Part 3 of 5
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the high cost of air transport means the Congo River carries the lion's share of goods -- mostly on barges -- to and from the giant nation's remote interior.
There is a severe shortage of river-going vessels on the Congo after years of neglect and lack of investment, so the few boats and barges that make the trip are usually crowded.
Life aboard these floating villages is a colorful, crowded and cacophonous menagerie of humans and animals. Some of the monkeys and goats are pets; some are dinner.
One day in May, dockers in the river port city of Mbandaka, the capital of Equateur province in northwest Congo, load the M/B SETB -- two 50-foot barges, lashed together and powered by a tug.
It is packed with goods: sugar cane, charcoal, red palm oil, the staple root cassava, goats, chickens, monkeys and other supplies. Barges like the M/B SETB are the cheapest and most efficient way to travel along the Congo because roads are few.
Tarpaulins are thrown up as passengers stake out their territory on board for the 500-mile journey from Mbandaka to the capital, Kinshasa. Men, women and children are precariously perched 10 feet high above mountains of bundles and belongings. With the added weight, the barge sits low in the water and seems overloaded.
Because of the scarcity of vessels, passengers can wait weeks to travel. Under perfect circumstances -- good weather, no technical problems, and no insurgent activity along the river -- the 1,400-mile trip from Kisangani, at the Congo River's eastern navigable end, to Kinshasa should take 10 days.
But perfection is rare when traveling along the Congo.
Once-Vibrant River Transport Suffers
River transportation -- including river-worthy vessels and signage for barge and boat crews -- has gone into steep decline since the late President Mobutu Sese Seko was kicked out of office in 1997, after decades in power.
Before that, thousands of barges and hundreds of boats plied the river, says Jean Pierre Kalinga-Katamba, the official in charge of river transportation in Congo.
Mobutu, who came from Equateur province, was a man of the river. He could often be seen traveling up and down the Congo River in his famous ferryboat, The Kamanyola, avoiding the poisonous political atmosphere in Kinshasa during the 1990s, when the country debated a return to multiparty democracy -- and the possible end to his strong-arm rule.
Years of civil war and unrest since Mobutu's ouster have periodically choked the Congo River and cut off river trade.
"The Congo River is very important for our country, because it is the natural way to transport goods from the hinterland to Kinshasa," Kalinga-Katamba says. "I can say to the Congolese, 'Let's take care of the Congo River, because our future is fixed to that network.' As I say, the prosperity of Congo will come from the Congo River."
To coincide with Congo's 50th independence anniversary this year, President Joseph Kabila launched five major infrastructure initiatives, including transportation. But critics say money is being pumped into improving Congo's lamentable road network at the expense of the river.
Thousands of jobs could be generated if river traffic were operating at full capacity, Kalinga-Katamba says. That is not the case now. There are no reliable unemployment rates for the country. But despite its vast potential mineral wealth -- diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt and coltan (a material used to manufacture cell phones and laptops) -- Congo is impoverished after years of dictatorship, corruption and conflict.
Products, Passengers, Pets And Repast On Board
Because of the lack of boats, says Martin Kapanga, an M/B SETB crew member, cargo barges such as the one he works on double as passenger vessels.
He supervises the loading of goods and cargo, and makes certain fares are paid. The river ride from Mbandaka to Kinshasa costs $50 per passenger.
The barge transported vehicles when it moved upriver, Kapanga says. Downstream, its main cargo is cassava, palm oil, beans and other agricultural products.
Emerence Kitoko, a merchant, boarded in Bumba, halfway between Kisangani and Mbandaka, en route to the capital. She has waited aboard the vessel for three weeks to continue the voyage to Kinshasa.
Kitoko sells smoked fish, rice, cassava and other food items and fresh produce to earn the money to put her children through school. She says life on the barge is a struggle, but that this is the only way she can make ends meet.
Kitoko also is responsible for feeding the barge owner's animals, which she sold to him upstream in Bumba. Some animals on board are pets; some are destined for markets downstream from Mbandaka; some are for consumption during the trip.
A delicacy in many parts of Congo is monkey meat. Kapanga, the crew member, holds a smoked monkey that winds up in a cooking pot, part of a tasty stew.
Up next: Life on the barge