Conducting research in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is enormously rewarding, but the challenges associated with living and working in the field are numerous, particularly for women working independently. In the course of my research, I’ve experienced police brutality, detention at the border, an earthquake, a tornado, and a mob attack, and I have witnessed a major troop build-up. The trick to doing research well (and staying alive) is to be alert at all times, but not to allow fear of the unknown to paralyze you. The vast majority of Congolese are generous and kind, and most people are glad to help you find whatever you need.
What follows are tips I’ve learned that might help if you are planning to conduct research in the region. I owe a debt of gratitude to the many scholars, aid workers, and locals who have shared their wisdom with me over the years in this regard.
- Take cash. The DRC’s economy is largely dollarized. In order to prevent rampant inflation, the Congolese government only prints 500 franc notes, which are worth less than $1, so for anything more than that, you’ll need dollars. Dollars are used much more frequently in the east than they are in Kinshasa.
- You need new, post-2006 series dollar notes in a variety of denominations in pristine condition. Despite the pitiful state of some Congolese franc notes, damaged or torn dollars are considered worthless in the east. Dollars dated prior to 2006 are suspected as counterfeit. (Note: this used to be post-2001 series, but things have changed of late. Best to track down the newest bills you can find.)
- Yes, it’s dangerous to carry that much cash, but you haven’t got any choice. There aren’t any ATM’s, and bank transfers are very expensive. You can draw dollars off a credit card at some banks in Kigali, as well as at the Banque Commercial du Rwanda in Gisenyi.
- In an emergency, you can get a wire transfer via Western Union at at least one bank in every major city in the east, including Beni, Butembo, Goma, Bukavu, and Bunia.
- Bring or get an unlocked GSM mobile phone. You will need a local phone number for your work, and text messaging is a convenient and inexpensive way to stay in touch with family and friends back home.
- Do not take pictures of anyone or anything unless you ask. Taking pictures of police, public buildings, border crossings, soldiers, or anything else of a public nature will at best get your camera confiscated and at worst land you in jail. It’s not worth it.
- Plan your travel carefully. Travel only during the day, and leave early in the morning so you can ensure that you will arrive at your destination before nightfall.
- Be careful at night. Never go anywhere at night alone. It’s fine to go out to the clubs and restaurants in Goma and Bukavu, but use caution, and if the city is particularly tense, stay in that evening.
- Pay attention to everything. United Nations OCHA hosts a weekly briefing for humanitarian leaders in every city in which they have a presence . They are open to the public and usually happen on Fridays. I highly recommend attending these meetings so you can hear the MONUC and other security briefings. In Goma, they are at 4 on Friday afternoon, and in Bukavu, they are at 10 on Friday morning.
- Always have an answer as to where you are going and why.
- Women should plan their answers to the inevitable series of questions about your marital status. I’ve found that it’s helpful to claim to be engaged. In a difficult situation, you may want to say that you are on your way to meet your husband. And children.
- Learn some basic Kiswahili. It will help you to communicate in the markets when buying food, and I’ve found that knowledge of the language opens doors with interview subjects and other contacts.
- Monitor the news closely. You should read MONUC’s press clippings daily. Be alert as to the security situation because it can change quickly.
- Have a plan in advance for when you will leave. Do not talk yourself into staying when you should get out of the country. Do not unnecessarily put a rescuer’s life at risk by waiting too long to leave.
- Have an evacuation plan. If the situation is very tense, carry what you need to evacuate (passport, data, cash, essential medications) with you at all times.
- If you leave a major city, tell several friends where you are going and when to expect your return. Make a plan for what they will do if they do not hear from you at the appointed time.
Other suggested resources
- Dan Fahey has published an excellent travel guide for northern North Kivu and Ituri. His information is as up-to-date as it gets.
- Chris Blattman maintains lists of great tips for conducting research in developing countries and conflict zones.
- The July 2006 issue of P.S.: Political Science and Politics was dedicated to the topic of research in the Middle East, but many of the tips in those articles apply worldwide. Especially helpful are the pieces on working in conflict zones and fieldwork as a woman alone. (n.b., You’ll need an APSA login or access to an online database to read the entire issue. The link above is to the introductory overview.)