Part A was  here.  Here is the start of the actual trip on the Integrated Tug Barge (ITB) that led to this blog.

Giant pusher tugs like the ITB Major Vangu were sometimes referred to as K-boats, because they ran between key river cities of Kinshasa and Kisangani. Waterfalls above Kisangani and below Kinshasa blocked continued navigation.

The other four ITBs were named Colonel Kokolo [see the image above from this May 2016 post], Colonel Tshatshi, Colonel Ebeya, and Capitaine Sakaroni, all named for early comrades of President Mobutu Sese Seko, de facto national leader from 1965 until 1997, formerly a soldier himself. Before independence, these boats bore names of Belgian places and men noteworthy in the colonial era.  All the ITBs and other boats had to be built on the river near Kinshasa above significant rapids, Inga Falls, where the water tumbles more than 300’ in less than 10 miles. Without a canal around the falls, river navigation is cut off from the Atlantic Ocean port of Matadi, 100 miles away.

Today these boats all have gone out of service because of sinkings, deferred maintenance, and breakdowns, although 2021 reports say that two of them are at some stage of restoration for return to service. I recognize now that the design is quite similar to that of the largest pusher tugs on the Mississippi V, USACE’s largest tug on the US river.

Replacing the ITBs these days is a newer and more precarious type of vessel locally called a balenière [whale boat, ironically], precarious because of the number of passengers that crowd aboard. Interesting photos and blog post can be seen here.

Cargo upriver would be imported manufactured goods. Downriver it included a wide variety of food from the forest and river to feed the burgeoning population of the country’s largest city and capital. Since 1973, Kinshasa’s population has grown from about 1.5 million to 15 million. Also, barges moved forest products like tropical hardwood logs downstream for export through the port of Matadi. Cargo patterns were more complicated than that, of course, because an unknown number of the “passengers” on the ITBs were actually traveling merchants who left the Kinshasa and Kisangani with wholesale supplies of fish hooks, ammunition, steel wire, antibiotics, salt, cloth, plastic utensils, and other imported goods to sell to or trade with river folk in exchange for food items, which the merchants would then sell in markets in the cities. Many of these merchants were women.

As I said earlier, Carlos, my traveling partner, had already spent a year upriver. He’d grown up speaking Puerto Rican Spanish and English, now seemed fluent in French and self-confident in Lingala, the Zairian language used by a security official wearing the flag-pin who challenged our tickets, possibly surprised by two non-Africans making their way through the crowds to the boat. Months later I understood through experience, which I could go into another in an installment, that the official’s challenging of our documents was just a shakedown; if denied entry to the boat, he calculated we would be willing to offer a bribe. On this occasion, he backed off, but bribes later became a too-common annoyance .

Lingala is a trading language that developed on a stretch of the Congo River system. A trading language, sometimes called a creole or lingua franca, is in fact linguistic infrastructure essential for communication among isolated places. Along this long waterway, an entirely different language is spoken every 50 miles or so.  To overcome this, a dominant language, Bobangi, eventually got simplified, to ease learning it and to streamline business transactions. Eventually referred to as Lingala, I can vouch that this language has easy grammar and vocabulary and many borrowed French words. I recall listening to a Mobutu speech once and hearing repeated phrases like “Yoka ngai. Ezali tres important! [Listen to me. It’s very important.]” During colonial times, Lingala was further simplified, regularized, and written down for use by missionaries and colonial administrators. Since it’s currently used for lyrics in soukous, a popular music with a following all over West Africa, familiarity has spread regionally, beyond the country’s borders. Announcements in airports were made in Lingala first, and then French. In eastern Zaire and in East Africa more generally, that role is played by Swahili, a name you may be more familiar with.

Challenges notwithstanding, Carlos and I got to the river’s edge and crossed the narrow wooden gangway. Once on board, a crewman showed us to the second deck, where “first class” cabins opened to wide, shaded hallways running along either side of the boat. Carlos and I would share a small starboard cabin with one bed. The all metal room was stifling hot from the tropical sun baking down on the steel deck above. The small basin in the room also had only hot water, since it came from a steel storage tank above the cabin just behind the wheelhouse, a sunny spot.

The deck barges, at least 100’ by 300’, were cabled together, two by two; they served as a parking lot for a dozen or more trucks, tarps tied securely over their cargo. They were 1960s Mercedes Benzes with rounded-cabs painted jade green and mustard yellow. Between the trucks, many dozens of 55-gallon drums, blue, red, black, or just rusty, were arranged in clusters for their different intended customers in ports upriver. I saw strong men roll some barrels on board, one by one across the wooden gangplanks. The flex in the gangplanks gave evidence of their weight. Other cargo was carried across those planks atop the heads of strong, barefoot men.

A surprise was the number of people already camped out on the deck barges in the shade created by the cargo trucks. I imagined they may have been the drivers along with any passengers that had made arrangements to ride in or atop the trucks once they drove off the barge. Of course, I may have misinterpreted that, along with many other things. What’s clear is that in the US, no passengers would ride here. In fact, no mention was ever made of life jackets; I never saw any, which explain the high loss of life whenever an ITB, ferry, or baleinière sinks.

A fifth barge had been lashed to the starboard bow quarter of Major Vangu. It was an accommodation barge with a roof and open sides. People spread out raffia mats or just cotton pagnes to claim some deck space where they sat or slept. A large forward area incorporated a steel trough, for cooking over firewood; I concluded the women cooking there operated a sort of commercial kitchen, selling food to passengers throughout the journey. I later learned that this barge required a second-class ticket, and the space on the cargo barges among the trucks and barrels was sold as third class.

It was late Monday afternoon when the ship’s whistle sounded, and after crew cast off lines, Major Vangu dropped downstream some distance as it distanced itself from the bank and then pointed itself toward the river center, a floating city powering upstream between the drifting hyacinths.

