provided we get our tickets and our visas. A friend sent us this story. It’s a bit long but I couldn’t get the link to work to just direct you to the original. So here it is in full. The river – that is how we first travelled into the heart of Congo ourselves.
Hopes and Tears of Congo Flow in Its Mythic River
April 21, 2004
By SOMINI SENGUPTA
ON THE CONGO RIVER, Congo – The river is the life and
memory of this country.
On the muddy banks of Kisangani, the river releases a man
who risked cholera and crocodiles and spent three months on
a decrepit barge – all for a chance to travel a thousand
miles to sell, at long last, a sack of plastic ladies
Outside Mbandaka, where the river trips over the Equator,
it glances up at the shell of a dictator’s unfinished
palace, now home to a pair of cows.
In a hidden creek in the hard-knocks capital, Kinshasa, the
river hears the screams of an unwanted girl. Her father
banished her to the water, believing that she was a witch.
Today, as this country tries to knit itself together after
a half-decade of war that ended last year, the river is
witness to Congo’s slow, aching rebirth.
It is both symbol and substance of the country’s
reunification, and the life it nurtures on its banks shows
the enormousness of the task.
A power-sharing government has been installed, but the
authority of the state has yet to reach old rebel fiefs.
There is no national army to speak of, only gunmen who
remain loyal to rival warlords.
Peace still eludes pockets of the nation, like the
mineral-rich Ituri region. Ethnic Hutu militias, some
responsible for the killing frenzy in neighboring Rwanda in
1994, squirrel away in the eastern Kivu hills.
Not least, most everything has stopped working. Schools,
hospitals and a functioning legal system are but a memory.
Roads, train tracks and turbines must be rebuilt. Today the
river, coursing 2,700 miles, is the country’s principal
Mighty and mythic, it carries everyone and everything:
hyacinths, memories, traders, the dead.
Once, people here called it the Nzere, or the river that
swallows all rivers. It could be called the river that
swallows all stories. A long legacy of greed and suffering
is inscribed on its back, from the brutal rubber empire of
a Belgian king in the late 19th century to Congo’s latest
war of partition and plunder.
That war killed an estimated 3.3 million people, mostly
through disease and starvation. It sliced the country into
pieces as three major factions, along with an array of
militias and foreign sponsors, scrambled for Congo’s
riches. And it broke the river, the country’s spinal
column, into bits.
Last July, on the heels of the peace accord, the river
reopened and the first commercial barge crawled up, loaded
with cement, fuel and hope. Villagers lined the shore. They
scrambled up the tributaries to have a look.
“I tell you, it was a grand welcome, like it was Jesus
coming!” recalled Antoine Bawe, 48, the captain of one of
those first barges.
This evening, as dusk darkened the river at Kisangani, Mr.
Bawe, fresh from his fifth journey upstream, sat slapping
mosquitoes on the long, flat back of his vessel. By this
hour, his barge had become a riverside saloon, buzzing with
the supple beats of Ndombolo and the clinking of brown
bottles of Primus.
Ndombolo and Primus. Music and beer. During the war, those
two things defied partition. They unified the Congolese,
all along the river.
A Slow Current
Today the barges that crawl up and down the Congo River,
between Kisangani and Kinshasa, are the most vivid symbols
of the country’s slow reawakening. For ordinary traders
like Gerald Mutuku, the shoe salesman, they represent a
Even so, his journey upriver to Kisangani – a trip that
should ordinarily take a couple of weeks – went on for
nearly three months.
The tugboat engine broke down twice. The barge got banged
up on sand reefs. At least Mr. Mutuku, 63, was lucky not to
suffer the fate of so many others, on so many other
crumbling barges, that capsize and dump their passengers
into the mouths of crocodiles.
For a moment, on the glorious Sunday of Mr. Mutuku’s
arrival, it seemed almost worth it. No sooner had he
stepped ashore in Kisangani than he was mobbed. With
nothing coming in from Kinshasa for so long, the market
women descended on his wares, eagerly inspecting his sack
of pink and green plastic shoes as though it were Christmas
Early last century, men made ivory fortunes in this trading
town. Trucks rumbled into the market, ferrying potatoes and
rice from the interior. Trains departed from an elegant
riverside railroad station to get around the impassable
About the only way to bring goods to the river now is by
bicycle. They cut through the bush with sacks of rice on
the back, bananas on the handlebars, pedaled by porters who
drip sweat from their eyelids like giant raindrops on the
dry dirt paths.
