The Main Road Through the Heart of Africa Is the Congo River—For Those Who Dare to Take It

Passengers travel by overloaded freight barges on 1,000-mile journeys that can take months.

This story appears in the October 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine.

The boat travels under a sky seething with starlight. It thrashes its way through a body of water that sometimes seems oceanic in its vastness and at other times barely more than a shallow creek, which is why it is foolish—and for that matter illegal—to be traveling in the dark. To those on the boat, such considerations—what is prudent, what is lawful—are not entirely insignificant. Ultimately, however, a single rule supersedes all others: Here on the Congo River, one does as one must.

The boat is dangerously encumbered. It pushes three barges by means of an engine that was built to convey about 750 tons. The cargo—iron rods, sacks of cement, food products—exceeds 900 tons. Ruffling over the barges is a patchwork roof of tarps and cloth, and beneath it are some 600 human passengers. Perhaps half of them paid up to $80 for the journey upriver. The rest sneaked aboard.

Many are city dwellers hoping to find work harvesting corn and peanuts. A few of the women, toting portable charcoal stoves, have hired themselves out as cooks. Others, as prostitutes. One does as one must. There is singing, bickering, praying. The aromas of charcoal smoke and mortal claustrophobia. Jugs of home-fermented whiskey make the rounds. Now and again an overserved passenger falls overboard. So far no one has drowned, but the journey is still young.

In a berth on the upper level of the boat a slightly built man in his 40s sits in a corner reading a Bible by flashlight. His name is Joseph. Two years ago he acquired this vessel for $800,000. He had been in the air freight business and believed at the time that the rules of the sky would more or less apply to the river.

He has come to learn otherwise. His crew consists primarily of thieves, one of them a nephew by marriage. Joseph estimates that they have smuggled maybe 200 tons of excess cargo onto the boat—taxing the engine, slowing the pace, risking running the boat aground and thus imperiling everyone on board, and of course cheating the owner out of the profits.

Public boats, with ample sleeping quarters, plied the Congo until the government of the DRC let them fall into disrepair. Now river traffic consists largely of barges (top) and pirogues (center).

Joseph worries that the crew knows he’s on to them. He fears they will pay the cook to poison his food. Bread and butter are all he’ll take for nourishment. He is disgusted by all the depravity. The other night the captain cut the engine for a few hours so that he could climb down to a barge and have his way with some of the female passengers. And so Joseph takes refuge in his Bible. He is surrounded by sinners. He is one himself. Others in his family are preachers, but Joseph loves money. At the end of the year, after all is said and done, he will be $100,000 wealthier. By then, perhaps it will be worth it.

“Do you have more aspirin?” he asks me.

I hand him a couple of pills, which he gratefully takes with his Coca-Cola. Photographer Pascal Maitre and I are sympathetic to Joseph. We joined his boat after a ten-day debacle involving another boat in the port of Kinshasa. That boat was called—promisingly, we thought at the time—the Kwema Express. The boat’s manager was a stocky and unflappable fellow who charged us for a berth, for an accompanying pirogue with outboard motor, for security, for maintenance, for new parts, for all sorts of official papers, for everything he could think of, perhaps $5,000 worth, pretty much cleaning us out. All well and good. But then the boat’s engine wouldn’t start. Then the boat couldn’t be dislodged from the silt. Then a swollen human body was discovered bobbing alongside.

We decided to cut our losses. We heard about Joseph and his boat, met with him in a Kinshasa hotel, came to terms, wired for more money, and then flew with him to the mangy port city of Mbandaka, where his crew was busily overloading the boat with black market cargo by day and making merry with the local women by night. Two days later we are at last on our way, plowing upstream to Kisangani, the city at the fabled bend in the river.

Our aim is to understand this one constant in the turbulent history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Does the mighty river offer some untapped promise for a nation long stricken with poverty and corruption? Or is the Congo River a universe of its own?

