Eleven days after having left the Procure Sainte-Anne to embark on our Congo River boat trip, we are back where we started. An improbable series of unlucky events and an endless stream of half and whole lies has turned our planned journey to Kisangani into a disaster. The first signs of it show already when we arrive at Beach Rafi on Monday. The senior of staff of Direction Générale de la Migration (DGM) has urged us to come early - to complete the registration process - but the pointeur (in charge of cargo loading) isn’t all too happy to see us yet. He insists even we embark in another port. Some arguing of DGM makes him change his mind, but it becomes clear that our boat isn’t going to leave any soon. We don’t feel like going back to the Procure, so DGM arranges for us to stay overnight in the port. We set up our tent on the grass underneath two lonely palm trees and start waiting. In the meantime, we try to assemble the tiny bits and pieces of information that reach our ears into a comprehensible image. It makes us worry.
Yesterday, a nice Beltexco company boat has left for Kisangani. Arrival scheduled in 2 weeks and a half. No-one has found it useful to inform us of this beforehand. Instead, we were told numerous times that our boat, the M/B Gbemani, is a similar company boat, but this is not exactly true. The Gbemani has been in Beach Rafi for 2 (two!) months, waiting for its three barges to be fully loaded with products of Beltexco and other private companies, but it is doing the river transport for its own account. Former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko commissioned the construction of two sister boats (Gbemani and Koba) in the early nineties, as a present to his paternal family. Soon after, however, his reign started to collapse and although the boats are still in the family’s hands, there has been little maintenance over the years.
Today the boats are in disrepair, with thick black smoke coming out of the 750hp double engine. The owners try to make as much profit as possible from their dying milk-cow, but bad management – including serious overloading – limits the current sailing frequency to twice (!) a year. And what’s more: in addition to cargo, the Gbemani takes passengers aboard. Lots of passengers, who are now waiting for us in Port Mbasa, one of the private ports on the other side of town. But before we can pick them up, someone will have to open his wallet, since a conflict between the crew and their employer over delayed salaries has to be settled (they are paid a fixed amount for a completed journey, irrespective the time spent on the way) and the boat still has to fill up on fuel.
If only we had been told the whole truth beforehand, maybe we would not have waited for 3 weeks to board this rickety thing. Now we decide to push on. Our Japanese motorbike friends Miyuki and Takao – still waiting for their Angola visa – cheer us up with a visit to the port.
Next day, we spend a whole day trying to get the motorbikes on one of the barges. A 1950’s crane lifts them – without proper safety measures of course – on the deck of one barge, then a crew of 5 push and pull them towards their cosy nest, squeezed between a pick-up truck and barrels of something fishy. Later the tarpaulin that covers them will be topped with an extra pile of empty jerrycans, bicycles and personal belongings of the passengers that make their home in between, under and on top of the cargo.
We install our tent on the rear deck of the Gbemani, under a black-sooted roof that serves as a bar. There are just a little too many people running about to reassure us: what about the calm and privacy they promised us?
Wednesday morning, we are surprised to see the boat sail off, but it is merely to land itself on a sand bank to allow the crew to cut away all the fishnets and rubbish that have gathered around the boat propeller. Since little is going on afterwards, we leave our stuff on the boat and go into town.
Thursday morning, it seems as if departure is imminent. The pusher-boat is going to take two barges to the other port, then return to pick up the third. On the way, we’ll fill up with Diesel oil. It is wonderful to be on the move, a cool breeze comforts our heated souls and on the prow of the barges, the waves of river water refresh our feet.
The idyll ends quickly. On arrival in Port Mbasa, hundreds of people are waiting for the barges to be within reach, throw their merchandise, mattresses and children aboard and find themselves a spot amidst the cargo. Soon every single square meter on the barges and even on the pusher boat fills up with people. They are temporarily chased when we are filling up – given the blatant lack of safety measures, only the crew and 2 mundeles (whities) are allowed to be around during this exceptionally hazardous activity – but they come back in even greater numbers afterwards.
