Big Congo. Little Congo. What's the difference?

Wander Woman Marie Javins crosses from one Congo to another and discovers that 'big' Congo isn't as scary as she was led to believe

6 mins

Sooner or later, I had to cross the river.

The mighty Congo River separates Congo from Congo. And if you're puzzled, you're not alone. Big Congo has been called one or another variation on the name Congo since 1885, except for 1971-1997, when it was called Zaire. Meanwhile, the smaller, neighboring Congo has been both Middle Congo and Republic of Congo during that time.

While travelling in the region, I’d learned to differentiate like this: Congo-Kinshasa (or DRC for Democratic Republic of Congo) and Congo-Brazzaville. But not everyone in Congo-Brazzaville does this. I heard many Congolese from the Republic of Congo describe their larger neighbour like this: Zaire.

Confused yet?

I delayed crossing to Congo-Kinshasa for days, because I had heard a lot of things about Kinshasa, and none of them sounded appealing. I’d heard rumours about the poor value for money in the hotels, the lack of post-war infrastructure, the crime, and the bribery.

Part of me was skeptical. Surely it couldn’t be all that bad, right?

But because I wasn’t confident enough to trust my instincts, I procrastinated by relaxing for days at Brazzaville’s Hippocampe lodge, where I could get strong morning coffee for breakfast and tasty Vietnamese food for dinner. I haunted the Marche Touristique – the crafts market – snapping up ten-dollar Congolese textiles and wooden carvings of Tintin.

I posted the textiles from the Brazzaville main post office, but the Tintin carvings were fragile and the size of my calf. DHL would be too expensive, surface post too clumsy.

I’d carry them across DRC to Zambia, I decided. In Livingstone, Zambia – which is adjacent to Victoria Falls – the post office is used to tourists showing up with huge fragile carvings.

There came a day when my Tintin carvings and I could delay no longer. We had to cross over to Big Congo, to Kinshasa, in order to continue heading south to Cape Town for my trip around the world to continue, for to not come to a halt halfway down its first continent.

A New York-writer acquaintance of mine had been in Brazzaville and Kinshasa a few weeks before I was due to enter. He'd been in Brazzaville long enough to sort out how to do a few things, and he sent me instructions to ease my crossing into Kinshasa. He'd written that the way to deal with the port on the Brazzaville side was to hire an expediter. A fixer.

"On the Brazzaville side when you enter the port and are besieged by touts, just tell them you're there for Madame Eloie at Service Rapide and they will back off and bring her."


It didn't go quite like that, and I never met Madame Eloie, but people did direct me to her office. And while other tourists were fighting with touts and trying to decide who to trust and what the cost was, I was sitting in a dark, air-conditioned room while her staff members ran my passport past the various officials, getting stamped here and there. The cost over the price of the fare was an additional $15.

Some things are well worth the money.

Eventually, a young man came into the office and instructed me to follow him. An English-speaking DRC man headed to Kinshasa offered to help as well, as he was taking the boat. He walked along with us to the port, but he got a phone call at the top of the steep, decrepit stairs and mud that led down to the boat.

He talked for a minute and then hung up.

"I have something to take care of here. I will go on a later boat. What is your number?"

"No SIM," I lied. I don't give out my number to random people I've just met.

He wrote down his number on a slip of paper and handed it to me. "Promise to call me tonight."


"We'll see."

"No, promise."

This happens all the time, and I find it annoying. I'm not promising anything to anyone when I have no idea what their intent is, don't even know their name.

"I might have things to do."

He again demanded I promise, at which point I gave up and said, "Fine, okay, I will call."

Which made me feel kind of dirty. I wasn't calling this random guy tonight in Kinshasa. I had no intention of even being outside my hotel after dark. Kinshasa hadn't suddenly become home to me in the last 20 minutes. It was still this big scary skyline looming across the river.

My escort handed my bag to a man on the speedboat, who motioned me into a seat. Some passengers even put on lifejackets.

The boat pulled out of Brazzaville and into the open river, where it sped up and headed to Kinshasa. I looked back at Brazzaville, the sleepy, friendly city where I could safely wander the streets and chat with people in the post office. And then up ahead was the unknown.


I'd heard that the port in Kinshasa, called the "Beach," was chaotic and overwhelming. That I might have to hang onto my money. That it might be tough to find a taxi.

So I looked up an inexpensive church guesthouse near the port, a place I could walk to. But I couldn't find a way to book it online, so I just crossed my fingers – even knowing of Kinshasa's high hotel occupancy rate – and hoped for the best.

When the speedboat docked in Kinshasa ten minutes after we'd left Brazzaville, the passengers all filed off and stood on a pier, milling about and uncertain. Two officials in uniforms approached the group and started asking questions. They extracted a small (legitimate, I think) port tax out of each of us, then collected our passports and took them into an office. We all followed along behind, then waited outside the office for our chance to be called in.

I changed money with a money-changer in the hall – useless, as it turns out. Not only can we use US dollars in Kinshasa, but some of the town's ATMs spit out crisp US $100 bills.

My name was called last, and I was shuffled into the small office full of women in uniforms. Many details were laboriously copied down, I was sent to another office and back, then was stamped into DRC.

Just like that. The most expensive visa I'd ever bought was used and I was in.

Suspiciously easy, I thought.

I walked out of the port and past the hustle and bustle of passengers and exporters into a busy, muddy, port city. There were a lot of people going about their business. I put on my non-smiling concentrating face and – by foot through the mud – made a beeline for the entrance to the port area.

"Taxi?" Ah, so there were taxis here after all. I shook my head and walked to the guesthouse. It wasn't as close as I'd hoped and, with my backpack, I was pretty hot by the time I got there to find out that the there was no room at the inn.

I was information-challenged here. I had memorised the basics from a few online maps but the only guidebook I had to Congo was back in my New York office. My assistant had scanned and emailed me some pages, and I had a few names of hotels from that, but many hotels were full.

A man who takes photos and tries to sell them to people was by the guesthouse gate.

"No room?"


He looked at the slip the guesthouse receptionist have given me, on which she'd listed the name of another church's guesthouse. I shook my head no. I wasn't going there. I didn’t even know where it was. I wanted to go to the Fontana, which had turned into Ave Maria Hotel. It was a mid-range hotel, a hard thing to come by in Kinshasa.

"Do you know where I can get a taxi?"

"Taxi? You don't need a taxi," said the man. "You can walk. It isn't far. Here, I'll show you."

He escorted me up the block to a large supermarket. We zig-zagged around it to the main drag, Kinshasa's busy main street.

"See? Just cross the street and walk down that road."

I thanked him, but not as profusely as I might have. I was sweating and exhausted by now, regretting having waved off the taxi drivers at the Beach.

I walked down a muddy side street, tiptoeing around massive puddles that took up most of the road. With my bag, I was a public hazard, and I'd have to wait for others to walk single-file across the highest land point in the puddles before taking the water on myself.

Where was that hotel?

I gave up and stopped to ask a woman selling colorful wax-print cloth.

She pointed at a large building and laughed a little, as if to say, “Silly tourist, it's right there.” I felt a little embarrassed, not just at my blindness to the obvious, but at having been so worried about crime and corruption. Sure, it was probably here in Kinshasa. But I’d only encountered politeness so far.

Red but giggling, I headed over to the hotel. Ave Maria had room. This was one of the most expensive rooms I'd had on this trip, but Kinshasa is no bargain. I was lucky to find a room at all.

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