Barging the Zaire River: Into the Watery Heart of Africa

Barging the Zaire River: Into the Watery Heart of Africa

By Catherine Senecal

Sunset on the Zaire River - photo by Heather Ellis
Sunset on the Zaire River – photo by Heather Ellis

NOTE: I traveled to Zaire (now called The Democratic Republic of Congo) more than a decade ago when it was relatively safe to travel there. Still, the country was rife with corruption — we paid baksheesh (bribes) for crossing borders, taking photos, using bathrooms, and in many other situations.

There were bad roads, no public transport, empty store shelves and few opportunities for the people, who have seen ongoing fighting, killing and general anarchy in parts of the country since 1994.

The dictator Joseph Mobutu, who enriched himself and his family while brutally suppressing all opposition, was driven out in 1997 by a forces led by Laurent Kabila. Kabila was assassinated in 2001 and his son, Joseph Kabila, has been installed as president.

A five-year conflict between government forces, backed by Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe, and rebels, backed by Uganda and Rwanda, claimed more than three million lives from disease, starvation and war. Despite the formation of a coalition government in 2003, there is still a risk of civil war.

The country’s infrastructure has experienced dramatic deterioration including political and economic decline, military mutiny, civil disturbances and commodity shortages. Bribery is still rampant. Although the security situation is relatively secure in most parts of the country, the local administration is weak. Check your foreign affairs department for updates before traveling to The Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaire).

The US State Department cautions Americans not to travel to the DROC.

Slightly south of the Sudan and west of the Ugandan border, in the middle of pygmy territory, I spent three hot, grueling days in the back of a beer truck as it lurched down a severely pot-holed track through the jungle to Kisangani

A village hut in the DROC - photo by Jonathan Proud
A village hut in the DROC – photo by Jonathan Proud

Kisangani was no haphazard destination for those of us on the truck. The driver was delivering two goats to his uncle and taking 150 empty cases of beer bottles for refilling.

I, on the other hand, was going to meet the Zaire River barge and repeat the last half of Henry Morton Stanley’s journey of more than a hundred years ago, when he became the first known person to travel the river from its source to the Atlantic Ocean — some 2,300 kilometers downstream.

Two days later, we were on the barge along with 1000 or so other passengers as it pulled away from the riverbank and blew its final toot. A main engine stern-wheeler pushed two end-to-end barges of cabins and cargo down the river.

People squeezed on board everywhere. For ten days, this floating oddity hauled us from Kisangani — past masses of tangled equatorial forest, next to limestone cliffs, rolling plains — and out to Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire’s, capital, and the river mouth leading to the Atlantic Ocean.

I awoke early the first morning to explore. In narrow hallways on lower decks, entrepreneurs set up dozens of mini-stalls and sold such things as penicillin, peanuts or jewelry. This constant buying and selling of goods proved to be the prime entertainment over the next ten days.

I often heard the beat of distant drums as villages relayed the news of the barge’s arrival. As we approached a settlement, villagers paddled up to the barge, their canoes piled high with bananas, freshly shot antelope or homemade bamboo chairs. They stood to paddle, enhancing their already swift, angled approaches to the fast-moving barge.

Hippos lie in the sun along the Zaire River. Photo by Jonathan Proud
Hippos lie in the sun along the Zaire River. Photo by Jonathan Proud

With babies on their backs and hair a mass of wired pigtails, merchant women paddled in, grabbed railings and began to barter even before stepping on board. At times, up to a hundred canoes were lashed to the boat.

Sellers yelled out offers. Buyers threw their hands in the air and responded with disbelieving guffaws. Fishermen dragged huge capitaine fish up the stairs at breakneck speed to be the first to sell to the cook.

More than once, I stepped outside my cabin when this organized chaos woke me in the middle of the night. Once a villager sold all the bananas, palm wine or whatever filled the canoe, he or she stepped on board to buy cloth or soap or sit for a haircut from the barge barber.

After, they paddled back to their villages, by then miles upstream.We went first-class, for about $100, mainly because we wanted more than the one meal a day offered in second- or third-class. Also, sleeping in a cabin seemed like a reasonable idea.

Third-class passengers established territory anywhere they found two square yards of space on board. Our first-class room held two narrow cots, a small shower and toilet and flowed with erratic air-conditioning. Even at six in the morning, temperatures hovered at a humid 32 degrees C (90 F.).

Zaire (The Democratic Republic of Congo) is one massive river basin filled with forest. The river arches its way almost 4800 kilometers (92,983 mi)from the south up and across the equator and back down. Shortly after Stanley’s journey, the Belgians opened a trade route up the Zaire into Kisangani to take out rubber and ivory, and later, slaves. In the 1960s, Kisangani was the scene of mass killings during Zaire’s fight for independence. An uneasy calm has settled over Kinshasa after civil unrest erupted in violence starting in 1993 and continuing for years, even to the present day.

For many people aboard the boat this trip was not an adventure, but a job. Raja and Antoine, for example, two men who rode back and forth between Kisangani and Kinshasa, sold combs and other toiletry items on the barge, while carrying onions, say, from rural areas and hauling them to Kinshasa to fetch ten times the cost.

Goats were hauled alive. So were crocodiles — jaws and tails bound to strong bamboo poles. Chicks and baby crocodiles were cooked and eaten as a snack. Eels were sun-baked, then stacked in baskets. European-style meals were served in the first-class dining lounge, but the bazaar-bedecked third-class area served live or barbecued grubs, sardines in hot pepper sauce, and deep-fried donuts.

Every night, Zairian music floated from the dance hall. When we didn’t go dancing, we climbed a ladder to the barge’s rooftop, and waited for the evening show — the setting sun. Near the equator, it appeared large and glowed pink, then orange, before dipping down into a yolky haze.

We welcomed the cooling blackness as much as the captain disliked it. All night, he swept a searchlight from bank to bank looking for river buoys or markers. If he couldn’t spot one, he dropped anchor and moored the barge for the night.On the sixth night, we stopped in Mbandaka, a major commercial port along the route. Raja, Antoine, Joyce and I decided to go for a walk about the village.

Sipping Primus beer around an outdoor table, we talked late into the night about the differences between this country and my own, Canada. We didn’t know when the barge was to leave, so kept an ear out for a whistle blast.It left only the next morning. I awoke with a headache, surely from an excess of speaking French. I watched the morning fog rise to expose packets of bamboo stalks along the riverbank. Although I was traveling in relative luxury compared with most people on the barge, I was eager to arrive in Kinshasa.

Late on the ninth day, we saw the lights of Kinshasa. After landing, we flagged a taxi to take us to a cheap hotel in the “African quarters,” close to night food stalls and dancing establishments — focal points for an exciting time in Kinshasa. In the lobby, we met travelers who listened intently as Joyce recounted sights that now seemed commonplace to me. I stared off into one of the far corners of the lobby and thought of the people who make that river journey — back and forth, back and forth.


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