I spent the first hours leaning on the railing taking it all in: the geography and the river itself, its current, the hyacinth islands, the dark water, the low banks. It was much cooler out by the railing than in the cabin. Soon the few traces of urban Kinshasa to starboard and more distant Brazzaville to port disappeared, giving way to grassy banks, likely unchanged from what Henry Stanley and Joseph Conrad after him saw.

As dusk descended, a bell rang, calling first class passengers to dinner. A restaurant with metal chairs and tables was located in an area just forward of the first class cabins. The wheelhouse was above this, only accessible to the crew. The fluorescent-lit mess hall had screened portholes, side windows, and doors, but swarms of flying insects covered the lights. A dozen or more first-class passengers gathered for dinner: well-used metal plates held boiled manioc, spicy greens, and fresh, grilled fish. It was delicious, and Carlos and I washed it down with a large bottle of warm Primus beer each. Soukous music played from a record player behind the bar, as wide as the tug and along the forward wall. The bar was as beautiful as it was massive: varnished surfaces of several light-colored woods, inscribed with exquisite carvings of Congolese river village scenes.  Not having photos of this is just “wrong.”

That first night I recall not getting much sleep. Standing at the rail watching the river, I wondered about many things: the lives of several hundred people in our flotilla, my future, the next day.

Sunrise arrived gradually on the river, which varied in width from a quarter mile to several miles, although it was hard at any given time to know if we were traveling between long, sinuous islands, or in fact a narrow portion of the river that formed the international border between Zaire and Congo Brazzaville. Hindsight and our current access to satellite images  tell me it was the former; the single line drawn on maps in no way represents what the river actually looks like; it’s more like an irregular braid of channels draining the vast and wet forest. Low-lying land to the east was mostly flat, so when the first hints of dawn came, I imagined us at sea, with palms and other trees marking islands. 

It seemed meaningless to measure distances to the shore from the boat in abstract units like miles or kilometers; in fact, distance there was not measured at all but perceived in color: gray riverbanks are the farthest, as we approached them, they turned blue, and finally when you could easily swim to the edge, they looked green and yellow. In narrow parts of the river or at least the channel, the grass defining the bank made up a living breathing undulating being as our bow wave passed through. Land and water crawled past all day long, unexplored, water sometimes seemed oily or rusty brown from tannins from all the decaying organic debris from the vast forest.

Another riverboat passed, an assembled flotilla just like Major Vangu. Some ferries crossed ahead of us, but I never learned either their routes or their frequency. In this remote area not that distant from the capital, news and information didn’t always travel. Many pirogues, some motorized with 15-hp outboards and others with from two to eight standing paddlers, dipping and leaning on their oars in perfect synch, would approach from invisible villages along the river. (Click here for 55 images of pirogues;  I include the same link at the end.)

Major Vangu never even slowed down for approaching pirogues. The villagers loaded these pirogues deep with fish, fresh and smoked, chikwangue (fermented manioc paste wrapped in banana leaves), fruits of all sorts, some I didn’t recognize. Fresh and smoked fish was piled in woven baskets. One fish was easily five feet long, a foot in girth. I imagined its mouth could encompass a soccer ball. This monster Congo catfish (called el capitain ) weighed at least 100 pounds by my estimate. The merchant who bought it soon disappeared into the second class accommodation barge.

Some pirogues came with baskets of forest meat—monkeys, antelopes, crocodiles, scaly pangolins, and unidentifiable animals. The Congo basin and river is home to varieties and species as yet undiscovered. In most cases, the “bush meat” appeared to be smoked, hair singed off, but the original carcass still recognizable.  [Those are links to check out.]

Whenever villagers brought their pirogues alongside the flotilla, traveling merchants, mostly women and some with children helping them, would gather as they approached to study the products in the deeply-laden dugouts. A merchant wanting to buy a basket of goods tossed a wet rag onto those goods into the pirogue, as a way of placing the bid. A few arguments, vicious in tone and volume although I understood nothing they yelled at each other, happened whenever wet rags landed on a basket almost simultaneously. A similar image that comes to mind now is excited traders on the stock exchange floor when the market is rallying or tumbling.

 Given the size of these pirogues and their minimal freeboard, I marveled at the skill and speed of the paddlers. They arrived at night as well as during the day. When we passed some larger though mostly invisible villages nestled in the trees along the stream, sometimes pirogues were rafted up four deep alongside the flotilla. “Landing” was always the same; at the right moment the bow person would drop the paddle, grab a painter, and jump onto the barge, even if that meant walking across one or several pirogues closer to the barge. Making it even more remarkable, that person would step only on the gunwales, not inside the pirogue itself.

 But at least once, I saw paddlers misjudge the size or speed of the flotilla bow wave as they approached, only to lose their balance and capsize, sending paddlers and all their baskets of wares into the river, an incalculable loss.


To be concluded in part 3.  Again, here are 55 images of pirogues, typical of the ones I saw.


Jumping forward for a marginally related story:  When I got to my post and got “adopted” by a guy who became my resource and local guide, I told him I wanted to buy a pirogue.  His name was Bontoli and he kept making excuses for not making arrangement, even while taking me into the forest to observe as he hunted.  Later he told me that he was so horrified by the idea that in a pirogue I might drown, be attacked by hippos or anacondas, or eaten by crocodiles that he went to the local fisherman and threatened them NOT to sell the white guy a pirogue.  I’m not sure what he threatened to do to anyone who sold me a pirogue, but no one would talk to me.  Bontoli likely saved my life.  Melesi mingi, ndeko ngai.  I’ve many stories about Bontoli, below, the only photo I have of him, and yes, monkeys were a menu item, market price per pound being calculated here.