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Team Dispatch

How About Going Through Zaire?

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Papa Wemba

Warning: The Department of State warns U.S. citizens to defer all travel to Zaire due to the uncertain political and security situation and the potential for unrest throughout the country.

This was the state department's warning we found when looking for a route from Zimbabwe to Mali. Basically it told us not to go through Zaire at all. But, what if we did anyway? What would we expect to see there? Why was it "unsafe"? Let's see.

From Zimbabwe we would enter Zaire from the southeast. This would mean travelling in a diagonal direction up to the northwest corner of Zaire. Because of this route we would get to see a wide range of Zairian culture. The country is home to extensive rainforests and wildlife, including many primates. There was a great deal of guided tours through these forests especially to see gorillas, but with the recent civil unrest almost all of these have stopped. It is now very difficult to get in and out of Zaire as a tourist. It is also dangerous.

Much of the problems stem from Zaire's poor economic situation. Belgium controlled Zaire for many years. The worst of these years were under King Leopold II, who allowed plunder of the area to go unchecked until the central government of Belgium stepped in and wrested control.

Zaire's independence movement gained steam in the 1950's with the emergence of new Black African leaders including Patrice Lumumba. Independence was granted in 1960 due to continued pressures and violence in the country. Unfortunately, the new leaders dismissed the enigmatic Lumumba and he was eventually assassinated. Turmoil again engulfed the country and a new military leader grabbed the reins. General Joseph Mobutu seized power with the help of the military and thus began a 32-year dictatorship.
Click image for larger view
It looks a little daunting, doesn't it?

Mobutu was not as interested in the people's well being as he was in filling his own pockets. He ignored his people's hunger and continued to bolster his army to fend off attacks by starving citizens. By 1986, he had let the country fall into debt totaling $6 billion dollars. The country had an inflation rate of 1000%. All this came to an end, though, when he fled the country. His own troops had turned against him because he wasn't paying them enough to support their families. In this dark hour it was easy for one of Mobutu's rivals, Laurent Kabila , to take power with his own forces. Kabila's regime has not shown to be any better than that of Mobutu's, even though it has promised free elections in 1999.

So, with all that in mind, what would we expect to experience in Zaire?

Many of the soldiers are still poorly employed and corruption and bribe taking is rampant. Tourists can be stopped at any point by officials and told they have violated a law. Which law it is doesn't really matter. You are expected to pay the fine right there or go to jail. Many officials also accept bribes from their own people. In fact, some say that Zaire would not function at all without these payoffs. Unfortunately the money all seems to go upward and nothing comes back down.

Another problem with the amount of underpaid, but well armed soldiers is that they have turned to hunting gorillas for extra money. Many gorillas are killed and butchered for their heads, hands, meat, and skins. Because of the lack of laws against these atrocities they will most likely not be stopped.

So, we won't spend very much time on guided tours seeking out the wildlife. And, we won't talk to any of the mean soldiers. What else is there to do?

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This is LEGAL picture of the river in Zaire
We could take some pictures of the Congo River. Well, actually we couldn't. There is a law stating that taking pictures of public buildings, military installations, airports, and the banks of the Congo River is forbidden. That's a bummer! What are we going to send back for the web site? Pen drawings on a napkin?

Well, what about visiting the Pygmy communities of the northeast? Well, for one thing, the Pygmies have been introduced to the western world and are not faring too well as a result. Anthropologists still travel there to do research on them, but it is more to study how the Pygmies are dealing with acculturation than their traditional lifestyle. Besides, the northeastern area is where the latest group of rebels has sprung up. They have actually taken over most of the eastern border of Zaire and make an annual push west towards the capital of Kinshasa. They have so far only gotten a quarter of the way but they are very persistent. And considering the history of instability in the country…who knows?

One good thing about travelling in Zaire is the money exchange rate. Right now it's at about 180,000 NZs to the dollar. That's a lot of money, sort of. Say you cashed in $100 US. You would get back 18 million NZs. That is a lot to fit in your pockets. Of course it helps that they have a 5million NZ note but still…

After all this can you see why we decided to fly to Mali instead of going through Zaire? No offense to the country itself, but we'll come back when it's gotten a little more friendly.


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