It’s February, the dry season, and the river is low and malty. Falcons soar, and waterfowl skitter across the sky. Every few miles the immensity of rain forest hemming the water gives way to a rickety collection of thatched-roof homes. Children pour out of them, waving. Some climb into their pirogues and paddle ferociously toward the boat so as to ride its wake like spindly little surfers. The last of the pirogues disappears back into the bush under a raging sunset. At night Pascal and I lie in sleeping bags under mosquito nets on the roof of the boat, directly above us a tattered DRC flag. There is no electricity to corrupt the heavens. No noise of any kind except for the growling of the engine until early in the morning, when we wake to the sound of song. A preacher is leading other passengers in prayer. We climb down to investigate.

Dawn hasn’t yet broken, but already coal fires are burning and women are frying beignets. Other passengers have risen from their foam mattresses and begun to lay out their wares for sale: soap, batteries, herbal potions, shoes, rancid whiskey. Soon visitors from deep in the bush will paddle up in their pirogues and hoist themselves spiderlike aboard the barges, bearing their own products to barter: bananas, catfish, carp, boas, baboons, ducks, crocodiles. The floating marketplace will proceed throughout the day, with as many as a dozen pirogues lashed to the boat at any given time. It soon becomes clear to us that the regimen is completely symbiotic and anything but frivolous. Absent this commerce, the passengers don’t eat and the villagers don’t have medication for a baby’s fever or a new pot to replace the rusted one.

The preacher, whose name is Simon, is selling used jeans and shirts. He’s traveling to a church in Lisala, the birthplace of the former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. “Back in Mobutu’s time I could afford to have a good room of my own,” he laments, referring to the barge—but also perhaps to the disorder under the DRC’s current president, Joseph Kabila. “It’s hard to enjoy these conditions. All we can do is pray to put this trip in God’s hands.”

Simon has a companion, a broad-shouldered man named Celestin who owns a small rubber and palm oil plantation in Binga, a village alongside a tributary known as the Mongala River. He seems entranced to see two white foreigners aboard the boat.

“I had a dream last night that two strangers came to visit my plantation,” Celestin tells us. “So perhaps God has sent you!”

We smile back and mumble our appreciation for the invitation. We also make no promises. The first thing you learn when you’re on the Congo River is that nothing is governable, least of all the pace. The river is low, the boat is heavy, the captain is guzzling Congolese whiskey from a jar, the owner has retreated into Scripture. Though out here we are the lucky ones, out here luck is the flimsiest currency of all.

Travel on the Congo requires patience. Progress can be as slow as a few miles an hour. Barges get stuck in silt. Engines break down. Time inches by. Men play checkers.
Travel on the Congo requires patience. Progress can be as slow as a few miles an hour. Barges get stuck in silt. Engines break down. Time inches by. Men play checkers.

The river connects nine African countries along its nearly 3,000-mile journey to the Atlantic Ocean, but its identity is inseparable from that of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“The Congo River is the spine of our country,” says Isidore Ndaywel è Nziem, a professor of history at the University of Kinshasa. “Without a spine, a man cannot stand up.” Seen this way, the river pathway—which, after traveling northward from Boyoma Falls (formerly Stanley Falls, for the great explorer Henry Morton Stanley), takes a southwestward plunge toward the ocean—traces the figure of a dogged but severely hobbled peasant. That it has no real governing authority makes the Congo River the nation’s great equalizer. It also greatly diminishes the river’s value as a resource. Given the 1.5 million-square-mile river basin’s immense hydroelectric and agricultural potential, all of Africa could be beholden to it, and thus to its mother country. Instead the river remains wild, and the DRC staggers under the weight of overpopulation, poverty, lawlessness, and corruption.

The river and its tributaries have served as human-migration pathways traceable back to Bantu-speaking settlers in 400 B.C. For the DRC today, the waterways function as the primary connective tissue between the village, the city, the ocean, and the outside world. Such facts do not capture its full significance, however. That the Congo River has long been viewed as far more than its mighty discharge—an average of nearly 1.5 million cubic feet per second—and that it might hold the key to diamonds, minerals, or anything else coveted by civilizations is a matter of historical record. In 1885 Belgium’s King Leopold II colonized the Congo Free State, a country nearly 80 times the size of his own, damning all cost and regard for human rights in his frenzied quest to exploit the river basin’s rubber trade. Joseph Conrad’s 1902 classic novel Heart of Darkness chronicled the folly of Western ivory traders pillaging a shadowy, indomitable river basin. More than a century later the Congo’s place in our imagination hasn’t changed. Nor has the ongoing failure to tame it.

