PATIENCE, LUCK and cash. Those are the three things you need most if you are going to travel through the Congo. No matter how crap things look when your riverboat breaks down or your bush aircraft does not turn up or the road you are driving along is suddenly swallowed by the advancing jungle, a way through will turn up eventually.
That’s how this place has always functioned so there’s no point in importing your outsider stress. Just latch onto a good local guide and prepare to drink deep of their fatalism. They will sort it out. It’ll just take time. And you need luck to make sure you don’t run into any of the bad guys. In a country where 1,500 people still die each day as a result of conflict, there are plenty of bad guys to go round. There is also no functioning state as such so don’t expect anybody you meet wearing something approximating a police uniform to 1) be a policeman 2) follow any sort of legal code 3) have any bullets in his police gun or batteries in his police radio.
And you need cash. The remarkable thing about a state as failed as the Congo is that the price of living for outsiders is astonishingly high. Sure you can survive out in the bush on next to nothing but the moment you come to a town you will be shaken down for cash (always foreign currency, US dollars mostly) and at prices that would make a Brooklyn diamond dealer blush.
First, a bit of history to sort out the confusion that so often adheres to the Congo brand. The really big messed-up country attached to the Congo name used to be a Belgian colony, is now called the Democratic Republic of Congo and used to known in days gone by as Zaire, the Congo Free State and the Belgian Congo. The smaller messed-up version used to be a French colony, is now called the Republic of the Congo and also has also gone through various name changes. The first country is really, really big. From one side to the other is the distance from London to Moscow. The second one is also pretty big but for the purposes of this article we are going to ignore it as a runt and focus on its huge neighbour. Don’t worry if you get a little confused; people often do. The actor/motorbiker, Ewan McGregor, and his team, who rode down Africa in 2007, managed to muddle the two countries.
The thing these places all have in common is the Congo River. At 4,500 km in length it is a tad shorter than the Nile. But while it might be Africa’s second longest river it is, by several orders of magnitude, its mightiest. The outflow from the Nile into the Mediterranean is weeny in comparison to the 43,000 tonnes of fresh water that belch out of the Congo every second all year round into the Atlantic. That’s a lot of fresh water. Indeed the first white outsiders to discover the Congo river, some particularly nutty Portuguese mariners in the 1480s, described how, twenty miles out at sea from the mouth of the river, they could drink the seawater.
I set about crossing the Congo (the Democratic Republic of Congo, that is) in 2004 as an exercise in part-journalism/part-prove-it-can-be-done/part-midlife-crisis-risk-everything. I had just spent four years covering crises in Africa for a British newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, almost all of which had roots in the Congo. The thuggish Lord’s Resistance Army had kept northern Uganda ablaze for twenty years because they could slip across the unmarked border into the lawless Congo and find sanctuary. Ethnicity in Rwanda festered because Hutus responsible for the 1994 genocide were still alive and well, surviving in eastern Congo. Darfuri rebels funded themselves from cross-border smuggling into the Congo. Even Robert Mugabe’s rickety regime down in Zimbabwe was linked to the Congo because he bought off his generals by sending them to the Congo to line their pockets with cash from its alluvial diamond fields. So to try to understand the continent’s major problems I wanted to go the Congo, their common denominator.
But the main reason I wanted to tackle the Congo was that I was told it could not be done. In fact, several people told me it was suicidal. In 1996 a series of wars and rebellions began in the Congo that have continued until today and that have helped turn the country into what most outsiders regard as a no-go area. I had a map in my Telegraph office in Johannesburg of the entire African continent and for years the Congo goaded me from its centre like some sort of cartographical golem. The train lines that used to go into the Congo had been cut, the ferry lines collapsed and the road network choked by the equatorial forest. Like other colonial nations, Belgium loved statistics and I found an unabashed travel guide for the Belgian colony that boasted the country had 111,971 km of road in 1949. When I set about crossing the Congo half a century later I doubt if more than 500 km of road remained.
You might wonder why roads are important in a country so generously endowed with rivers but my problem was that the route I chose to cross the Congo had a long overland component. I wanted to see if it was possible to follow the trail blazed by the first white explorer to reach the Congo, Henry Morton Stanley.
Stanley is best known for his 1871 journalistic scoop where he tracked down David Livingstone, the Scottish missionary-turned-explorer, who had been missing for a few years in central Africa. Stanley, a nuggety little Welsh bastard, came up with the sound bite of the century in “Doctor Livingstone, I presume”, and transformed himself into a global star. But it was his next trip to Africa that was to have a much profounder effect on the continent.
