. Only if big companies realise that consumers care where their products are sourced will they put the effort in to find out how their minerals are procured and improve the supply chain and stop the exploitation of a country.

Now I know we’re not all lobbyists and you may be sat there thinking, I’m only one person, what difference can I make? That’s what I loved about this initiative. All you have to do is watch the film. And the great thing about this one is that it’s free!

To get the film you can contact the documentary team and they’ll send it directly to you. All they ask in return is that you tell them how many people come to your viewing – that way that can keep track of how many people they are reaching with their work – super useful when putting pressure on the people and organisations that can help change the situation in Congo.

Because one thing I realised when I came back from Congo was, that despite it being a huge part of my life, most people in the UK are completely unaware of the country – some people don’t even know where it is and a select few think it was made up country for the advert about the children’s fruit juice drink ‘Um Bongo’.

Now I don’t want to go all philosophical on you but the past year has certainly given me this time to reflect on my Congo experience. The advantages of eternal sunshine and a more equal work/life balance definitely outweigh the negatives of being far from home in a country where the language isn’t one you speak well. For me Congo will always be the home of incredible fashion, amazing music and inspiring people with a limitless desire to change their country. Unfortunately the change that I witnessed during my two years there was frustratingly slow and the dichotomy between myself and the poverty that surrounded me sometimes cause me stress that I couldn’t define at the time, but now I understand was a complete disbelief in how a government can desert their people so profoundly.

I hope that documentaries like this help change the situation in Congo. The state of the world at the moment has certainly questioned my belief in democracy and what it can bring, and it seems everyone on a global scale is unhappy with the status quo. Let’s not forget countries like Congo for whom many people can’t even vote or don’t have anyone to represent them and their needs, particularly women. Even if this film and this blog reaches a few people I’ll be satisfied.

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Trekking avec des gorilles

Crunching the dry leaves underfoot as I walked in between the tall trees of the Kahuzi Biega National Park in eastern Congo almost felt like Sunday walks with my family in the English country woods. This nostalgia was immediately wiped from my thoughts however when around a corner we came across a baby gorilla sat in a tree.

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For this was no quiet countryside walk but a trekking excursion to find wild mountain gorillas. With barely time to take in the sight of the baby gorilla, the park guards hacked away at the bushes surrounding the trunk of the tree to reveal a tuft of black hair and I realised with astonishment that we were also standing next to a silverback gorilla. He was huge!

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I had had plenty of time to think about this moment as this was one of the things in Congo I had wanted to do ever since my arrival in 2013 – to see the Congolese mountain gorillas – yet when they were in front of me I had mixed emotions. After hearing about charging gorillas and loud, incomprehensible noises from my friends’ accounts of their trips to the mountain forests I imagined that I would be scared at this moment, ready to run away at the slightest hint of a charge even though they advise you against this as gorillas like to play chase. Yet the silverback was so calm and indifferent to our presence I actually felt quite at ease, just completely in awe of its size and serenity.

Once I got over the initial shock and wonder of seeing a silverback in the wild I began to look more closely at him. He was so at home in the forest, sat on the ground picking fruit off a nearby bush, yet at the same time he seemed somehow also out of place to me. Perhaps this is the result of having never seen apes in the wild before, only in zoos or on TV. I think it was their resemblance to humans that shocked me the most. Their hands and fingers are so similar to ours and when you look into their eyes you know you are staring at an intelligent being. At one point we heard calls from another gorilla in the forest and the silverback stopped eating and turned his head slightly to listen to what was being said. After a few seconds, with almost adolescent indifference, he seemed to decide that the communication was not of interest to him and with a shrug he turned his focus back to his fruit. It was an amazing sight to witness.

We had been told to keep seven metres back from the gorillas but our guides were generous with this distance and continued cutting back all the foliage surrounding them so we had a good view for those all-important selfies and photos. The silverback continued to eat his fruit and the baby climbed down from the tree to sit with him so we found ourselves getting closer and closer so that when they did finally decide to move most of us had to jump out of the way as we were only about three metres from him!

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We followed the silverback around for another half an hour or so watching him trying to find more fruit, as this was the time of year when a particular variety of berries that gorillas like was plentiful, but eventually lost him when he had obviously decided he had had enough of a bunch of humans trailing after him and climbed up a tree out of sight. I could have watched him all day but sadly this was the end of our excursion and we headed back to the ranger’s station.

trekking

Congo is not the easiest place to get to but Bukavu, the town where you access the Kahuzi Biega Park from is more stable than other parts of eastern Congo so if you can get there I highly recommend it. It was truly a once in a lifetime experience that I will never forget.

