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Congo River Pulses Life Into African Nation07:46
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A fisherman prepares to cast a net into the rapids at Stanley Falls near Kisangani on the Congo River. (Emery Makumeno for NPR)
A fisherman prepares to cast a net into the rapids at Stanley Falls near Kisangani on the Congo River. (Emery Makumeno for NPR)

First of five parts

The fabled Congo River threads its way through the heart of Africa -- a riverine highway that supplies food and livelihood for the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The river is the nation's lifeblood, and the way of life along the water route in many ways mirrors Congo's checkered fortunes. Continuing poverty and conflict mark the existence of its people. The country of vast natural wealth has witnessed slavery, dictatorship, assassinations and rebellions.

Life is hard for Congo's 70 million people. The nation consistently ranks among the world's poorest, with an estimated per capita income of $300 in 2009 and an average life expectancy of 55.

For parts of the country, war has become a way of life. Congo hosts the world's largest U.N. peacekeeping mission, currently numbering more than 20,000. Established in 1999 to monitor and help oversee a cease-fire in Congo's brutal second civil war, the multinational force now has a mandate to protect the Congolese population as well as aid the government in quelling ongoing internecine violence.

Wagenia fisherman Jean-Pierre Baeba emerges from the rapids at Stanley Falls near Kisangani on the Congo River after fishing. (Jonathan Blakley/NPR)

And through it all wends the Congo River.

The near-mythic waterway has inspired adventurers and artists alike. Nineteenth-century Western explorers David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley, writer Joseph Conrad, Hollywood classics such as The African Queen, and singers such as Congolese Joseph Kabasele -- all have immortalized the river.

The river snakes in a horseshoe-shaped arc from rain forests in the east nearly 3,000 miles to the Atlantic Ocean on the continent's western coast. Along the way, the river twice crosses the equator and divides the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly known as Zaire, from the separate, smaller neighboring country, the Republic of the Congo.

"The Congo River is the backbone of this country," says Congolese historian Isidore Ndaywel e Nziem. "It feeds us. In our songs and fables, you often hear mention made of the river. One of our best-known singers, Kabasele, described the Congo River as a boulevard -- and not a frontier -- a path that leads us towards others."

A City Of Mutinies, 'African Queen'

The city of Kisangani, in the heart of Africa's rain forests, sits at the river's easternmost navigable end, more than 1,000 miles upriver from the capital, Kinshasa. Cataracts above Kisangani make boat travel closer to its source, farther up the river, impossible.

During the colonial era, Kisangani was known as Stanleyville, named after the American journalist and adventurer Henry Morton Stanley.

In 1871, Stanley searched for and found Scottish explorer David Livingstone in present-day Tanzania, famously greeting him, according to his own account, with the words: "Dr. Livingstone, I presume." The pair explored the area together, locating the source of the Congo River near the shores of Lake Tanganyika.

The Congo is the second-longest river in Africa, after the Nile, and the deepest in the world. The expansive, brown waters of the river rush over giant boulders at Stanley Falls -- also known as Boyoma Falls -- in Kisangani, where the navigable portion of the river begins. The noisy rapids are reminiscent of the turbulent legacy of both Congo and Kisangani, a city renowned for the rebellions launched there.

The most famous uprisings took place during the civil war after Congo's independence from Belgium in 1960. In the Kisangani mutinies of 1966 and 1967, forces loyal to a political rival unsuccessfully challenged the authoritarian rule of Joseph Desire Mobutu. Mobutu, who later Africanized his name to Mobutu Sese Seko, ruled from 1965 to 1997.

Kisangani was also the backdrop for John Huston's 1951 blockbuster, The African Queen, starring Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart -- in the role that would earn him his only Oscar award. During breaks in filming, the actors lodged in the town on the banks of the river that Stanley had established as the first colonial outpost in Congo more than a half-century earlier.

Colonial Exploitation

In 1879, Belgium's King Leopold II dispatched the budding entrepreneur Stanley to colonize what was later called the Congo Free State, carving out a territory in the heart of Africa rich in minerals, timber and rubber.

Leopold turned this large slice of the continent into a private fiefdom, notorious for its savagery. Millions died in the king's pursuit of the riches to be had through rubber and ivory. Workers had their hands chopped off if they failed to deliver their daily quota of latex-rubber, supplies to manufacture the then-newly developed pneumatic tire.

At Leopold's bidding, Stanley signed treaties with the traditional rulers of the region's Wagenia fishing community. The Wagenia tribe still lives along the banks flanking the falls near Kisangani. Villagers use poles to propel long, narrow dugout canoes up and down the soupy brown waters, much as their ancestors did.

Augustin "Auguy" Saidi, a Wagenia fisherman, says Stanley held three days of talks with his ancestors at Kisangani.

"They eat together and they talk together, and our ancestors welcomed him and give him a place to build the first colonial post here in Kisangani, in my village," says Saidi. "So there's a lot of history here."