Between 1874 and 1877 Stanley bushwhacked from the east coast of Africa to the west on an epic trip that meandered more than 7,000 km. It was a pretty impressive display of determination and stamina (all three of his European companions died and only a third of his 300 bearer party made it out alive) but it cost the lives of countless Congolese natives. Stanley was of the school of explorer that shot first, and then shot some more and never really got round to asking questions as there was probably more shooting to be done
The reason the trip changed history is that Stanley was the first outsider to chart the Congo River. He went back to Europe with a map of a massive navigable river reaching across the continent. The Belgian King, Leopold II, saw in the river a spine for a new colony bringing African resources downstream and shipping European manufactured the other way. Stanley’s trip fired the starting gun for the Scramble for Africa. The Belgian king made his move for the Congo River basin around 1880s and within two decades almost all of the rest of the continent had been snaffled up by the colonial powers.
Stanley reached the Congo by crossing Lake Tanganyika and landing on its western shore. He had heard tell of a massive river, the Lualaba, or Upper Congo, deep in the forest somewhere out to the west but he had no idea how to find the river or where it would lead. A not dissimilar sense of mystery descended on me when I set out on my journey in the dry season of 2004. I knew the river was out there in the badlands of northern Katanga province, but the truth was I had no idea how I was going to get there.
It had taken days of messing around with United Nations logisticians to glean a seat on a light aircraft to Kalemie, once a big Congolese port on the western shore of Lake Tanganyika, but now a cholera-contaminated ruin. My mum had travelled through Kalemie in 1958 but that was back during the colonial period when things like railways and ferries worked. Since the Belgians pulled out the Congo in 1960, this part of the country had been in a near-permanent state of rebellion. Che Guevara had fought around Kalemie, attacking the tiny hydro-electric power plant that used to give the town its electricity. Mad Mike Hoare, the best known of the white mercenaries who infested the Congo in the 1960s and 1970s, had been stationed here.
My lucky break came when I persuaded some local aid workers from Care International to give me lift on their motorbikes. One of the wars was believed to be ending and they wanted to get to places they had not been able to reach during the fighting. I, quite literally, cadged a lift for 900 km on a journey back in time.
Buses used to cross this region daily along a Belgian road network maintained by “cantonniers” or local labourers. All that had gone, washed away by seasonal rains and consumed by the advancing Equatorial forest. For days we snaked along jungle tracks often no wider than our hips, stopping endlessly at broken bridges and fallen trees. The bikes were tiny little things, small enough to lift over obstacles. Anything bigger would have been pointless.
United Nations peacekeepers didn’t venture into these parts, the stronghold of black magic-using mai-mai rebels and murderous interahamwe fugitives from Rwanda. I passed a village where a skull and other human bones lay thick on the ground the result of some forgotten, bloody skirmish. I biked through burnt-down, abandoned villages and caught the occasional glimpse of people in rags who ran away, petrified of outsiders.
And the secret weapon to get me through these terrors? A pygmy called Georges Mbuyu, a tiny man who stared down red-eyed mai-mai wearing hideous necklaces of animal teeth, body parts and fetishes. “Don’t worry, I know these people, they will not hurt you,” he said reassuringly. He might have only come up to my chest but in these killing fields he was a giant.
But the most moving sight? The Ho Chi Minh trail of Congolese survival – cadaverous men we saw by the hundred wandering the forest, pushing pedal-less bicycles laden with jars of palm oil for hundreds and hundreds of km for the chance of making a few dollars by trading them for another commodity like salt. These men were on six week round trips, drinking when they passed a stream, eating what they could scavenge in the bush, and sleeping on the trail when the sun went down.
“There is nothing in my home town, Kongolo – this is my only chance to feed my family,” Muke Nguy told me before heaving his tottering bike down the trail. “What’s that?” I asked, pointing at a loop of vine on his shoulder. “My bicycle repair kit”, he said. The sap, a form of natural rubber, makes a gummy resin, ideal for mending flat tyres. I shook my head in sorry disbelief. Think how great Africa could be if the skills and talents of its people were released from survival and self-preservation.
In 900 km I saw not one other working motorised vehicle. I met village elders who told me VW Beetles used to pass regularly in the 1960s but now their own teenage children had never seen a car. This was a part of the world in regression – the hands of the Congolese clock were not just standing still, they are spinning backwards.
