Yolanda Bedu (14), a prostitute in the port area of Mbandaka who charges about 50 cents for sex and $2 for a whole night. Her clients are mainly dockworkers and the crew on visiting boats. It is estimated that there are nearly one million people affected by HIV/Aids in DRC, of which barely 50,000 are receiving any treatment.
Congo – Long Read

Sailing the Congo River takes a month

Photo by Per-Anders Pettersson / Getty Images

Congo – Long Read Sailing the Congo River takes a month

Hello Congo, where sailing on the Congo River from Kisangani, in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, to the capital, Kinshasa, is a 1,750 km voyage that takes a month. The dangers and hardships call for a hardy constitution but bind those onboard together in a shared experience. When the ship leaves, it carries passengers. When it arrives, it carries a 200-person family.

Arne Doornebal
Arne Doornebal Journalist

Rogier has been waiting for the MB Sowidaja’s departure for two weeks now. He sits under a plastic sheet, using it to protect him and his two children against the heat. Here in Kisangani, in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the heat is almost unbearable. It seems as if the hundreds of kilometers of tropical rainforest that surround this place immediately repel every effort at a refreshing breeze.

His children complain and keep asking when the boat will leave. “I don’t know,” Rogier tells them time after time. The caring father warns me never to stick my foot between the two barges. They are bound together with steel cables but sometimes the waves drift them slightly apart. “If they collide they can easily break your bones.” A small but strong push tug is connected at the back of these two barges. With all these three elements linked together the Sowidaja looks set to start the long journey along the Congo River to the capital, Kinshasa.

Four days later I join Rogier, his children and over 100 other passengers. I was assured that the Sowidaja would leave today so I have come with all my luggage. In recent days, two major boat accidents have shocked the Congo, one with 30 casualties and one that left more than 100 people drowned on the Kasai River. People still giggle when they see me carrying a massive orange life-jacket on board.

The long wait has now started. Soon we hear that we won’t leave today or even tomorrow, but previous experience tells me that we may suddenly cast off once paperwork is cleared. The majority of the passengers are traders, who know that sitting around on or near the ship is the safest way to guarantee a place onboard. Gaston Tshibuabua, 33, welcomes me. He usually spends the days with his friend Adou Beya Bulungu, who is three years younger. “I boarded the Sowidaja nearly two months ago,” Adou says. For all those weeks the boat has been loading goods, passengers and enduring dozens of visits from several authorities, who all demand a bribe. They call it ‘pourboire’ here; which means ‘for drinking’ in French.

While the barges fill up, cars are driven on deck

We sit. The wealthier passengers have bought their own plastic chair, and I was advised to come with mine. We watch. The two barges are being filled up with merchandise. The items were bought further east of the country, up to 1,000 km from here. Iron sheets are carried inside, as well as bales of clothes, pots, pans, bowls, toys, iron sheets, shoes and hair creams. While the barges fill up, cars are driven on deck.

Decades ago, cranes were once used for this but in the troubled 50 years since Congo’s independence they have all rusted away. Nowadays, the only way to get a car on deck is to drive it from the wharf over two thick planks. “Once in a while accidents happen and a car plunges into the water,” says Gaston.

Most of the female passengers spend their days preparing meals. The charcoal stoves create black spots on the steel barges but can’t damage them. Gaston decides he is personally going to take care of me, the only white traveler among the Africans. “Everybody will try to cheat you so I will make sure they won’t,” he says. Soon we strike a deal with ‘Mama Rosie’. For two dollars she will buy some beef and vegetables on the market and prepare it for us.

Since it doesn’t look like we will leave today, we relax in a tiny bar near the ship where we enjoy Congo’s famed Primus beer, only available in 0.7-liter bottles. Gaston tells me more about his life. “I had five children. But two of them passed away,” he says. He is surprised to hear I have only one child. “You should have at least three. Otherwise you might end up alone. For example, if you have only two and they both die.” Death here is never very far away.

An unattractive prostitute is unsuccessfully begging me for a beer. Saddam joins us. He likes women and has a ‘girlfriend’ on board. In fact, he has two. “When the woman cooks for you she may as well join you during the long dark nights,” he explains. “That is the regular routine. The female traders make sure they have a man to accompany them during the journey. This way they can make some extra money, while the man needs someone to cook.” When we come back Mama Rosie has prepared a wonderful meal for us: rice and beef. I thank her and clarify that I don’t need any other services from her.

