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Parts A and B are here.  Today’s post concludes this story of my Congo River trip, 1973.

Wednesday midday the ITB and all the barges finally stopped for the first time in a place called Bolobo. No dock per se existed, but the lead starboard barge was near enough the bank that long planks were put out. No trucks disembarked. In almost no time, the entire perimeter of the flotilla was surrounded by pirogues, hundreds of them came out to meet us in the shallows, bringing passengers or picking them up, delivering or retrieving goods. A flurry of frantic exchange took place before the ship’s whistle sounded and, less than a half hour after stopping, Major Vangu reversed into the stream, again letting the current push us downstream and away from the bank far enough so that the engines could be moved “all ahead full” turning to port, and we continued the journey upstream.

Wednesday evening I lingered at the railing as I had previous evenings.  Carlos slept. A large waxing moon rose opposite a setting sun; the colors hypnotized me. Black oily waters, purple to blue to green to yellow reflections upon them, all framed by the greenery on the riverbanks. Later, we passed another river boat downbound, its searchlights probing the banks and the channel ahead. When the light beam swept over the foredeck, it illuminated literally hundreds of people there, sitting, standing in groups, or possibly asleep in the cool night air on the river.

By Thursday morning I recognized that in the age of air travel, a journey taking more than three days is an epic. The longer I was on the river, the more a comfortable monotony set in: the river, the banks, this island of humanity headed upstream felt like my new normal, and I loved it. The summer had given me confidence in speaking French, and I chatted with other first-class passengers. A Belgian professor was making his way to Kisangani; he said he’d done this river trip more than a dozen times and seemed to genuinely enjoy the trip and the post-colonial country. A Russian-educated Zairian engineer was going to work on a power transmission project; other than talking about his project, which I didn’t understand, and his dislike for Russian winters, he said little.

A bespectacled man said he worked for ONATRA. A soft-spoken man and very polite, he denied being a riverboat captain, but he was very knowledgeable about the river and the boats, and what I recall inspired confidence.  He conveyed that river navigation was not as chaotic as some might imagine. For example, he said it took eight years to become a licensed captain, some time in classrooms but mostly on the K boats. He talked about a crewman responsible each voyage for updating charts, both marking that information on charts themselves and communicating it somehow to passing river boats and the ONATRA office in Kinshasa.  Reflecting on this all these years later, I find this impressive.  On the other hand, this was way before GPS, and I saw no aids to navigation, and the country has never had a Coast Guard, begging questions about standardized landmarks and references.

I was especially intrigued by his explanation that Zaire bought boat propulsion systems from the United States; as the large Mississippi boats were in mid-century converted from steam to diesel, components of the US steam plants were sold for use on the Congo River system, especially for the smaller boats on the tributaries, where—as I would later see at my post—small river ports stockpiled firewood for the boats, the most plentiful fuel available to heat the water in the boilers for the steam plant. It’s unimaginable now that I never asked about the engine room of Major Vangu, but then again maybe I did and have just forgotten what he said. I’m quite sure Major Vangu was twin diesel, based on the smell of exhaust and pattern of the wake. Nor did I ask to see the wheelhouse. I now wish I knew what if any instrumentation there was.

After dinner Thursday evening, we heard references to a fête pour les commerçants, a party at the bar for the merchants, some of whom might be leaving the boat the next day in Mbandaka. Food was in greater amounts and with greater variety. I had by then discovered that our food was prepared in the accommodations barge alongside. I suspected it had been purchased from the river folk as well. The party meant people were drinking more.

The highlighted drink was a local moonshine called lotoko, which I’d hear more about later where I worked. With more potent drinks and louder volume on the soukous music, more people were dancing. The merchants must have been the same women who traded with the villagers who arrived by pirogue. The women were gorgeous at the party, as they danced, drank, laughed, talked.   I did notice the cabins in our first class section seemed to have lots of traffic, couples in and out, couples I’d not noticed before, leading me to suspect the merchants traded not only in manufactured imports and food staples, but I’m only describing what I saw, not judging.

Late morning Friday, I felt disappointment as buildings began appearing more frequently along the starboard side, then more decrepit boats half sunken along the bank. We were approaching Mbandaka, where soon the flotilla would stop. Carlos and I would leave the flotilla and go to a company house to figure out transport to our respective posts. In my case, many adventures, discoveries, and misunderstandings awaited me in the 600+ days ahead.

A way to conclude this account that took so many years to be written is to look at some of Joseph Conrad’s prose, a very different story about the same river. You’ve likely read it –or seen the Apocalypse Now adaptation—at some point and recall some descriptive lines:  “Going up that river was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings.   … A great silence, an impenetrable forest.   … The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. … The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted … The broadening waters flowed through a mob of wooded islands; you lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, and butted all day long against shoals, trying to find the channel, till you thought yourself bewitched and cut off for ever from everything you had known once—somewhere—far away—in another existence perhaps.”

I was certainly far away from my previous existence, and the days in 1973 were the beginnings of a renewal for me. Away from all things familiar, I was becoming aware of a transforming self, certainly a different one for me than had I remained in the United States. My cynicism disappeared and curiosity took its place.  And Conrad’s memorable though entirely colonial title Heart of Darkness notwithstanding, the sun is blindingly bright except of course in rainy season when torrential rain on tin roofs was deafening.  Nights too could be deafening with sounds from the forest; the only human sounds might be drums marking some significant event or communicating it.  Since I lived near the Lulonga, a tributary of the Congo, occasionally the rhythmic breathing of a steamer, was audible from miles away.  Spending the next five years in the Congo watershed so isolated from my past, my people, facilitated my metamorphosis.

As with any journey and anyone’s life, I had no idea what lay ahead.  One surprise was that I’d travel or aspire to travel other great rivers. Half century later I’d be near another great river—great in its importance historically to others and myself but not in its size relative to the Congo, and one once as pristine as the Congo.  Shoals of regret and other obstacles always threaten, but you keep butting against them and pushing up whatever river or current or landform because it’s your river journey and you’ve never been to your destination yet; in fact, you don’t even know yet what that destination is or when you’re supposed to get there. So you just push past the obstacles and challenges, scramble aboard your ride, lean on the railings, watch what you don’t understand, and have a deep drink of it all.

Thanks for reading this.  Since I can offer no photos, check out River Journeys:  Congo River with Michael Wood, which shows a trip there not that different that what I saw.  For the talking drum, see minute 31.  For a steamer that could have come from the US, minute 59.  But it’s best to just watch the whole doc through when you have an hour to relax;  you’ll thank yourself.   I was disappointed by the music choice, since so much sublime traditional music has been recorded, like Missa Luba

For a discussion thread of contemporary Congo River issues from multiples perspectives, click here.

Adding this at the last moment:  Henry Morton Stanley also kept a journal.  Read extracts here.

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