Stanley earned a reputation for being merciless and sometimes brutal with the Africans he met. But Saidi says he was proud that Stanley and Livingstone put his fishing community on the global map. He says they were preferable to the marauding Arab slave traders who roamed the region at the same time.

"Livingstone and Stanley ... give good news, good publicity for our area, for our falls to be known all over the world. We're very proud. I support Stanley, because Stanley came for peace. He was teaching us peace," Saidi says.

"But the Arabic people came to kill us and take our ancestors far away from here, to Zanzibar as slaves," he says.

But the Free State colonial period was a brutal era. Millions died from exploitation and diseases. The conditions led the Belgian parliament in 1908 to take over administration from the monarchy, renaming it Belgian Congo.

Independence from colonial rule came in 1960 and, with it, political crises and violence. Patrice Lumumba was Congo's main independence leader and the fledgling nation's first elected prime minister. He flirted with the Soviet Union, alienating Washington and Brussels, and was overthrown soon after taking office and later killed -- reportedly with the assistance of the CIA. In 1965, Mobutu led a coup and established his infamous, corrupt one-party system, which lasted three decades.

For Many, Existence Remains Unchanged

Today, Kisangani -- which means "island" in the Wagenias' language -- is Congo's third-largest city, a slightly shabby urban area, home to more than 1 million people. It is the country's most important inland port and the capital of Orientale province.

Kisangani once hosted a thriving cotton and textile industry as well as booming fisheries, but these have languished amid conflicts and rebellions. A burgeoning diamond-mining business is bringing back hope of employment to Kisangani, but joblessness remains high.

But for the Wagenia tribe, life remains much the same. Their food and their water come from the river. They bathe and wash clothes in the Congo and spread their laundry to dry along its shores.

And the tribe's fishing techniques have not altered over the ages. After diving into the rapids, men place immense, handcrafted fishing baskets in the water to collect their daily catch. They also position the conical baskets on precarious narrow wooden bridges erected in between the boulders and rushing waters to catch fish passing through.

Agile fishermen -- some as young as 10 -- scamper up and down the scaffolding and plunge in and out of the river, checking the baskets for fish and cleaning out the trash.

A fisherman emerges from the water holding two freshly hand-caught fish between his teeth, leaving his hands free to try to net others. He then threads a string through the gullets and hangs them up.

Saidi says it is a style born of experience.

"We have been taught like this when we were young. Our grandfather was a fisherman, our father was [a] fisherman, and also we are fishermen; and my child, I want him to be a fisherman," he says.

"Without this river, the Wagenia people, they don't have life," he adds.

As the sun sets, drums beat out a tattoo in distant fishing villages. The swish of the river's rapids harmonizes with the nighttime chorus of cicadas.

The drums conjure up myth and mystery about the Congo River, as it hurtles out of the noisy rapids in Kisangani before broadening into the wider waterway that carries everything -- people, animals, food and the commerce of the nation -- hundreds of miles downstream.

Up next: Mbandaka, a major hub for river commerce

Photos: Gallery: The Journey Begins

Stanley Falls, on the Congo River near Kisangani, was named after 19th century American explorer Henry Morton Stanley. Local tribespeople, the Wagenia, depend on the river for their livelihood. Here, fisherman Augustin Saidi (red shorts) lies in a dugout canoe to check the catch in giant conical baskets suspended in the river. (Photos by Jonathan Blakley/NPR, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton/NPR and Emery Makumeno for NPR)
The Wagenia fishing technique is unique. The locals dive into the rapids and hoist giant handcrafted baskets in and out of the water. (Photos by Jonathan Blakley/NPR, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton/NPR and Emery Makumeno for NPR)
Wagenia fishermen form a line to haul in their catch. (Photos by Jonathan Blakley/NPR, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton/NPR and Emery Makumeno for NPR)
Agile fishermen hoist baskets onto narrow wooden bridges and scaffolding erected in between the boulders and rushing waters. (Photos by Jonathan Blakley/NPR, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton/NPR and Emery Makumeno for NPR)
A fisherman prepares to cast a net into the rapids. (Photos by Jonathan Blakley/NPR, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton/NPR and Emery Makumeno for NPR)
The cone-shaped fishing baskets are laid out at Stanley Falls. (Photos by Jonathan Blakley/NPR, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton/NPR and Emery Makumeno for NPR)
After diving into the rapids, a Wagenia fisherman wades toward the shore with his catch. (Photos by Jonathan Blakley/NPR, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton/NPR and Emery Makumeno for NPR)
The fisherman carefully negotiates boulders in the rapids. (Photos by Jonathan Blakley/NPR, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton/NPR and Emery Makumeno for NPR)
Augustin Saidi inspects his catch. (Photos by Jonathan Blakley/NPR, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton/NPR and Emery Makumeno for NPR)
Tonight's dinner: Fresh Congo River fish. (Photos by Jonathan Blakley/NPR, Ofeibea Quist-Arcton/NPR and Emery Makumeno for NPR)

Copyright NPR 2020.

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