National Geographic : 2015 Oct
Congo River 83 I hand him a couple of pills, which he grate- fully takes with his Coca-Cola. Photographer Pascal Maitre and I are sympathetic to Joseph. We joined his boat after a ten-day debacle in- volving 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 accompany- ing 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 overload- ing 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 Repub- lic 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 skit- ter across the sky. Every few miles the immensity of rain forest hemming the water gives way to a rickety collection of thatched-roof homes. Chil- dren 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 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).