Kinshasa Fashion Week

While London, Paris and New York are still building up to fashion week, DRC’s own fashion event of the year took place at the end of July. It may not be up there with the likes of Milan, but Congo certainly knows fashion and I am flabbergasted on a daily basis by the commitment and creativity of the Kinois or Kinshasa population who put fashion ahead of everything.

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If you have not heard of the sapeurs google it now. Sapeurs, are members of the SAPE (Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes) and have emerged in Congolese diaspora communities over the past 25 years. Often read as a postcolonial take on the European dandies of the late 18th and 19th century, this group only dress in elegant sharp attire, creating flamboyant identities for themselves through their brightly coloured suits, and luxurious swagger. They were most recently featured in the Guinness TV advert. They are supposedly the epitome of the practice ‘fashion for life’, putting clothes before food and family.

This is what I thought fashion week in Kinshasa would be all about, and although they did make a (very entertaining) appearance there was much more to it than that. Kinshasa fashion week ran over a weekend with two catwalk shows and a shopping festival and the variety surprised me. I expected the outrageous pagne (African fabric) designs of the likes of Vlisco and Woodin but actually the show I attended was mostly western style clothes and accessories.

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I was pleased to see that it wasn’t just for women however – the men got their chance to strut the catwalk too:

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When the sapeurs appeared they definitely stole the show. Not necessarily for their fashion choices however, more for their performance. They came out one at a time walking with spasmodic movements and continued from there to shout and joke with the audience and jump around. All except one guy one stood still with his mouth open for the whole time. Unfortunately all the speech was in Lingala so I couldn’t understand it, which is perhaps why I did not laugh along with the audience and frankly found the whole thing quite bizarre but it was definitely a spectacle!

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My conclusion is that Kinshasa may not be the leading African country in fashion but it is certainly the leader of the performance arts and can always put on a good show!

5 choses à faire à Zanzibar

The name Zanzibar always conjured up exotic images in my mind of white sand beaches, turquoise seas and tropical jungles and fruit. In my head it was only somewhere for honeymooners to go to escape everything but each other’s company. From my recent visit to the island I can confirm for those not recently married this is luckily not the case.

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Zanzibar certainly has the white sand and turquoise water but it also has lot of places to explore, a lively backpacker community and amazing wildlife. Here are five of my top recommendations for things to do in Zanzibar:

Stone Town

Everyone flies in to the airport which is a 10 minute drive from this colonial city so it’s worth a visit if only for a couple of nights. You can easily get lost in its narrow alleys and windy streets and to be honest that’s how I would recommend to explore the ruined colonial style buildings with huge beautiful wooden doors.

There are some great views from rooftop restaurants

There are some great views from rooftop restaurants

The main attractions are the House of Wonders and the palace museum but these are a bit run down so don’t worry if you don’t have time to see them. For me the night market in the Forodhani Gardens was the most interesting place to go and see the local vendors at work.

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The House of Wonders

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The Palace Museum

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The interior of the Sultan’s sitting room

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There were somme familiar faces too


Prison Island

I would also recommend getting out of Stone Town for an afternoon and taking a local fisherman boat to Prison Island which has some of the world’s oldest inhabitants. Giant tortoises roam the island and you can go and hang out with and feed these ancient beings, some of whom were around in the 19th century. Stroking a tortoise’s neck is one of the oddest sensations I’ve ever had! The island is called Prison Island because a prison was built on it but in the end it was only ever used as a hospital.

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Baraka Turtle sanctuary

From land to sea dwelling, Zanzibar also boasts turtles whom at certain times of the year you can see in the wild but there is also a sanctuary on Nungwi beach on the north coast of the island for rescued turtles. Here you can swim/paddle with the creatures whilst feeding them bits of seaweed. An incredible experience.

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The Rock

Food is pretty good in Zanzibar, spicy Swahili curries and fresh fish. One place that is truly a unique dining experience is The Rock, a restaurant literally on a rock on the south east coast of the island. At high tide you have to get a boat out to it and once there it is a beautiful setting to while away a few hours and eat some good food.

the rock

Snorkelling / diving off Mnemba island

Finally you cannot go to Zanzibar without spending a day or two snorkelling and/or diving around its coral reefs. The marine conservation area at Mnemba is particularly beautiful as it has a large coral reef that suddenly ends and you can look out into the deep expanse of the Indian Ocean. I only snorkel but even then visibility was great and I saw so many fish. On the way there we even saw dolphins!

