Last of five parts
Travel along the Congo River is not for the faint of heart or the thin of skin. On the barges, the river's main mode of transport, it's not uncommon for tempers to flare and fights to break out in close quarters during often delayed journeys.
Some recent passengers on the vessel M/B SETB have spent almost a month onboard for a trip downriver that should have taken 10 days. Much of that time is spent at the dock awaiting fuel and repairs in Mbandaka, in a sleepy corner of northwest Congo, 500 miles upstream from the capital, Kinshasa.
During the time M/B SETB is moored at Mbandaka, more passengers have boarded the two 50-foot barges lashed together side by side and powered by a tugboat. By the time of departure, people, goods, cargo and animals are squeezed cheek-by-jowl.
The barge's destination is the capital, Kinshasa. Many onboard are transporting goods for sale. Others are heading to the capital to pick up goods to bring back to Congo's remote interior. Some simply need passage downstream.
Frayed Nerves On The Water
The forced intimacy aboard the vessel does little for tempers and good manners.
On a recent voyage, the loudest dispute occurs on the bridge on the penultimate day of the trip, with an angry exchange between the captain, Savane Mboso-Naka, and a passenger, Coco Assani.
Assani is an antiques dealer on his way to Kinshasa with merchandise he hopes eventually to sell in South Africa. It appears that Assani criticized the captain's navigational abilities and blamed him for the delayed arrival in Kinshasa.
In return, the captain accuses Assani of spreading rumors that he is incompetent. The argument gets heated. A series of slaps resounds, and two naval officers who boarded the barge the previous day seem unable to resolve the argument.
As the port of Maluku nears, an impromptu chorus of women on the barge starts singing "Kabola Kabola." The women bring a touch of humor to the journey, clearing the air after all the arguments. Maluku is the gateway to Kinshasa, 50 miles away, and the end of the journey for most people onboard.
The barge makes one final stop at Kinshasa port, where it docks.
Barge 'Wives' Demand Their Due
The eruption of song at the sight of Maluku sounds like joy at the prospect of possibly being able to get off the barge. But in fact, it is the women and temporary barge "wives" singing for their due. The "wives" are women who take up residence with the barge crew for the duration of the journey, cooking and otherwise attending to their needs.
But now it is time for them to "kabola, kabola," which means "divvy up."
"Equal shares, equal shares," chants Maguy Mfulu, the self-appointed spokeswoman of the choir. "Two goats for your wife and family waiting for you at the port or at home in Kinshasa, and two for your barge wife who looked after you onboard."
As the M/B SETB motors along the waterway, Maluku comes into view, with the capital Kinshasa beyond the port. Hubbub at the harbor greets passengers after their long journey downriver, with yet another security check and porters wanting to row people's belongings in dugouts from the barge to the quay at Maluku.
High-rise Kinshasa could not be more different from Maluku and the miles upon miles of low-rise towns and riverbank villages the barge passed en route.
Congo's metropolis is at once fast, flashy, noisy and down-at-heel after decades of neglect. In celebration of the nation's 50th independence anniversary this year, Kinshasa had a much-needed makeover, with some buildings hastily painted.
The city sits on the southern flank of the Congo River, directly across from Brazzaville, the twin capital of the neighboring Republic of Congo.
Not far from the port, where market women sell fresh and salted fish from upriver, is a U.N. peacekeeping base, where a contingent of Ghanaian soldiers is conducting a drill under the hot sun.
The United Nations has had peacekeepers in Congo for more than a decade amid the country's civil wars and violence.
River Is 'Our Mother And Our Father'
Kinshasa, at least, is now at peace. But just four years ago, in the lead-up to crucial postwar elections, U.N. troops patrolled the city. Since bloody street battles in 2006 between militiamen loyal to rival presidential candidates, most U.N. soldiers have fanned out from Kinshasa to Congo's conflict zones and potential trouble spots, such as Kisangani and Mbandaka.
Some are strategically deployed to other towns and cities along the river in a country the size of Western Europe, yet Congo has only about 1,000 miles of paved road, and river traffic is vital to the nation's interior.
The Congo River is at the heart of everything that goes on in this country, says sculptor Alfred Liyolo Limbe Mpuanga, one of Congo's leading artists. He grew up along the banks of the river in the village of Bolobo, more than 200 miles upstream from Kinshasa.
The river gives life to the nation, he says.
"The Congo River is at once our mother and our father who nurture us. Because, without water, there is no progress, no development, and we cannot live," Liyolo says.
It is also his constant inspiration.
"The way the waters of the Congo River thread through the entire country, if you're by the river bank, you can feel the gentleness, the charm, the sound of the river which caresses your ears," Liyolo says. "It makes you want to bend down and touch the water. Yes, that's how it is: this river which the Good Lord gave us for free."