At night I fell asleep in thatched mud huts re-reading Stanley’s diary. He too wrote of burnt-down villages and human skulls littering the ground. Had nothing changed?
When I first glimpsed the river, it was huge. More than 3,000 km upstream from the Atlantic Ocean it was already wider than the Thames in London. But what should be one of the great transport arteries of Africa, shuttling goods and people along a fluvial superhighway, was clotted.
It took weeks to negotiate my way down river past towns like Kibombo, an eerie-looking place where I spent a night. People here cannot remember when the electricity last worked and I saw a ghostly scene of guttering palm oil candles and shadows dancing across hulks of abandoned colonial-era buildings.
The riverside town of Kindu was home to a large UN HQ, fitted out with air-conditioning, satellite uplinks for the internet and a canteen where I had my first fizzy drink for a month. Behind the razor wire these peacekeepers lived in blissful isolation – many did not even know that a few years ago 13 Italian peacekeepers had been dragged through these same streets, disembowelled by a mob and eaten.
After leaving Kindu I had my only truly serene moment in the Congo. There was not a single working Congolese motorboat on this stretch of the river – the rusting remains of paddle steamers, tugs and barges can be seen rotting at various spots on the bank – and the only river traffic was made up of pirogues, canoes made from hollowed out tree trunks.
One evening I took a pirogue with four paddlers and we headed into the midstream of the Congo just south of the Equator. The sun had set abruptly but as the night rushed in and the sky, forest and river merged into one impenetrable whole, an unforgettable thing happened – a moon rose red and full in the east.
As the water lapped against the pirogue and the paddlers sang in gentle Swahili harmony I watched as the slow-climbing moon struggled to light one of the world’s most benighted regions. The next day my pirogue reached the spot where, in 1951, a full Hollywood crew had come to film The African Queen. Katharine Hepburn wrote in her diary of finding a charming riverside town full of helpful missionaries. My experience was different. The priests had long ago been driven out, all the buildings lay in ruins and I was told it was too dangerous to dawdle.
A few days later and I finally reached Kisangani, the city on the Bend in The River. Once an industrial and intellectual centre where multinationals like Unilever maintained large factories, it was a broken ruin. It used to be called Stanleyville, in honour of the explorer who first passed here in a flurry of poisoned arrows and spears from Wagenia tribesmen rightly suspicious of outsiders.
All traces of Stanley have been removed. Where his statue once stood there is now just an empty plinth and a spring where hookers from the local Hotel Des Chutes wash their smalls. A few whites cling on: a French born trader who married well into the clan of Mobutu Sese Seko, the post-independence dictator who single-handedly bankrupted the country when known as Zaire; a Greek trucker who somehow maintains the town’s tatty Hellenic Club with its daily menu of tzatziki and moussaka.
And there was, 83-year-old Father Leon, a tiny, beer-drinking, chain-smoking priest who came from Belgium to the Congo in 1947. He remembers clearly November 24 1964, the day Belgian paratroopers dropped into Stanleyville to rescue him from mai-mai rebels. But the paratroopers only landed on the right bank of the river. On the left, ten priests and fifteen nuns were tortured and murdered.
“I still have a picture of Heinrich Verberne who was killed that day. He was standing in for me when he was captured by the rebels so perhaps it should have been me,” Father Leon said quietly. “Why are you still here after all these years, after all these horrors? I must go where there is need and in the Congo the need is great”.
It took weeks to find a boat downstream towards Kinshasa and the Atlantic Ocean where Stanley’s epic journey ended in Aug 9 1877.The national transport company had long since stopped operating and I was forced to board a Congolese boat chartered by the UN. For days it crawled along the river’s sweeping arch across central Africa. Penniless villagers would paddle out in pirogues and bravely try to latch onto our boat to sell the crew smoked monkey, fresh fish, edible grubs or cassava bread. It was a hazardous exercise and often they were overwhelmed, sunk by our wash shouting forlornly for us to stop.
It was a scene Stanley himself would have recognised and after my journey was over it stayed with me as the perfect metaphor for the region – courageous, desperate people left behind wallowing in the mighty Congo River as the rest of the world steams by.
Tim Butcher’s `Blood River – A Journey To Africa’s Broken Heart’ was published October 2008 in the USA by Grove Press and in the UK by Vintage. Read a review of the book here
Author and Photography – Tim Butcher
(Posted by Lee Ridley)