Posted on January 3, 2005

Re-Charting The Mighty Congo

Tim Butcher, BBC News, Jan. 1

In the Democratic Republic of Congo government forces fought against rebels for five long years and despite the signing of a peace deal in 2002, the threat of civil war remains. But this did not deter one BBC reporter from a journey along one of Africa’s greatest rivers.

They said it could not be done.

They said it was impossible today to do what Henry Morton Stanley, the Welsh-born chancer-turned-explorer, did 130 years ago when he charted the mighty Congo.

To follow his footsteps would not just be foolhardy, some suggested it would be suicidal.

Research showed they could be right. The overland bit from Lake Tanganyika to the river’s headwaters cuts through territory where cannibalism is still practised.

The network of roads, riverboats and railways set up by Belgian colonialists has crumbled to nothing in the war, rebellion and chaos since they left in 1960.

And if the rebels and logistics do not get you, there is always disease. Leprosy has returned, malaria is everywhere and what about Ebola, the ghastly haemorrhagic fever named after the Congo tributary where it was discovered?

But I refused to believe a part of the world could simply slip off the map.

For four years I badgered aid groups, missionaries, politicians, diplomats, peacekeepers and pygmies.

And after a lull in the Congo’s latest civil war I journeyed to the western shore of Lake Tanganyika where Stanley made landfall in September 1876 aboard the Lady Alice, a collapsible rowing boat built in London.

The boat was named after his fiancee and carried by bearers half way across Africa all the way from Zanzibar.

“I can show you where Stanley is buried here in the village,” slurred Idi Kavunja, chief of the lakeside village of Mtowa.

He was hopelessly drunk and talking nonsense — Stanley is buried in England — only to become aggressive and abusive. “Give me money” were the last words I made out. It was a sad start.

Beyond recognition

The local of town of Kalemie was no less disappointing.

Albertville under the Belgians, it was once a hub connecting trains loaded with rice, cotton and produce from the huge Congolese hinterland with boats to Tanganyika and beyond.

My mother passed through here in 1959, the last year of Belgian rule, when it was fully integrated in Africa’s transport network.

Now it is cut off, abandoned and cholera-ridden.

“I remember you could hear the whistles of the liners as they left the port and sometimes you could even hear the band playing on the top deck in first class,” Genevieve Nagant told me. She arrived here from Belgium in 1951 as a young colonial social worker and never left.

On her wall she had paintings — tribal stick figures on a black background — just like ones my mum purchased all those years ago. But in the garden she had something different, a crater from a rocket blast.

Albertville has been fought over repeatedly, by Che Guevara (the left-wing revolutionary), Mike Hoare (the white mercenary) and countless others.

“Why do you stay?” I asked the unmarried mademoiselle.

“Because when you plant a seed you must tend it before it will blossom,” was her elegant response.

Hazardous path

The 600 mile (965km) overland journey to the upper Congo was 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.

United Nations peacekeepers and aid workers do not venture into these parts, the stronghold of black magic-using Mai Mai rebels and murderous Interahamwe fugitives from Rwanda.

So I was petrified when I left the lake on a small motorbike, picking my way along 18in (45cm) wide tracks.

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, terrified of outsiders.

And the secret weapon to get me through these terrors? A pygmy called George Mbuyu, a tiny man who stared down, red-eyed, 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 the badlands of north Katanga 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 kilometres for the chance of making a few pounds 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 are no shops here, no houses to rest in, just the endless forest void.

“There is nothing in my home town, Kongolo — this is my only chance to feed my family, “ one of the men, Muke Nguy, said 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 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 600 miles I saw not one other working motorised vehicle. I met village elders who told me VW beetles used to pass regularly in the 60s but now their own teenage children had never seen a car.

This is a part of the world in regression. The hands of the Congolese clock are 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. Has nothing changed?

The riverside town of Kindu is now home to a large UN headquarters, 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 of their Italian predecessors 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 is 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 now is 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 amazing thing happened. A moon rose red and full in the east.

With the water lapping against the pirogue and the paddlers singing in gentle Swahili harmony, I watched as the slow-climbing moon vainly lit one of the world’s most benighted regions.


A few days later 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 is now broken.

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 then known as Zaire, and 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 DR Congo in 1947.

He remembers clearly 24 November, 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 asked him.

“I must go where there is need,” he said. “And in the Congo the need is great.”

Treading water

It took weeks to find a boat downstream towards Kinshasa and the Atlantic Ocean, where Stanley’s epic journey ended on 9 August, 1877.

The national transport company has long since stopped operating and I was forced to board a Congolese boat chartered by the UN. For days it crawled slowly 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 they were often 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.