After another night in the noisy, smelly and dirty port, we hope to leave on Friday morning. Nope. We spend the morning filling up the barges even more. To a Westerner, they were full last week. To a Congolese, there is still plenty of space. Around noon, they decide to leave tomorrow. “We can’t leave on Friday afternoon, when the Muslims are praying, can we?” I bite my lip and we continue to wait: “Patientez”.
In the meantime, we get to know some of our companions. First of all, there is Jacques. The 22-year-old remote member of the Mobutu family hasn’t inherited a single penny after his wealthy father’s death. He is planning to travel to Kisangani, find some diamonds and sell them in Darfour, in order to finance his future life and marriage in Europe.
Thédy is the typical perpetual student: graduated as a nurse, can’t find a job and thus continues his studies. Maybe he’ll come to Europe to finish them. In the meantime, he starts to teach us Lingala. His grand-frère (never sure if that means that they are siblings) Jean-Bosco, a preacher and a smart talker, tells me everything I need to know about diamond mining and tries to convince us to invite him to Europe. David is the son of the owner of the boat, is living a comfortable life and prepares for an academic future abroad. Perhaps in Europe. Or the United States. Maman Charlotte doesn’t ask Isabel for a plane ticket to Europe, she’s fine with some beans, cooking oil and a new cell phone. Then there are sailors Jumeau and Faustin, who deserve a tip and a bottle of whiskey for helping us out with the motorbikes, and obviously finish their drink in less than a day. And of course Manuel, who got yelled at by his wife because he sold me the bottle at a fair price. Police officer Simon, who is going to visit his family in Bukavu in the far East during his 2 month holiday. Sadly, a one-way trip risks taking at least 5 weeks… The man doesn’t seem to feel as sad though and accompanies me when I stubbornly try to find a waste container in this Gomorra, instead of kicking our garbage into the river like everybody else.
Saturday morning, before six o’clock, we finally set off. What an incredible feeling. The sun is rising above the misty Congo River in front of us. This is why we have endured the endless delay… The euphoria doesn’t take long though. It appears that we have left a barge in the port because the current is too strong in the first bit of the Pool to push three barges at a time. So, at eight we leave the first two barges at kilometer seventeen and at nine we are back in the port. To remain there for the rest of the day, taking just a little extra cargo. Late in the afternoon, we arrive with the last barge. Instead of forming the convoy now, they wait for Sunday morning to complete that task. It leaves us without illusions about the length of this journey: no-one agrees on the estimated time to get through the strong currents near the mouth of the Kasai River and while we were told before that the boat was only carrying cargo for Mbandaka and Kisangani, now two other stop-overs are announced: at Lisala and Bumba. Still everybody assures us that it will take no longer than three weeks, but then they remember when once it took two months… When Thédy sees that we get annoyed by the endless maneuvering to connect the barges to the pusher boat, he gives us some shitty technical explanation about slipping cables. I rebuke firlmy that the only reason is overloading of the barges – which is later confirmed by the captain. He smiles: “Patientez, supportez”.
Around noon, we are finally on our way with the full convoy, at the vertiginous speed of 3 km/h. While Isabel tries to get some sleep to recover from a common cold, I take a guided tour around the barges. There is no railing bordering the narrow alley and I have to step over people, buckets, tarpaulins, ropes, hot stoves and washing basins in order to make my way around. People are keen on telling me how they are suffering and starving. But a few words of Lingala and a friendly face make them thaw and some are genuinely welcoming. We are approaching the end of the Pool now, where the Congo becomes much less broad, and we spend the night near the little fishing town of Maluku, at roughly 50 km from Port Mbasa.
Monday morning, a short but hefty shock shatters our last hope of a steady progress. In order to avoid the strong current in the middle of the river, the captain has chosen the far right side and now the overloaded barges have collided with underwater rocks. Soon foam starts to appear around the barges.
Apparently there is water flowing into the hold, which is filled with 15.000 boxes of soap. The crew open up the hold to check out the situation. A few boxes are taken out, then a few more, and a couple of hours later, all available space on the barge is packed with soap boxes, while on the riverbank huge piles of soap are being laid out in the sun to dry.