You just don’t want to miss the departure

We are settling into some kind of a normal daily routine. Unsurprisingly, we don’t leave on day number three as we were told. Or on day four. Most of the passengers spend the nights on the boat. “You can stay in a cheap hotel next to the port but you just don’t want to miss the departure, which is usually at five in the morning,” Gaston says. He prefers saving money by sleeping on deck. People rest in between their luggage, under a plastic sheet to protect them from the sometimes heavy showers. Other passengers don’t have any cover; they sleep in the open air just inches away from the mighty river.

Staff members stay in tiny rooms inside the barge, which are generally also stuffed with merchandise to make the journey as efficient as possible. They find me a special sleeping place: after paying $70 for the transport fare to Kinshasa I am given the key of a Toyota Land Cruiser. During the day, I can leave my luggage there in a secure place and at night I squeeze onto the back seats.

Nobody is really comfortable. People wake up as the sun comes up (between 6 am and 7 am) and most of them won’t rest before midnight. After waking up, I take a bite of bread for breakfast and then look for Adou and Gaston. Sometimes they are still dozing in their small sleeping space where luggage is stacked dangerously high.

“I spent $3,000 to buy merchandise in the town of Butembo,” Gaston says. Butembo is 1,000 km east, near the border with Uganda. It is a trading town full of cheap imported materials, mainly from China. He has a collection of kitchenware, from pots and pans to knives and spoons, as well as shoes and clothes, including underwear. Everything is chosen for being unbreakable as well as with an eye to the profit.

I will buy new clothes for my three children

“I took these things as luggage in a bus going from there to Kisangani,” he says. “After the river trip I will offload my freight. Then I’ll transport it for another 500 km with my new motorcycle.” Gaston’s final destination is Gemena: a city in the very north of DR Congo, close to the Central-African Republic. Dragging this merchandise through his country for over 2,000 km is his way to earn money. “I hope to gain a few hundred dollars,” he says. “Then I will buy new clothes for my three children.”

One evening, Gaston takes me to a nearby ship. It is much larger than ours, with a three-story-high bridge, but it hasn’t been running for many years. It is now used as a hotel. We walk nearly 50 meters to the other end of the deck, where nobody can see us in the dark, and use a bucket of fresh River Congo water to shower. It is truly refreshing, quite the opposite of using the normal tiny and steamy washing space that doubles as a toilet. We are more than 150 people now and the barges have only one toilet each.

The latest Congolese hits come screaming from Adou’s new radio set, which is part of his merchandise. He shows me a bottle of cheap gin. “When I feel bored I drink it,” Adou says. This evening it seems as if everybody joins the party. Encouraged by a huge Primus beer, I start a little dance under the full moon and soon a dozen people have joined in. This is the famous Congolese way: no matter how hard the conditions of life may be; with a little bit of music – and booze – there is always time to party. Adou shares his gin with us.

They start praying loudly, surrounding the bed

The day we were supposed to leave, the wife of our mechanic took very ill. We visit her in hospital and see her ailing. “The patient needs rest,” a security guard tries convincing us as a large group of the boat ‘family’ reaches the hospital. Then they start praying loudly, surrounding the bed.

The next day we set off, without the mechanic who has decided to stay with his – unofficial – wife. Three months after the Sowidaja started loading, it finally loosens the steel cables, makes a U-turn and starts going downstream. Soon we reach our top speed of ten kilometers per hour. Kinshasa is 1,730 km from here. Just hours later we receive news from the mechanic: the woman has passed away.

The front deck of the Sowidaja resembles the central square of a village, with the intensity of a refugee camp. Some 30 people are crammed together on less than 15 square meters. Women are preparing food around the clock, cooking on charcoal stoves like they are at home. Men debate together or play a game of checkers. Orange Fanta caps are used as checker stones, playing against the blue caps of Primus beer. Their board is made of cardboard. A constant flow of wooden canoes approaches our ship. Once their boats are attached to the Sowidaja, the villagers climb on board, selling chikwanga (cooked manioc), bananas, charcoal or edible larvae to the cooking women.

Conditions are tougher than when we were still in the port. There are no brief escapes anymore to nearby bars or the market. Getting from one side of the ship to the other can take half an hour, since it is a constant struggle not to step on anyone’s toes. The middle especially has dozens of people crammed together in a very small space. “We are suffering,” Rogier says “It is really too hot here.” His children are lying on a mat, half under a car to get some shade.

It is too dangerous to be on the river at night

In the evenings there is some relief. “The river is very shallow so it is too dangerous to be on the Congo River at night,” says Gaston. As darkness falls the Sowidaja anchors near the river bank, usually in a village where the bush is cleared. “Tonight I will take my mat from the boat and sleep on shore,” Gaston says. “It is much nicer there than on the boat. It is simply overcrowded.” I join a group of men as they go bathing in the river.