For decades the government-owned Office National des Transports, or ONATRA, held a monopoly on all river traffic and commerce. That changed during the 1990s, in the waning years of the Mobutu regime. As top ONATRA official Sylvestre Many Tra Hamany acknowledges, “Our boat engines became old and started breaking down, which caused long delays and the loss of our credibility.”

In response, says Thierry André Mayele of the waterways management authority Régie des Voies Fluviales (RVF), “Our politicians decided to liberalize navigation of the river chiefly so that they themselves could profit in the business.” The Congolese officials wrote regulatory and taxing laws that could be circumvented effortlessly. They paid port commissars so meagerly that bribery and extortion would trump all else. They starved ONATRA, RVF, and every other river authority of resources. So it holds today. The government has seen to it that the DRC’s greatest natural treasure is thoroughly ungoverned.

Those who travel the river know this, know the attendant risks. The ongoing exploitation of the river basin’s timber by local and foreign interests has contributed to substantial erosion. This reality—combined with the government’s failure to dredge the river, the ease with which boat crews can bribe port authorities to ignore excess tonnage, and the absence of emergency vessels on the water—means that passengers enter a fateful lottery when they embark. “Every year on average five boats sink due to being overloaded with cargo,” says Mayele. Two months before we boarded Joseph’s boat, a similar vessel capsized not far from Kinshasa. According to Mayele, “The captain was drunk and hit a rock. On a big boat like that one, there’s no way of knowing how many passengers drowned, because there’s no manifest.”

He adds, “The figures put out by the government say 30 or 40 died.” His skeptical chuckle tells the rest.

Still, the precariousness of the river traffic only hints at the wholesale abandonment of the Congo by the DRC. To discover the most searing evidence of that abandonment, one must travel deeper into the river basin, as Pascal and I do months later, on a vessel much smaller than a floating village. One must willingly become unfixed from chronology and crisp itineraries, move gamely with the current until information gleaned from passing conversations with other river dwellers prompts a detour. Scan the shoreline for signs of life in the bush. Disembark. And have faith.

We find the village of Yailombo, a community of 200 fishing families, after renting a pirogue with an outboard motor in Kisangani, heading three hours downriver to Isangi, then turning south on the Lomami River, a major tributary of the Congo that we follow for a full day. It’s now November, and by late morning the sunlight is so scorching that the women we see transporting plantains and cassava on pirogues hold umbrellas overhead to protect the infants they’re cradling.

Upon disembarking, I follow the sounds of chanting schoolchildren. They’re sitting on plastic chairs, crammed into what looks like a large, dilapidated bamboo cage. The teacher is Cesar, 23, with a wispy mustache and a shy smile. I can tell by his ropy arms that he also works on the river.

“Well,” he explains, “I fish from six at night until six in the morning. Then I teach from seven until noon. Teaching doesn’t pay me enough to feed my family.” What he catches, he smoke cures, and his wife then transports the dried fish by water to Kisangani—five or six days of paddling each way. Kisangani, Cesar says, is the farthest from home that he’s ever been.

For teaching Yailombo’s 53 third graders, he says, the villagers pay him about $18.50 a month. The bamboo schoolhouse is all the village has, because it takes more than a day by pirogue to get to the nearest government-registered school.

“Has anyone from the Congolese government ever visited Yailombo?” I ask.

Cesar nods. “During election season, when they campaign with their propaganda,” he says. “They come and make promises to build a clinic or a school. It never happens.”

Like every other village we visit, Yailombo has no clinic, no paved roads, no cars, no running water, no electricity, no phone service, no Internet, no police, no newspapers. What it has are the river and the bush. If nothing else, the remoteness protects such hamlets from the carnage inflicted by militias in the eastern DRC. Several days before arriving in Yailombo, on the outskirts of Kisangani, we encountered Wagenia fishermen, who are famed for their audacious method of netting fish while clinging to bamboo scaffolds just above the Congo River’s frothing cataracts. When I asked the 47-year-old Wagenia chief, Beaka Aifila, if there’d ever been a time when his people had felt the presence of an external authority, he didn’t hesitate.