Buckets of a clear blue irritating liquid are pulled out of the hold. We and other passengers join the crew to help, but nobody seems to be taking charge. Meanwhile, villagers are trying to take advantage from the situation. We are yelled at to give away our soap (if there are mundele’s aboard, it must be their soap!) and to pay for the use of a dugout canoe that serves as a bridge to the riverbank. Children begin to gather in the foaming water next to the barge, playing, washing themselves and hoping to catch bits of soap. Then, soaking wet shoes, toys, electronics and plastic flowers show up from beneath the blue mass.
A few people try to save the goods by cleaning them and stocking them in bags, but soon everyone is walking around with fancy Chinese flip-flops or listening to a brand-new transistor radio. When confronting people with their behavior, we learn of a Congolese proverb: “Don’t look the one peeling peanuts into the mouth”. Since the owner of the pusher-boat is not the owner of the barge neither of the cargo, no-one feels responsible for safeguarding the goods or organizing a quick repair operation. What’s more, we are told to thank God: it was His will that the accident didn’t happen in the middle of the river. Otherwise there might have been people injured or drowned. But isn’t it because our overloaded boat chose the far right side of the sailing corridor that we hit the rocks? How a boat trip has become an allegory of a troubled society… Patientez, supportez, détournez…
Intermezzo: the story of the captain.
Amongst the passengers of the pusher-boat was an army officer with his wife and baby girls. Unlike most Congolese men, he helped his wife cleaning, cooking, caring for the children. Being an orphan, he had been forced to fight most of his life: firstly to pay for his school fees and education, then to enter the army and to rise to the level of Captain of the Special Forces. In the turmoil hitting Kisangani in 1996, his eldest daughter disappeared and he never found her back, despite searching all over the country. After getting wounded in a helicopter crash, he was sent to Kinshasa to recover and now he was making his return trip to Kisangani. Two days after the boat accident, he heard someone screaming: Papa! Papa! His eldest daughter was one of the passengers on the damaged barge and had just recognized him. Nowadays, she lived in Uganda with her Ugandan husband and three little girls. She had only gone to Kinshasa to look for her dad and was going back home now. The Lord works in mysterious ways…
The next day doesn’t bring much progress in our situation. More soap is being evacuated from the barge and more children are trying to steal it, until the Chinese owners of part of the cargo arrive and chase them. It almost seems as if the crew gets organized. They happily predict us that we will leave tomorrow. But the Chinese agree with us that it might take another week… We decide to give it a chance, though.
Indeed, the crew start mixing cement, soap and charcoal into a paste to repair the hole. If it works out well, we’ll stay. Next morning, some of the cargo is being shifted back to the damaged barge and we decide to stay aboard. However, shortly thereafter it appears that the other half of the barge is still full of wet soap. And water is being pumped out of another part of the hold. The crew try to convince us that it won’t be necessary to clear the other half, and that the water comes from a leaky earlier reparation that doesn’t matter. We remain in doubt until a violent thunderstorm forces us to stay on the boat until the following morning.
And that’s when we can no longer ignore the will of God. We have been dreaming of this part of our journey for months, we have been waiting for weeks to board this boat, we have been waiting on this deck to sail off for days, we have been carrying soap boxes to get the boat going. But now He strikes me with a fever of over 40°C. Is this a sign that we should stop challenging fate? That this boat trip was not meant to be? Utterly confused, weak and with a terrible headache, I agree with Isabel that it’s better to go back to Kinshasa to find medical treatment. Luckily, the crew is very cooperative and our bikes are lifted off the barge into a canoe without much hassle. We ask for a car. I get in, Isabel rides her bike and a member of the crew rides mine. I arrive completely dehydrated at the Procure.
In the nearby hospital, I get filled up with saline immediately, but it takes the better part of the night to recover. Diagnosis: bacterial dysentery. Not so hard to imagine how I got it, considering the sanitary conditions on the boat. Our sympathetic treating colleague admits he’d never set one foot on such a boat… We don’t feel like going back to the boat neither. Nor take another boat. We long for our independence on wheels. Maybe God was right this time.
Addendum: We were not the first foreigners to travel with the Gbemani. The crew told us about two French who joined them last year and shot a documentary. What might have warned us is the fact that they left already in Mbandaka, after only one third of the distance to Kisangani, and took a flight back to Kinshasa…