As you leave Kinshasa on the road to Kikwit (or Bombo Lumene), you pass two bizarre remains of the Mobutu era, the large pagoda and even more imposing satellite dish.
The pagoda is part of the Mobutu’s Presidential Domain at Nsele, and it was built in 1970-1971 by Taiwan. At the time Taiwan had an agricultural development program at Nsele and was trying to encourage people to grow rice in the marshy areas along the river there. Zaire’s friendship with Taiwan was short-lived, as Mobutu recognized the People’s Republic of China in 1973 and the Chinese took over Taiwan’s agricultural efforts.
The pagoda is a really peculiar relic, combining two distinct art forms. Some walls and ceilings are covered with the frescoes that were part of the original design, while others are covered with years and years of graffiti. While much of the graffiti is text, there are some really fascinating (and many obscene) images throughout the complex. The original paint is chipping and falling in places, and it’s not rare to find a beautiful paint swatch on the ground. (Though the military folks did not us allow to take any of those as souvenirs when we were there.)
The pagoda nowadays is more or less under the purview of the military, so experiences trying to visit can vary. We have heard from some people that it has been closed recently. When we went, we needed to negotiate a fee to walk around and to take photos. We tried to say that we didn’t want to take any pictures, but that did not go over well so we just paid the photography fee. I cannot remember how much we paid, but it was not more than $20 (and there were 6 of us.) While we did not have any issues when we visited, the area has also been known for having a significant population of shegués and crime.
If you can’t make it to the pagoda yourself, it makes a wonderful cinematic backdrop as a rebel/mining camp in the film Rebelle (English title: War Witch). The movie was filmed around Kinshasa, so the intrepid bucket lister should notice lots of familiar locales including the road to Bombo Lumene/the bonobos. Also, it’s a really good movie.
Just past the pagoda, the satellite rises in a small valley. Visiting it is quite different from a visit to the pagoda, as you’ll be greeted by a friendly elderly man and his family who have set up a small shop there. He (unfortunately, I don’t remember his name) will be happy to take you on a short tour, watch you climb up the satellite, and of course be happy if you give him a tip.
The US built the satellite ground station in 1970 for the stated purpose of making it possible to receive US television programming and make direct calls to the US (previously, calls had to be routed through Europe.) The station may also have been used as a tracking station for NASA. It was inaugurated in June 1971 with a call from the Congolese Foreign Minister to US Secretary of State William P. Rogers.
Climbing the satellite is safe (though not on to the surface of dish itself even though there is a ladder), but watch your step. At the base of the dish, there’s great view of the surrounding countryside, and it’s also impressive to check out all the many Made in the USA parts that are still in good shape on it.
Special thanks to Steven Sharp for the historical information in this post!
When to Go: Any time of year is good. The road is paved the whole way there.
How to Get There: Take the Boulevard Lumumba to the airport and keep going. Keep right at the fork toward Kikwit (the left fork goes to Maluku). Both the pagoda and satellite are on the left side of the road and are hard to miss.
Travel Time: An hour to an hour and a half.
Risk Assessment: Talk to the FARDC folks at the pagoda before exploring to make sure your intentions are clear.
Accommodations: It’s possible to visit both the satellite and pagoda in a day and stop somewhere in Nsele for lunch/drinks, but if you are looking for a weekend away, Bombo Lumene is a great place to stay. For the jetsetters, there’s always Safari Beach. Jardin d’Eden also has lodging.