“During the six-day war,” he replied, referring to the June 2000 conflict between Ugandan and Rwandan troops in the brutal Second Congo War (1998-2003), when heavy fighting spilled over into Kisangani. “In the mornings when we checked our nets, we found human bodies instead of fish.”

We leave the Lomami River and return to the Congo. It’s now the rainy season, and we have the great river practically to ourselves as we head northwest with the current. Days pass without the sight of another motorized vessel. For whatever reason, commerce is slow, barges are scarce. At the same time, the fishermen in their pirogues are having less luck in the rain-swollen river. We buy everything they have. Whenever we hear of markets, we go to them—bustling bazaars a mile or so into the bush—and acquire peanuts, bananas, bread, tomatoes, charcoal.

Each stop at one of the larger river towns—which we make only when we must, for gasoline and other important supplies—entails a dreary encounter with some uniformed official from the Direction Générale de Migration, who pores over our papers and asks the same skeptical questions and ultimately demands his price for the favor of leaving us alone. Our traveling group includes an affable fellow from the Kisangani office of the Agence Nationale de Renseignements (ANR), the Congo’s version of the FBI. Ostensibly we’re paying him to ensure our expeditious passage downriver. In practice, he’s there to help drink our beer.

From time to time the brilliant azure skies darken, an avalanche of rain pummels our pirogue, and we duck into a cove of raggedy homes on stilts, where the fishermen take us in and offer us yellow plastic jugs full of palm wine. At dusk we seek out bare tracts along the river where we can spread our sleeping bags and cook our food. The locals gather around us and stare at our laptops for as long as we use them. We push out early each morning after first paying the fishermen for the use of their land. The distant sight of them still waving from the shoreline of those unnamed communes is what I choose to remember rather than the uniformed grifters in Bumba and Lisala.

After a long day plowing up the storm-churned Mongala River, a tributary to the Congo, we arrive late one evening at the port town of Binga. A large bald man climbs out of a pickup truck and embraces us at the docks. It’s Celestin, the passenger on Joseph’s boat who’d dreamed that two foreigners would come visit him.

For the next few nights in Binga, Pascal and I are treated to surprising comfort, reposing in a handsome four-bedroom house of wood and concrete with vaulted ceilings. The house is owned by the American CEO of the plantation company that dominates Binga. How Celestin secured it for our stay is never made clear. The original occupant was a Belgian who established the rubber company in 1914 in what had hitherto been a nondescript fishing village named Mbinkya, later bastardized by the colonizers to Binga. There had been beautiful paintings on the walls. A Ping-Pong table. A Mercedes in the driveway. Electrical power around the clock, here and throughout the town. Then in 1997 Mobutu fell; two years later the Belgians fled Binga. Rebels looted the rubber baron’s home. Today the American CEO visits infrequently.

The plantations now grow mainly palm trees for oil. The number of full-time salaried workers has been reduced from 4,000 to 650. The town no longer has electricity. A total of three cars—all owned by the company—share Binga’s muddy thoroughfares with pedestrians and motorcyclists. Nostalgia for that comparatively gilded era pervades the town.

The company remains here for a reason—three of them really. The tropical climate is optimal for rubber and palm trees, the labor is cheap, and the river makes possible the barging of its products 800 miles downstream to a waiting Western market. In turn Binga retains the ethos of a company town—albeit with threadbare benefits. For its 67,000 inhabitants, the 2,000 seasonal jobs on the plantations are the only alternative to the subsistence life of fishing, hunting, and farming. The company maintains schools and clinics.

Yet a traditional Ngombe structure persists. A resident told me that recently the chief had grown angry at the failure of the local fishermen to respect Ngombe ways and punished them by putting a curse on the town’s fishing trade. For three years, I was told, few fish were caught, and many people starved. The fishermen were brought to their knees, and the chief removed the curse. All of this suggested to me a show of muscle for which the warlike Ngombe were once known, before the minions of King Leopold came to exploit the river basin.

