President Denis Sassou N'Guesso won re-election in 2016, guaranteeing him power until at least 2023. This came as no surprise to the Congolese people, as the president first came to power in 1979 (ruling until 1992). Sassou, again the country's ruler since 1997, controversially held a referendum in 2015 to change the constitution and allow himself to run for a third consecutive term. As is common throughout Africa, many locals see the choice as a stark one between stability under a strongman leader and volatility and possibly violence under an unknown replacement. Sassou and his clan are notoriously wealthy and secretive, though the so-called 'ill-gotten gains' investigation of African dictators carried out in France in 2009 revealed that he owned over a hundred properties in France; this is quite an achievement, given that over 70% of the Congolese population lives on less than US$1 a day.
However, with fifteen years of peace now behind it, and the brutal civil war of the late 1990s beginning to fade from memory, Congo has been enjoying a surge of foreign investment. The oil industry is booming, new roads, airports and residential neighbourhoods are being built and Chinese-built office towers rise over the skyline of Brazzaville. Corruption among officials and the oil industry is rife, however, and the Congolese economy's heavy reliance on oil revenues substantially contributes to President Denis Sassou N’Guesso's ability to maintain tight control over the country. Not surprisingly then, despite this oil wealth most Congolese remain desperately poor and are still somewhat sceptical about the future.
Of Congo's 16 ethnic groups, the Kongo people predominate, making up nearly half the population. Other key groups include the Sangha (20%), Teke (17%), M'Bochi (12%) and pygmies (2%). Seventy percent of the Congolese population lives in Brazzaville, in Pointe-Noire, or along the railroad joining these two cities.
In terms of faith, Congo is divided about half and half between Christian and animist, with a small Muslim minority. No matter the faith, belief in spirits and magic runs deep in Congolese society and many people consult traditional healers and various magic men for advice and medical treatment.
The north and southwest regions of Congo are blanketed by the dense tropical rainforest the country is famous for, but the central plateau, between Brazzaville and Oyo, is an unexpected swathe of savannah where trees are rare. The Atlantic Ocean crashes onto some respectable pale-yellow beaches – and those aren't bright stars hovering low over the horizon, rather the lights of offshore oil rigs.
Food & Drink
Northern Congolese are meat eaters (very often bushmeat, unfortunately) while southern Congolese love their fish. Both eat their protein almost exclusively with cassava, though you will sometimes find yams or rice in restaurants.
Lac Télé Reserve
In a country like the Congo, getting off the beaten tourist track is not difficult. But for those who really want to immerse themselves in the deepest of jungle adventures, a journey to the perfect circular form of Lac Télé (Lake Télé), hidden away in the unimaginably remote northeast of Congo, is the kind of trip people write books about. It's not just that this lake is surrounded by swamp-forests that remain largely unexplored, nor that are there an estimated 100,000 lowland gorillas inhabiting the area, nor the pygmy groups living an almost completely traditional lifestyle: local lore has it that Lac Télé is also the home of the Mokèlé-mbèmbé, a large semi-aquatic creature that many believers describe as being similar to a Sauropod (a type of long-extinct dinosaur).
To get to Lac Télé you'll need firstly to take one of the twice-weekly flights from Brazzaville to the river town of Impfondo. Barges also float past Impfondo as they travel between Brazza and Bangui in CAR. From Impfondo a road of sorts runs to little Epéna, after which nothing but unexplored swamp forest stands between you and your goal.
If you're serious about visiting, contact the Wildlife Conservation Society in Brazzaville, which is working to establish a community reserve at Lac Télé, and be prepared to engage a travel agency with experience in the area to assist you with the daunting logistics of this epic expedition!