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Up The Congo Without A Helmet


 

 

 

www.bbc .co.uk With few roads surrounding the Congo River, everything travels along it.

I have always dreamt of spending time on the Congo River. I have flown over it, sat beside it and washed in it. I even once, in a rash moment, drank some of it.

But until now, I had never travelled on it.

So when an opportunity came to do so, to actually take a boat on this source of so many myths and stories and - yes - cliches, I did not hesitate.

I had read the history books and hired a motorised canoe. The only other thing I really needed was a pith helmet.

Actually, and perhaps surprisingly, this colonial accoutrement is quite easy to find in the Congolese capital Kinshasa because the strange, pointed Victorian-style headgear is, today, a sort of ironic high fashion accessory in the city's top discotheques.

I was researching a story on health care and my destination was a hospital two days upriver.

For that, we needed about 200 litres of fuel for the outboard motor and a similar amount of clean drinking water for myself, the medical team I was with and the boatmen (drinking the river itself is not, by the way, recommended).

We also needed tinned food and other supplies for about a week. The Congolese doctor I was travelling with, Dr Pascale Ngoy, explained that the villagers we would meet along the way might not have enough spare food to sell us.

Dr Ngoy who works for a foreign aid agency, was wielding a hand-held Global Positioning System (GPS) and a satellite phone, so we would know exactly where we were and could call for help if needed.

Other lessons about the river came from a villager who introduced himself as Monsieur Phillipe.

While we had been cruising along the wide, winding waterway, the river banks looked, to my untrained eye, like walls of impenetrable jungle. There was water, then there was green.

But Monsieur Phillipe showed me otherwise. He took me out in his small wooden canoe. He stood up confidently in the fragile craft with a long paddle to guide us, while I, for fear of falling in, and to peals of laughter from the village children, sat gingerly, cross-legged in the middle.

Monsieur Phillipe paddled into the reedy banks and showed me that, far from being impenetrable and uniform, the greenery was dotted with inlets and secret coves.

The banks were also festooned with various sorts of fish trap.

There were big nets stretched parallel to the shore that, because of their large size, were nicknamed after one of Congo's big cities, Lubumbashi. The Lubumbashis were pinned into the mud with sticks of bamboo.

Other, more subtle traps, entailed floating sticks with a hook suspended just under the waterline.

The fishing lesson from Monsieur Phillipe opened my eyes.

From that point on, the single, standing figures that had appeared to be walking, or floating, across the water near both banks, began to make sense.

They were fishermen in their canoes tending their catch.

And I started noticing, too, that most of the mud houses were situated very close to the waterline. For fisherfolk, that made sense too.

The water is the artery of their world.

There are very few roads in this part of Congo, and everything travels along the great river. It makes sense to be near the action, to trade and barter, to travel and even to live, on the water.

I came across one group of men who were doing just that, for months on end. They had come from hundreds of miles upriver on four canoes lashed together by rope.

On top of the boats, the men had suspended a small warehouse complete with walls and a thatched roof.

They were farmers, and inside the main room in the floating warehouse were several tonnes of cassava, the staple root vegetable that they were taking to market.

Another room was the sleeping area and on the prow of one of the big, lashed-together canoes there was a fire tin complete with cooking pot. Not all of that cassava would be sold.

By now I had almost forgotten about the first white men to come here, the Stanleys and the Livingstones.

Their history is a fascinating one, of course.

But my new acquaintances - Dr Ngoy, Monsieur Phillipe and the farmers with their floating house - all had new and living stories to tell.

There was no need, in fact, for a pith helmet at all.

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Up The Congo Without A Helmet
Bradt Publishes Congo Guide
Bradt Publishes Congo Guide

The first guide on the two Congos in well over a decade has been published by Bradt. (02/04/2008)

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