As the Sowidaja – our boat – makes it way down the Congo river, some traders leave but new passengers are still boarding. By now there are some 200 passengers, but the Sowidaja has not become any bigger.
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.
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.”