The trains have long stopped in their tracks. At the old
station, ferns have forced their way into a first-class
cabin. The railroad chief, Emile S. Utshudi, has turned
engine parts into a grain mill. He says it is how he makes
a living. He has not been paid in six years.
“In the minds of the population, it should be a new start,
a new regime that’s just and prosperous,” Mr. Utshudi said.
“Me, I too hope it’s a new moment, but I have to tell you,
it’s the end of our sleep, but we haven’t yet woken up.”
Mr. Utshudi, ever the bureaucrat, keeps a desk, stacked
high with papers enumerating the needs of his beloved
railroad, inside the stately colonial-era post office.
Tucked away here, in a dank second-floor chamber, is a
memento of the country’s most famous postal worker. It is a
salmon-colored copy of an employee newsletter, L’Écho
Postal, edited by the man who became Congo’s anticolonial
leader and then in 1960, until his assassination a year
later, its first and only democratically elected prime
minister – Patrice E. Lumumba.
That such a thing exists at all, in a post office with no
glass panes in its windows nor any stamps, is nothing short
of astonishing – except that all that remains is its cover.
The pages are gone.
Like a sprawling memorial to greed, Kisangani today stands
on layers of splendor and ruin. The palaces of Mobutu Sese
Seko, the American-backed dictator who ruled for more than
30 years, still line the river, as relics of meglomania.
Policemen and their wives are squatting in one. Another,
farther down river, has been put to use as a barn.
Mr. Utshudi remembers the parade of rival armies that
pummeled his city. Mr. Mobutu’s soldiers battled – and lost
– to the rebel forces of Laurent Kabila in 1997. Rwandan
and Ugandan armies came in 1999 and 2000. One massacre
followed another. Once, Mr. Utshudi said, he saw the bodies
of 15 children floating in the river.
Today a new Congolese army is being cobbled together from
the remains of the old fighting factions. Under the
tutelage of soldiers from Belgium, the former colonial
ruler, ex-enemies are learning to pitch tents, hold riot
shields and march in unison.
A unified army is a centerpiece of the peace deal, and the
transitional government has divvied up top military posts
among leaders of the former factions. Yet the chain of
command is tenuous, at best, and critical questions remain:
where the soldiers will be deployed, how they will be paid,
fed and equipped, and whose command they will follow.
In recent months, gun battles have broken out between
the government in Kinshasa and the ex-rebel
army in the east. Military installations in the capital
have been attacked by assailants whose motives remain
Each side has held onto its weapons. Each challenge is an
invitation to return to bloodletting. The war may be over,
but trust has yet to be won.
With demobilization largely a dream, soldiers still prowl
along the river, still with empty bellies. Downstream from
Kisangani, before the river touches the Equator, they
linger on in a village called Lolanga.
During the war, this was the rear base of government
forces. For years, with nothing coming in from Kinshasa,
villagers up in the hidden creeks had holed up in the
jungle, barefoot or, worse still, naked. Civilians
abandoned their fields and fled into the bush.
Today, cassava has been planted for the first time in
years. The market, the most reliable barometer of war and
peace across the continent, bustles with pigs and plastic
But the gunmen – hungry, greedy, armed – still hover in
sufficient numbers to intimidate the villagers, extract
their hard-earned produce and keep them quiet. “If the
soldiers aren’t paid, they are going to find some other
way,” said one villager, Ambrose Makele.
Farther downriver, in the fishing
village of Bikaba, the women say they have grown accustomed
to giving soldiers a portion of their day’s catch, or a
basket of their day’s harvest of corn or sugar cane. At
least now, they hasten to add, they can plant a little corn
During the war, they gathered roots to curb their hunger.
At least now, they say, they can row up to market and sell
cassava bread or smoked monkey. On a good week, the river
sends news of a barge coming.
But the terror has not stopped. Imbombo Boleki, 22,
described how only a few days before men in uniform arrived
in his village and ordered him to row their canoe upstream.
There was no pay involved, nor much choice. Had he refused,
he said, he would be beaten with a strip of hippopotamus
hide, called a chicotte. That is what happened to other men
who rebuffed the soldiers’ demands. That is what has
At the turn of the last century, the rubber empire of King
Leopold II of Belgium also built itself on forced labor
along the riverbanks. Those who failed to meet the king’s
rubber quota were beaten with the same chicotte. Or they
had their hands cut off and tossed into the water. Adam
Hochschild records this history in his 1998 book, “King
Leopold’s Ghost.” The river, he writes, swallowed them,
“My father took me to the river,” said Alfie, who is 7. “He
said I was a witch.” With that, she burst into tears.
