National Geographic : 1991 Nov
APTAIN KILUNDU KATIANDA checked the heavily erased and penciled-in course on his ancient chart and peered through his binoculars, looking for channel markers among the distant islands clotting the sur face of the river. A stocky, middle-aged man, Captain Kilundu has sailed the Zaire River and its tributaries for 23 years, and though he rarely wears his blue uniform and white cap, he sits in his oversize chair at the helm of the Colonel Ebeya as captain, mayor, and judge. Yet of all the authority figures I encountered during my nine-month journey along the river, Kilundu was easily the kindest and most understanding, and I often sought him out for information, and for companionship. "This is not just a boat," he said. "It is a social service. There are no roads here and very few other boats. This boat is the only market, the only pharmacy, the only clinic, and the only bar for hundreds of miles. We bring the town to the people." The view from the bridge showed a town in itself: The boat was augmented by the six double-deck barges it pushes, jammed with more than 5,000 people, making the ungainly flotilla one of the largest towns on the 1,077 mile stretch of river between Kinshasa, the capital, and Kisangani. Lashed by vines to the boat, 150 or so pirogues, huge hollowed out hardwood trees from the forest brooding in the background, waved in the current like suckerfish attached to a great shark. Aboard Captain Kilundu's fleet, women washed clothes, children, and themselves in water drawn by lowering powdered-milk cans over the sides. They plucked chickens, butchered monkeys, pounded plantains, and cooked for their families in the passageways. People slept and made love in sweltering, dark second- and third-class cabins crowded with bundles of merchandise and smoked meat. Those hundreds of passengers without cabins packed the gangways and rooftops, spreading sleeping mats wherever there was space, napping, playing cards, and gathering in the bars to chat and pass the time. Barbers There's precious little quiet on the Colo nel Ebeya, a floating town that never sleeps. Yet amid the clamor of the boat's markets, kitchens, engines, and bars and shouts from an occasional fistfight a little girl manages to curl up for a nap.