PROJECTS: CONGO RIVER: DRC
Imagine traveling on two rusty barges connected to a tugboat, loaded with forty tons of palm oil, several hundred bags of maize and about five hundred passengers sleeping in the open in conditions resembling conditions in a refugee camp. Imagine a vessel without any lifeboats, life jackets, a badly trained crew, and no communication equipment in case of
emergency. Not even a radio. Mobile phones only work in bigger cities along the way. Five weeks of fighting among the crew, between passengers, domestic violence...fighting every night. Every day you have to wrestle to secure a place to cook, sleep and to place your children and baggage. Next to you are pigs, goats, monkeys, lizards, crocodiles, snakes, parrots, etc.
Five hundred passengers have to share two toilets. All the passengers wash themselves and drink the river water. No fresh water onboard. This is boat travel today on the Congo
I recently spent five weeks on one of these barges, sharing space with about five hundred people on a journey from Kisangani to Kinshasa to get a picture of Democratic
Republic of Congo today, a country of about 62 million people and barely any infrastructure and development for decades. A journey starting In Kisangani with the big port market, where villagers trade from wooden dugout canoes. The fishing village of Wagenia, where they have been fishing since the 1870s, fighting nearby tribes and colonialists. Henry Morton Stanley founded Stanley Falls station in 1883 near the village. Young children still sacrifice schooling to learn to fish with bow nets in the rapids. In Lukutu the whole village is dependent on
a Palm oil factory built by the Belgians in 1911, and about 10,000 people are dependent on it.
The factory has not been updated for many years and they use trucks from World War 11 era. Most of the factories machines are run on steam. It had to close during the recent civil war. The river was closed to traffic for about five years.
In Bumba we look for the mother of Clarisse Mondo, age 13, a girl who traveled from Kisangani by herself, as her sister had died a few days before the boat departed. She wanted to travel to Bumba to look for her mother. We found out that her mother moved to Goma in the eastern Congo, her birthplace, and Clarisse has no way of contacting her or hope of finding her. Clarisse is taken care of by a family on the boat, and she decides to follow them to Kinshasa to start a new life.
In Lisala I visited the looted palace of former president Mobuto Sese Seko. He was born n Lisala and he built a palace overlooking the Congo River. A palace with everything imported from Europe. He lined the streets with streetlights, built an airport and strip so his plane could land. Nowadays the streetlights are still there, but there’s no electricity in Lisala. Advancing rebel soldiers looted the palace during the recent civil war. A private school now uses it and hundreds of children attend classes.
In Mbandaka I got to know four 14-year old girls that live in the harbor and work as prostitutes. They have been living in a one-room shack in the harbor for years. They spend the day swimming, eating and sleeping. During the night hours they work in the port and the nearby bar, where they service clients such as dockworkers and crews on visiting boats. The girls sell themselves for about 1 US$ dollar and sometimes for less.
La Belle Kin – The beautiful Kinshasa, as it was called in better times. The capital city with about eight million people and a city without any public transport and only one overcrowded
commuter train that makes two trips a day. A city where Congolese from around the country come to look for a brighter future. Most people end up in extreme poverty in poor suburbs. The lively neighborhood Matonge still draws many people with its many bars and restaurants. Matonge has some of the best nightclubs in Africa and the fashionable people dress in Versace jackets and Paul Gaultier T-shirts. With a total length of 4371 (about 2,720 miles) kilometers, the Congo River is the second largest river in Africa, after the Nile.
From its source in south Katanga, in the village of Musfi, at an elevation of 1435 meters, the rive contours the country, passing through Kisangani, Lukutu, Bumba, Lisala, Mbandaka,
Kinshasa, and Matadi before reaching the Atlantic Ocean.
The Congo ranges in width from 0.5 to 10 miles depending on the season and weather. The river is the biggest transportation source in Central Africa. The largest navigable portion of the Congo River is between Kisangani and Kinshasa, a distance of about 1750 kilometers.
Millions of people depend on the river for irrigation, transport and trade. As Congo, DRC has very little infrastructure, many boats trade on it, traveling between Kisangani and the
Capital Kinshasa, a journey that takes about 3-7 weeks depending on the boat and its schedule. It’s surrounded by rainforests and many animal species such as Black Hippo,
Elephants, Crocodiles and hundreds of fish species. People from different ethnic groups live along the river and more than 400 different dialects are spoken.
Under the rule of former president Mobuto Sese Seko, many big boats traveled on the River. These boats, ran by the state company ONATRA, transported passengers in comfort,
and had cabins and restaurants. Most of the boats are now private and mainly transport goods. The crews sell tickets and the passengers sleep in the open, often in very bad conditions. ONATRA has recently started operations again, but they mainly transport goods. The big passenger boats are currently parked in the port in Kinshasa, resembling a cemetery, where all the boats and barges stand idle and rusting. Many employees show up for work every day, but there’s no work do to since the early 1990s.