Mnemba

AfrikaBurn

With the start of festival season creating a buzz in Europe and America, I thought I’d be missing out this year in Congo. But then I came across South Africa’s version of the American Burning Man festival and thought why not? Now, how to describe AfrikaBurn? A festival, a temporary community set up in the desert, a vast week-long experiment of decommodification? The AfrikaBurn creators describe it as: “the spectacular result of the creative expression of participants who gather once a year in the Tankwa Karoo to create a temporary city of art, theme camps, costume, music and performance!”

A bit hippie and alternative for the average festival-goer you may think. But as a girl who moved to Congo with her boyfriend I am not the type to say no to something a bit different. So I and a group of friends headed to Cape Town (see previous blog) and after a few days of a more traditional holiday we collected our hired jeeps and headed out to Tankwa town and the desert.

It was a good five hour drive to the Karoo desert and the further away from we got from the city the drier and dustier the roads got. On entry to the National Park the roads got so bad you could barely see three metres in front of the car!
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The scenery en route however was incredible. Flat plains were abruptly interrupted by jagged mountains that coursed across the landscape as if someone had taken a paintbrush to the earth and randomly swept out a path across it.

When we finally arrived at the site we were warmly welcomed by the staff and told us to get out of our cars for a quick welcome chat. We were led to a colossal bell named the ‘virgin bell’. This apparently was an essential initiation task for first timers before entering the park. As a group we all rang it together then were told to lay down and ‘embrace the ground’. Now we were all wearing our carefully coordinated outfits from Congo so the last thing I wanted to do was roll around in the dirt so I scampered away but a few people got involved!

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The virgin bell

Yes AfrikaBurn was definitely all about getting dressed up and expressing yourself, so my friends and I coming from Congo had decided to bring outfits from that portrayed this so we had all bought the same material and each had something made so we were fully coordinated. We got a lot of comments!

outfits

The next task was to find a space and set up camp. We had hired these amazing safari jeeps that came complete with tents, a fridge freezer, shower, solar panela and gas cookers It felt more like glamping really! At a festival where nothing was for sale however it was essential we came prepared. To display our Congolese identity to the full we erected a flag pole with the Congolese flag and extra pagne banners.

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The next few days were spent wandering around the festival site and taking part in the many performances, installations and the general wonderful laid-back atmosphere that breezed through the desert.

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There were a number of tents erected in a circle called ‘The Binnekring’ which included everything from a post office where you send a postcard anywhere in the world, music tents with fun-loving rock n roll bands, an ‘oh’limpix’ space for trying different sports, an adult playground with swings and even a cinema. For those who ran out of food and drink half way through the week, there were people handing out pancakes and pizza for free!

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One of my favourite parts was the ‘mutant’ vehicles. Many creative people had driven and built their own vehicles to get across the desert and were allowed to continue their journey around the festival. There was everything from Hawaiian-themed motorbikes with palm trees and aquatic beetle cars to a fully-functioning gothic train and a rhino-shaped DJ car. Most of them played music and you could jump on and off them whilst they slowly moved around the campus day and night.

train

The whole concept of the event was ‘gifting’. There was nothing to buy apart from ice. You could receive gifts or give them in any shape or form. At first this seemed a bit daunting to me, how would the exchange dynamics work? but in the end it was very relaxed and you could participate in it as much or as little as you liked, giving anything from a hug to a friendship bracelet when and how you liked.

But why is it called Afrika ‘Burn’ you may ask? Dotted around the site were a few large and small wooden art installations. On each of the last three nights one or more of these structures was burnt in front of a captivated audience. The largest was a group of huge conical statues as tall as buildings and this for me was the climax. When they burnt the ‘Subterrafuge’ as it was aptly named, the sparks that fell from the sky made it seem as though it was snowing glowing flakes.

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Overall it was an incredible, unique experience I will not easily forget. I can’t say I ‘found myself’ or it changed my life, but I definitely appreciated a break from the commercialised world we now live in. One of AfrikaBurn’s guiding principles is to ‘each one teach one’ so I hope with this blog I have done my bit and passed on their message to you. AfrikaBurn 2016: I’ll be there, will you?