“The Belgian colonization killed the Congolese soul,” historian Kambayi Bwatshia later told me. “In these plantations they were sending people to work by force and cutting their hands off if they didn’t work hard enough. Those who are saying it was better under colonization—or under Mobutu—are simply tired of the chaos. Still, underneath it all, they want to recover their dignity.”

Some ways of life go on as they always have. Wagenia fishermen still craft enormous traps to snare fish in the roiling rapids outside of Kisangani, just as they did when the explorer Henry Morton Stanley first observed them during his famous voyage down the river in 1877.
Some ways of life go on as they always have. Wagenia fishermen still craft enormous traps to snare fish in the roiling rapids outside of Kisangani, just as they did when the explorer Henry Morton Stanley first observed them during his famous voyage down the river in 1877.

Those last words apply all too poignantly to Celestin. One morning I hop on the back of his motorcycle, and we drive for a half hour along rain-spattered dirt roads until we arrive at his family’s plantation—expansive but scruffy, hardly resembling the geometric order of the American plantation. Still, it’s with evident pride that Celestin tells me, “This concession was bought by my father in 1980. It travels 800 meters [875 yards] along the road and extends four miles into the forest. It was all bush when he bought it. He had a good job with the Belgian company and saved up his money. I was the third of ten children. We grew up with air-conditioning, with a jeep, with sausage and cheese—with all these beautiful things. It was a privilege to grow up under such conditions, when for all the other Congolese living along the river, life is so difficult. We imitated the life of Westerners. You see a white man starting a plantation, and you think, Even if I can’t be just like him, at least I can start a small plantation of my own and feed my family on my own.”

Celestin points off into the forest. It was there, he says, that he and his family hid for a month in 1999, living off bananas and cassavas and occasionally bush meat, while the Congolese rebels ransacked the family home. “Life isn’t comparable to the period before the war,” he says. But, he adds, “I must continue with the plantation. It’s important for my children. Plantations are stable. You can eat and send your kids to a decent school and be present to help educate them. It’s not much, but you’re stable.” He says that he sells his palm oil to the American plantation company for a decidedly monopolistic price. In the past few years both his profits and his dignity have taken a hit. He would like to recover both.

Lately he’s considered expanding his rubber holdings and getting into cacao, which would require $10,000 in seed money. Or starting a dairy farm, necessitating $1,500 for five cows. Perhaps, he suggests, I could be his partner. Or I could find someone from the West—not a sponsor, an investor—though his expression is downcast as he admits that Binga’s best days, such as they were, are in the past and that the future for his 12-year-old son, Celestin Jr., must lie elsewhere.

“I want my boy to stay here in Binga, to develop himself,” Celestin says. “Then he can go find the good life. Maybe in Europe or America. Not here, unfortunately.”

During my last day on the Congo River the weather is placid, and we are proceeding briskly downstream, when another motorized pirogue roars up from the far shoreline. In it are four young men in camouflage uniforms, bearing AK-47s. They are hollering in Lingala. One of them ropes our boats together. Two of them step aboard, holding their rifles at their hips. Their eyes widen when they see two Westerners. The scenario is a familiar one; it usually doesn’t end well.

The young men claim to be policemen of some sort. They say that we deliberately skirted their village without stopping to “register.” We are unauthorized, they maintain. Our fixers and the pirogue captain are all prideful young men who yell back at them. Pascal and I beg for calm. Our ANR passenger remains, as always, exquisitely useless.

We are a mere 30 miles from our destination, Mbandaka, where I plan to catch a flight to Kinshasha. The 345,000 inhabitants of that port city might as well be on another continent. The river at this juncture is a mile wide. Its sovereignty is its wildness. One does as one must. The pirogue that these men have intercepted carries two laptops, four cameras, thousands of dollars in cash, and eight human lives. We are not going to win this. The only question is how much we will lose.

After 30 minutes, a few cigarettes, a couple of bottles of water, and a dialogue that settles into a kind of fatigued stalemate before taking a weirdly jovial turn—Hey, you like Congo? I like America!—the young men finally name their price. Their outboard motor is out of gas. And so they would like a full tank. And ten dollars.

A fair price. We shake hands—it was only river commerce, after all—and then wave goodbye as the grinning young men with their guns swerve away from us, eventually disappearing into the silver-dark current somewhere beyond.

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