ON THE CONGO RIVER, Democratic Republic of Congo—
It begins with shouting. Almost everything here seems to. This time they are shouts of encouragement: “Vite! Vite!”—“Faster! Faster!” But the teenage girl in the pirogue, a type of dugout canoe, is unable to pull alongside the barge, which is making its way down the Congo River at a speed of about 10 miles per hour. The girl, who lives in a village somewhere beyond the impenetrable wall of jungle that lines both banks of the river, is trying to collect her brother, who boarded the barge two days ago when it left from Kisangani on its 1,000-mile journey toward Kinshasa, the sprawling capital of the DRC.
The barge won’t slow down. It will stop only on the orders of the captain or Mother Nature, such as when it grinds to a halt on one of the many sandbanks that dot the river. It certainly won’t stop for a passenger. This is a cargo boat, after all, not a ferry. Printed in faded red paint on one of the containers that sit atop the 170-foot long, 40-foot-wide barge are the words “Passengers prohibited.” Perhaps the faded paint is emblematic of the authority of the text: I am one of more than 200 passengers on board.
It becomes clear that the young girl will not be able to catch up, however furiously she paddles. The realization slowly shows on her face. A slight, flickering smile, and a tiny shrug of the shoulders. The shouts turn into cheers. The other passengers know what’s coming, but I don’t. Her brother, clutching his plastic carrier bag of possessions, takes the only option left: He jumps from the moving barge feet-first into the river, holding the bag high above his head. A few seconds later, his sister paddles up to him. He clambers into the pirogue and turns to wave. The passengers on the barge cheer and wave back.
Welcome to life on a Congo River cargo barge.
To call them simply cargo barges doesn’t paint the full picture. They are usually owned by wholesale companies operating in the DRC, and they do indeed carry cargo. The metal barges are pushed by what is essentially a tugboat. Sometimes the barges number as many as five, each more than 100 feet long, fastened together lengthways. From Kinshasa, they transport imported materials, household goods, used vehicles, secondhand clothing, and canned foods to the towns that line the banks of the river: Mbandaka, Lisala, Bumba, and Kisangani. On the return leg, they ferry beans, smoked fish, timber, palm oil, flour from the cassava plant (to make the staple food of foufou), and charcoal to the capital. Not all the cargo belongs to the company, especially on downstream journeys. Senior members of the crew will often supplement their income by purchasing charcoal and smoked fish to sell in Kinshasa, or they will sell cassava flour to villagers along the river in areas where the plant is unable to grow.
A handful of passengers transport goods, too. Mama Esther is one of them. Nobody uses her actual name. “Esther” refers to the name of her baby. “Mama” is often used as a form of address when speaking to Congolese women who are (or are presumed to be because of their age) mothers. Likewise, men who have reached middle age are frequently addressed as “Papa,” like the captain of the boat, Papa Jean.