Meilleures choses à faire à Cape Town

South Africa is now the top tourist destination in Africa, so it may be no surprise that I took two holidays there this year. The first was to go on safari, the second was to Cape Town for a long weekend ahead of the festival Afrika Burn which I’ll tell you all about later. To sum up, I think Cape Town is my new favourite city. It has everything: shopping, good food, fun bars, mountains, a beach…what more do you need? I could talk for pages about this welcoming, relaxed and enjoyable city, but let me give you a list of six things you definitely shouldn’t miss:

  1. Table Mountain:

table mountain

It is the first thing you see upon leaving the airport, towering over the city and its rocky mass almost seems to shield Cape Town from the outside world. It is the number one tourist attraction but don’t let that put you off, the view is worth the initial crowds. We took the cable car up because time was limited but there are hikes you can do up it that range between 2-5 hours. Once you’re at the top you can spend hours hopping over the jagged rocks on its almost flat surface to find your own spot for a picnic. A couple of my very brave (or insane some may say) friends even abseiled down a part of it.

  1. Wine-tasting:

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Second on my list of must-do things in this part of South Africa. My friends and I booked onto a tour that took us to five different vineyards in the Stellenbosch region, the most famous of the wine regions. It was a real range of commercial vineyards, smaller ones, each with fabulous products ranging from chardonnay to champagne to port. The start time of the tour was 10am which felt a bit odd when we were presented with five different types of wine and cheese as breakfast and many had power naps in the minibus in between each place, but it was a really interesting day with genuine insights into wine production as well as lots of yummy wine, cheese and chocolate to taste.

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This machine puts the bottle tops on champagne!

  1. Penguins

penguinsI’m sure you’ve heard of the amazing phenomenon where penguins have ended up in an urban town in the Cape. Well they have now multiplied and a protected area has been set up at Boulders Beach where you can go and see them. The sea is green and beautifully clear here and you can spend a day spotting penguins sunbathing on the beach or hiding in the shade of the bushes. It’s bizarre but magical! Also, stop off in Simon’s Town for lunch, there are some amazing seafood restaurants.

  1. Waterfront:

waterfrontThe waterfront boasts the attractive port, with many good seafood restaurants and bars, markets, shopping malls and walks. This is a great way to while away the afternoon before dinner. Bit pricier than town but I recommend!

  1. Cape of Good Hope:

Cape of Good HopeWe didn’t have time to do Cape Point and Cape of Good Hope so we just did the latter but the views were still spectacular. As the most south-westerly point of Africa it felt like a good landmark to achieve too. At the top is an old lighthouse and many friendly cane rats running around!

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  1. Tamboerskloof

tambIf you’re struggling to choose which part of Cape Town to stay in I’d recommend the more bohemian part of town Tamboerskloof. Near to Table Mountain and the bars and restaurants of Long Street and Kloof Street it’s still in the action without the noise and bustle that goes with it. It’s full of cute cafes, vintage shops, and quirky streets and is just a nice place to wander around. We found two amazing guesthouses that made you feel really at home: Parker Cottage and Underberg Guesthouse who couldn’t do enough for us.

I’m not usually the type of person that goes back to a destination once I’ve had a holiday there, but there’s so much more to see and do at Cape Town this place won’t be one of them!

Il y a une plage?

The next morning we sailed downstream and visited a palm tree farmer who lived on another island on the river with his wife and children. He collected the palm fruits that the trees produced and pressed them for their oil. Palm oil is commonly used in Congo for cooking and you can buy it by the barrel on the side of the road in most towns.

palm fruits

We continued downstream and almost out to sea. Muanda is near the military town Banana (yes that is its real name) and surrounded by oil rigs so we weren’t sure how picturesque the beach was going to be but we were pleasantly surprised. There is a section of the beach that is kept clean and there are guys selling beer, plastic chairs and tables placed under the shade of huge trees where you can nibble on fish wrapped in banana leaves and even a volley ball net.

beach

There are a few hotels in Muanda but thanks to our host and trip organiser, a Belgian ecologist who had grown up in Congo and was now campaigning for the protection of the marine park, we stayed in a guesthouse run by the nuns. It was on a huge complex near the beach including a school, guesthouse and church. The nuns were in full swing with celebrations for Easter and many guests who like us had come to enjoy the delights of the coast over the long weekend.

nuns

Time was running out and with heavy hearts we had to make our way back to Kinshasa the next day. We did have time however to stop off in Boma and visit the infamous baobab tree where legend has it the explorer Henry Morton Stanley (who claimed most of Congo for the Belgian King) slept one night on his voyage. The guide reckoned it was over 700 years old. One of Congo’s few ‘tourist’ spots that was certainly interesting.

baobab

After that we got back in the cars for the 12 hour drive back to Kinshasa…long but worth it.

