Up the Congo River on an eventful voyage aboard ‘God’s Miracle’Mon, 22 Apr 2024 05:47:10 GMT

The flat-bottomed boat “Miracle de Dieu” (God’s Miracle) has left Kinshasa on its long, unpredictable journey up the mighty Congo River. On board passengers jostle for space in between the masses of goods and merchandise, playing chequers to pass the time. They hope the trip won’t encounter any disasters — something all too common on the waterways of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).The vessel is a metal “whaler”, not as fast but reputed to be sturdier than wooden boats. The long wooden barges are usually overloaded, dilapidated and sink all too often, leaving undetermined numbers of people dead. It is never known exactly how many are on board.Between late March and early April, an AFP photographer spent a week on God’s Miracle as it made its 520-kilometre (320-mile) journey from the capital Kinshasa to Lukolela, a fishing village in northwestern Equateur province.One of the boat’s engines broke down and a number of tropical storms broke out.On a previous trip, two people died in an accident when one of the mooring ropes came loose and violently struck some passengers. In DRC, a vast country in central Africa that covers 2.3 million square kilometres (almost 900,000 square miles), reliable transport routes are rare and planes serve only a limited number of towns. Many merchants have no choice but to use the river to transport their goods. Trader Eric Ndungu, a 41-year-old married father of five, said he almost lost his life in November when the wooden boat he was travelling on collided with another vessel coming from Congo-Brazzaville, killing at least 48 people. Every year Ndungu makes three round trips between Kinshasa and Mongala province, which lies upstream from Equateur.This time, for his own safety, he has decided to take one of the metal boats, even if it is a bit pricier.They’re seen as the luxury mode of river transport — although that just means having a bit of allocated space.- ‘Zero’ comfort -The so-called cabins on God’s Miracle are mostly crammed with merchandise — the boat carries more goods than people. Those who have booked some deck space for themselves take it in turns to settle down to sleep, hoping when they wake up the boat will have made good progress.Everyone makes do with what they’ve got. At the start, people eat tins of sardines and bread they’ve brought with them.Then, the older women on board get busy cooking: porridge for breakfast and river fish for dinner accompanied by “fufu” or “chikwangue”, traditional dishes from the Congo Basin made from cassava or corn flour.Dieudonne Mokake, 43, also a trader, estimates this type of vessel offers “an 80-percent guarantee for human safety” but a “comfort level of 10 percent”. Quickly, he adds, “to be honest I’d even say zero percent (comfort)”.”I sit on the ground and sleep in the same conditions, under the stars, exposed to the elements. Sometimes I find refuge in a canoe attached to the whaler,” Mokake says.He, like many passengers, misses the days when river transport was government-run and onboard comfort was a given, with two-person cabins and a restaurant on every boat. In 1977, the government liberalised river transport, allowing other companies to operate on the routes.River safety was again an issue in the runup to last December’s elections.President Felix Tshisekedi instructed the government to draw up a plan for the Congo River to play a “driving role” in economic development, according to a cabinet report.The government agreed on the need for everything to be done to avoid river accidents with “heavy human casualties”.Steps are also required to ensure vessels are insured, to stamp out makeshift boats and strengthen the monitoring of river traffic, the government said.Dieudonne just hopes that in the pursuit of profit, the welfare of passengers is not forgotten. “Goods bring in a lot of money, but our lives are still worth something!” he said.