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.

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.

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