Who knows whether her father, whom she described as a
soldier, wanted her dead or simply wanted to get rid of
her. All Alfie recalls is gasping for breath and being
scooped out of the river by a gang of street children –
outcasts like her – who lived on its banks in the capital,
Kinshasa, where the river winds toward its end.
The other children brought her to an orphanage run by Maguy
Makusudi, who held her in her arms and translated her shy,
halting words from Lingala to English.
Alfie is small for her age, frequently withdrawn, and
hardly unusual among Congolese of her generation. Anecdotes
from children’s advocates suggest that across the country,
more and more children are accused of sorcery, blamed for
the ills that befall their kin in what remains a time of
The grown-ups who care for them see it as a barometer of
national despair. When nothing else explains the gnawing
misery of daily life, the supernatural steps in. Sickness,
death, joblessness, hunger – all can be blamed on
witchcraft. Children, defenseless by definition, can be the
Difficult children can be the most vulnerable: the sickly,
the precocious, the retarded, the rebellious. Often, their
trouble starts when someone at home falls ill, or a mother
remarries, or a breadwinner walks out the door. Sometimes,
prayers are recited for the child witches. Sometimes, the
children are beaten, forced to swallow herbs or drink
gasoline. Finally, they are left to rot on the streets.
Ms. Makusudi’s orphanage, a row of rooms with flimsy foam
mattresses on the floors, is a gallery of cast-out girls.
There is a girl with tiny, shorn-off toes who remembers
watching her mother put poison in her dinner. There is a
rebellious teenager whose family turned to a revival
church, seeking her exorcism. There is Alfie, whose parents
cannot be found.
It is impossible to tell how many children have been turned
out, only that they have swelled the ranks of kids who
sleep under the shop awnings of Kinshasa and pour into
orphanages like Ms. Makusudi’s. Rare in decades past, the
trend is attributed by social workers to the war’s economic
toll and the rise of revival churches that regard the
quotidian misery of Congolese life as the work of the
It does not hurt that accusing a child of sorcery helps to
get rid of an extra mouth to feed.
“For years, people don’t see any hope,” lamented a Catholic
priest named Zbigniew Orlikowski. “They don’t want to face
reality, because it doesn’t work.”
The challenges that lie ahead for Congo lap against the
When the ex-rebel leaders arrived in Kinshasa last year to
take part in the power-sharing government, they brought
hordes of soldiers – their own soldiers – and installed
their headquarters along the river, the city’s prime real
estate – and its best escape route.
Jean-Pierre Bemba, the leader of the faction called
Movement for Congolese Liberation and now one of Congo’s
four vice presidents, still keeps his private helicopter
parked in the back garden of his whitewashed mansion, just
in case. On a steamy afternoon not long ago, his soldiers
lounged under its shade.
Farther along the river, the
rebel-chief-turned-vice-president Azarias Ruberwa, of
another former militia, Rally for Congolese Democracy, also
sits under the protection of his loyalists.
Joseph Kabila Jr., an ex-major general in his late father
Laurent’s rebel army and now the elusive thirtysomething
president of the transitional government, remains
cloistered among his own.
Troops loyal to all three men stand accused of a horrifying
list of abuses, from mutilation to mass killings,
cannibalism to widespread rape. Whether and how justice
will be sought for these crimes remains among Congo’s
The courts do not yet function. No truth and reconciliation
process is under way. There is talk of an inquiry by the
new Hague-based International Criminal Court, but
trepidation, too, about whether it would upset the delicate
balance of peace. Besides, all three men are potential
contenders in the next presidential elections.
Under the peace deal, those elections are supposed to be
held in 2005, but one would be hard pressed to find any
hint of preparations. Nationality laws have yet to be
negotiated, a potentially prickly matter in such a vast and
diverse country. There has been no effort to count eligible
voters, let alone educate citizens about their rights and
obligations. Few Congolese can remember ever going to the
polls; the last elections were held in 1960.
On the shores of K
isangani, in the riverside saloon of Mr.
Bawe’s barge, a young man named Coco Bombenga wondered
aloud whether his country’s leaders were even interested in
the business of democracy. As Ndombolo and Primus flowed,
Mr. Bombenga hectored a foreign journalist to remind the
world of his wishes.
Sure, he said, peace had reopened the river, and people
could now buy and sell fish. But what about his hunger to
elect his own rulers, he demanded.
“If we can only live to eat, that’s not enough,” he said.
“We are not animals.”