Les mangroves

Not many people get to go to the beach on Easter weekend, but then not many people generally drive 400 miles to get there either. On Good Friday I set out with some friends to Muanda, the western most part of Congo and its only coastline. Yes Congo really does have a beach! I wasn’t convinced either but after hearing some reports but we set off to explore.

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This was not going to be a one day expedition, so we planned to stop off one night in Matadi, the main port for Congo and en route to the beach. As a city it wasn’t bad, there was a nice hotel and a couple of international restaurants. We went exploring late afternoon and found the old train station that used to convey colonial travellers up and down the Congo River. It was completely deserted now, I felt like I was stepping back in time with its First class and Second class entrances!

train station

For dinner we found a great restaurant called fiesta that had a brilliant view of the river and port. Considering the size of Congo it wasn’t a massive port, but still we had a nice view of it at sunset.

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The next morning we were off again and bizarrely had to cross the Congo River to get to our next stop: Boma. The bridge was actually quite impressive.

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At our next destination we met our guide for the weekend and said bye to our cars for the next part of the journey. We took a speed boat away from civilisation downstream into the national marine park to see the renowned mangrove forest. We were trying to spot hippos but only saw a few birds.

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For one night we were invited to stay in one of the villages in the park. Now this village was a bit special. It was an island of about 70 inhabitants that was covered in shells. Here we had dinner and met the villagers. It was certainly pretty but not the easiest or quietest to walk on!

shells

After some food we went out again on the boat for a sunset cruise and our guide took us right into the depths of the forest. Once the sun had gone down it was quite spooky, like something out of Indiana Jones!

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We were treated to a beautiful full moon that evening which lit up the island like a shiny pearl. Despite having had a long day, an early night was not an option as the village children were so excited by our visit they all crowded round us and despite few being able to speak French, they continued to chat away to us and watch as we talked and played cards. Finally though bed called and we slipped into our wooden huts.

Parc Kruger

We entered Kruger National Park through Orpen Gate which is around about the middle of the park and drove straight to our lodge thinking we’d quickly drop our bags off then just head out again. But as soon as we started driving through Kruger Park we lost all focus. It seemed that around every bend there was an animal! I knew that you could self-drive in Kruger, but I figured most of the tarmac roads would have little wildlife to offer – how wrong I was. Just on our way in we saw zebra, buffalo, a Lot of antelope and we almost reversed the car into an elephant who appeared out of nowhere on its way to the water hole!

elephant by car

After two hours of sights and a ton of photos we eventually arrived at our chosen lodge called Imbali (which means flower in Zulu) which was situated on a private reserve within the park. We received a very warm welcome and were immediately taken out onto the decking for lunch, with an infinity pool overlooking a dried up river bed. Across the way was a cleverly placed water spot so even whilst we were eating the safari continued as baboons and antelope wondered past!

infinity pool

After lunch we were shown to our room which was actually more of a thatched cottage. It was beautifully done with our on plunge pool and terrace overlooking the river bed. One day an elephant walked right past us – only about 3 metres away!

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What I was not quite ready for was the early morning starts for the drives. Who gets up at 5am on holiday? It was well worth it though. We had a friendly ranger who took us all over and during our stay we were lucky enough to see a leopard, hyenas, an African Wild cat and many beautiful birds and mammals.

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Sadly due to the time of year we were not allowed to go walking in the bush. We were there in winter (despite it being around 30°C!) when the grass is tall and not ideal for avoiding lions in the bush so all our travel was by vehicle, but it didn’t dampen my experience.

After three nights we had seen four of the Big Five – elephants, buffalo, rhino, leopard – we only lacked lion. So all that meant was that I’ll have to go back again to search for them! I will certainly be doing that, it was a magical experience I’d love to repeat sometime. And not as expensive as you might imagine – if you do your research and book things yourself (not through agents, a safari does not have to break the bank).

As they say in South Africa, hamba kahle, or goodbye, but hopefully not for long!