2016 is to date the year I travelled the most. Upon coming back from my year away and all those travels, I decided to follow my mom and my sister to Congo, the land of my ancestors. In hindsight I wonder if this trip would have been different, had I gone alone. Even China which was my most challenging trip until then didn’t leave me with such a sour aftertaste.
This was my second time back to Congo, as a “grown-up”. I went back for the first time in 2008 for 10 days, and I don’t really have a good memory of it. I remember some people being overtly judgy and critical because we clearly were not from there.
There was this one time my sister and I accompanied my mom to the market and we could just hear people talking around us, assuming we didn’t understand the language, because of the way we were dressed. We were both wearing shorts at the time. There were not short shorts as all butt cheeks were safely tucked inside, but I guess there were still too much skin exposed. When we went back home I changed and never wore shorts again for the rest of my stay.
I also remember this family friend who refused to speak to me the first time we met. The reason he gave me afterwards was that he was afraid I would look down on him because I looked so cultured. So he ended up being rude to me because of his own insecurities. The rational side of me understood but it didn’t hurt any less. I was judged without ever having interacted with the guy.
I was born and raised in France but I spent the first 6 years of my life in Congo. Because I was raised in a Congolese household I didn’t think that I would need to adjust in any way when going back for the first time after so many years. Let’s just say that thinking like that was a mistake. It was hard for me to adjust and feel like I belonged so I wasn’t necessarily looking forward to going back again.
The birth of my nephews, a few years after this first trip, made me reconsider a little bit. Their coming into this world made me want to know more about that part of my heritage, so that I could share it with them. But it was not the only reason, I also had a few entrepreneurial ventures that I am still thinking about, and thought Congo could be a good place to start.
My mom tried to warn me about high expectations and I was sincerely convinced that I was going there with zero expectations. I even decided to think of this trip just like any other I had been on before. Meaning that I was going to approach this trip like going to any other foreign country.
I started looking up places of interest and working on an itinerary. New Zealand was an epiphany for me, when it comes to nature-related activities, and there are apparently a few places worthy of attention in Congo. To name a few you have the Loufoulakari Falls, Diosso Gorge, the Lesio Louna Natural Reserve and Odzala Kokoua national park. So I prepared everything and went on this journey full of positive energy.
Two mere days after my arrival I was already starting to dislike it. All the things that I didn’t like when I first went there were still there. People overtly judging you because you’re not one of them or not being able to go where I wanted to. As for the second point, I think it also had a lot to do with the family and probably the culture. For many of them, my “adventurous” side didn’t make sense and they managed to scare me a little.
Congo is not at war per se, but there are still enough trifles and political dissensions to complicate things in certain areas. To sum it up, I was not able to go to most of the places on my list. Everybody advised against going south of Brazzaville because some rebels were roaming the area and it was not the safest. Poor infrastructure and lack of information didn’t help either. The government is apparently trying to work on it little by little but it still is a work in progress.
I thought I could rely on the fam to point me towards interesting things but some of them were clearly less knowledgeable than I was. I still remember this one guy telling me that one of the places I wanted to visit did not exist… Granted Google is not God but if Google says it exists, I am more inclined to believe it.
I really wanted to come back from this trip with a good overall impression, but that’s not really what happened. More than the “technical” issues I encountered trying to get around, I really struggled with the cultural aspect. Like I said before, because I am from Congolese descent I thought I wouldn’t need to get adjusted to the country.
I guess that’s what happens when the country you grew up in constantly has you questioning your identity. Before my first trip back in 2008, I used to think of myself more Congolese than French probably because, due to the colour of my skin people would always refer me back to my Congolese roots. That’s why this first trip back was so hard, I always thought myself Congolese and once I got there people would think of me as French and not Congolese.
It took me a while to figure out who I was after that. These 2 sides of my identity had met and clashed and I didn’t know how to put them together. I finally realized that your ethnic background is as much a part of you as your cultural background and family history. That’s how I was able to embrace all sides of me. I am so very French in a lot of things, as cliché as it may sound, I miss cheese and baguettes. I love to debate about anything and everything (how are you going to change things if you don’t discuss them) but the Congolese in me is still there. Go ask my siblings about my love for some very specific Congolese dishes.
That being said, there are still plenty of things related to the Congolese culture that makes want to scream bloody murder. The dress code was definitely one of them. I have no issues with the idea of respecting other people’s customs and dressing the part, but I did find it a bit over the top there. Knowing that shorts are not very accepted, I didn’t put any in my backpack and mainly packed dresses of various lengths. Apparently some of them were still not good enough…
The one time I wore my shortest dress, I heard a lot of comments such as: “why did you put this on today” and this coming from random people in the streets. I am 1,77 m (5’10) and most of it is leg so clothes easily look short on me. I usually ignored them and kept going but I lost my cool when we had to go to the prefecture and the police headquarters.
When we first went to an official building with my parents, there was a sign saying that access will be denied to every person with clothing deemed “too sexy” or short. My sister who was wearing a T-shirt dress at the time had to stay outside. I’m also blaming the parents… I don’t know if it’s because they are not aware of it as they always dress the part, or if they are just oblivious to our clothes because it’s not a big deal to them, and therefore never thought of warning us about it. I don’t know how things are in the rest of the country but Pointe Noire which has a bigger European population wasn’t as strict.
So for my visit to the prefecture, I put on a sleeveless maxi dress. Once I got there I was told that because the Prefect was on the premises I couldn’t get in with my uncovered shoulders… I had a scarf with me so the issue was solved quickly. I was already riled up by that but I got really aggravated when we made it to the police HQ. I came across an awful woman who condescendingly told me to leave right away and go get dressed. Even the scarf on my shoulders wouldn’t do it for her. I stomped out of there with every intention of never setting foot in that place if I can!
This trip wasn’t only filled with bad encounters but there were still too many for my liking. A few days before my return home, I had a heated exchange with a guy who accused me of taking pictures of him without his authorization. When you know that people are not really my thing when it comes to photos, I was really taken aback by the attack. He wouldn’t let the matter go until I showed him my pictures. I caved and ended up deleting the picture, or so he thought…
All in all, this trip wasn’t completely bad, but it was definitely not good. I know that I will eventually go back, if only for the family but that’s definitely something I am dreading a little. I am also thinking that maybe next time, I should do it my way. I think that family interference dampened this experience quite a bit for me. I still think that Congo is filled with amazing sights, but the few nasty people I met were able to impact this trip quite negatively.
Now after all these years I am not as hurt in my feelings but it still is a trip I will approach with a lot of caution. I still secretly hope that next time will be the one that will make me fall in love with the place even a little bit.