We are truly in the middle of nowhere. There is neither GSM coverage nor electricity here. People eat what they catch in the river or the forest and not much more. “I use a canoe to go to school,” a 30-year-old teacher tells me one day when he passes by with his canoe. “It takes me half an hour to reach the school downstream, but one and a half to get back. We have one textbook for 40 pupils.”

There isn’t much to do during the long days on the river. We stare at the water, listen to the constant sound of the engine and look out for pirogues that come to sell fresh fruit or bush meat. Few people read and if they do it is always The Bible. So we talk, chat and gossip. After a week we suddenly get into more serious topics, as if trust had first to be won.

One afternoon, two different people express a similar view: “With all respect, you white people are mean.” From the beginning I have noticed a lukewarm welcome as a white person in Congo, much different than Uganda where I live. Several people have told me they are convinced that all white people are racists. Black-white relationships here have been greatly strained during the harsh colonial regime of Belgium, followed by decades of dictatorship under Mobutu Sese Seko, the man who plundered the Congo – and who was openly backed by the USA.

Western countries keep stealing our minerals

One afternoon which seems hotter than the others, we lay down between the luggage, not able to move anywhere. We start discussing the International Criminal Court, which is prosecuting Congolese warlords. “Your ICC is interfering in our politics,” Adou says. “They prosecute one of our politicians, Jean-Pierre Bemba, for war crimes. But isn’t our current president, Joseph Kabila, guilty of war crimes too? And how about the leaders of our neighboring countries?”

There is more on Adou’s mind. “Western countries keep stealing our minerals, while the United Nations mission in the Congo (Monusco) doesn’t protect us at all,” he says. Fellow travelers seem to agree. “The good thing is that God will punish the Western countries who steal our riches by sending them a tsunami or a tornado,” Gaston says.

The pace of the Sowidaja is slow, but the stop-overs at ports are slower. We spend days in every port town, good places to buy new supplies for the next stretch of the journey. Before reaching the halfway point of the trip my friends Gaston and Adou disembark. “Don’t forget to visit us one day in Gemena,” Gaston shouts as he drives off on a motorcycle packed with goods.

Although some traders leave the Sowidaja, new passengers are still boarding. Some come from a remote fishing village, where they have been waiting for weeks in a canoe. Then they quickly hit the water, chase our boat and ask for a ride to Kinshasa. If they are lucky, they can. Sometimes when the boat is really full they are refused and, disappointed, they paddle back to their village, ready to wait for the next ship that passes. By now there are some 200 passengers, but the Sowidaja has not become any bigger.

I contribute $7 for a freshly-caught monkey

Dozens of fishermen come aboard, hoping to sell their fish in the capital city. Paul Akilimani is one of them. “I failed to find work as a mechanic in town so I resorted to fishing,” he says. “We smoke the fish so it doesn’t spoil.” The deck of the Sowidaja is now full of empty oil barrels, filled with charcoal and constantly smoking fish. The ship starts to look like Noah’s Ark, since among the other ‘passengers’ are monkeys, ducks, crocodiles, goats, and a monitor lizard, all still alive and destined for sale in Kinshasa. Crocodile meat is really expensive; I am offered one for $100. Instead I agree to sponsor the evening’s dinner by contributing $7 for a freshly-caught monkey.

The last part of the trip goes faster. As we approach ‘Kin la belle’ (Kinshasa) the river becomes narrower and mightier. Here it is the border between two countries, both called Congo. I now spend most of my time with Paul and his friend Rufin Wema, as they explain everything about fish. “It is good business,” Rufin says. He drinks a sip of untreated water from the river and continues: “When I come from Kinshasa I normally take a bale full of second-hand T-shirts. I can sell them in the fishermen’s villages at a dollar each. On my way back I come with fish to sell in Kinshasa.”

On the 29th day after I came on board, we reach the outskirts of Kinshasa. It will take the Sowidaja another day to reach the heart of the city. But most travelers opt to leave the ship here to find public transport into this city of ten million inhabitants. I am eager to have a bit of privacy and to sleep in a proper bed again for the first time in almost a month.

Paul agrees. “I can’t wait to be back home after three months,” he says before calling his wife to tell her. “I spend two weeks at home, then I will go back to the boat for my next trip,” he says. Rufin also won’t be with his family for more than 14 days. “It is true. For us we are so often from home that it is almost like we are married to our fish.”