In this slow-moving convoy, it takes a full three months to make the round-trip from Kinshasa to Kisangani.  And in a river strewn with shipwrecks, the journey is perilous too: accidents claim countless lives each year.
On the docks, no wives or sweethearts are waving goodbye to their sailors, only dockers, temporarily perpetuating the tradition of “porting”, plus a few soldiers – Kalashnikovs at their sides – wandering around without knowing why.
Congo River, Kinshasa. First day of the trip. The barges pushed by the M/B Ma' Ungano, while leaving the port of Kinshasa around 5 am.Because of the absence of roads linking the main cities of the Democratic Republic of Congo, river transport generally remains the  most common means of transport for the Congolese. In the DRC, river navigation and “landlubbers” are vital to the economy.

In this slow-moving convoy, it takes a full three months to make the round-trip from Kinshasa to Kisangani.  And in a river strewn with shipwrecks, the journey is perilous too: accidents claim countless lives each year.

Sailors on river CongoPerched on a truck, the bo’sun uses semaphore to signal with his fingers the depth indicated by the two sounders on the first barge. The crew keeps on lowering the graduated poles and shout out the readings. The tension is palpable, especially on the bridge, where the captain’s binoculars are continuously focused on the bo’sun.
Travelling by river at night is forbidden, so the convoy sails for between 12 and 15 hours, stopping at nightfall and often using just a tree along the riverbank or the edge of an island to moor against. A sailor jumps into the water and swims to a place where he can secure the convoy for the night.

Congo River, the depth of the river varies a lot depending the location. The Congo River is the deepest river in the world with measured depths in excess of 220 m. But some places are very shallow. Places where boats might get stuck on sandbanks for weeks. That's why every boat has a 'sondeur'. French word for sounder (are in German Echolot) who measures the depth of the river with a long stick. He shouts the measurements when he touches the riverbed.To avoid sandbars, ships must use “scouts”, local fishermen hired for short routes that they know well. They take the helm for a few hours. The commander of the vessel is also able to “read the waters”, interpreting the waves and the transverse lines of the current, looking for sand under one or two metres of water.

During storms, the waves turn into huge walls of water measuring up to 1.50 metres high. The wind often pushes boats so that they are travelling in the opposite direction – not even the 700 hp of the two engines can prevent it. The boats obey the wind, and sailors often find their vessels glued to the shore.

Selling and trading goods on Congo RiverRiver transport is not only important for the country’s economy, it is also vital for the sailors and for the people who live by trading.

Every day, dozens of canoes come from both sides of the river towards the convoy. The riverbelongsto fishermen and to everyone else: women, children from the age of three – everybody knows how to handlea canoeand paddlewith prodigiousskill.

You can sometimes witness ten or fifteen people standing in a small boat, shouting and gesticulating. They usually sell fish or some other exotic species such as crocodiles and snakes, or fruits (avocado, mango or papaya). They are also interested by what the sailors’ wives have to offer: fabrics, baubles or even counterfeit medicines.

Eventually, the convoy can hear its arrival being announced at the port, the docks are lined with eager buyers and the sailors seize the opportunity to cash in on the bounties bought along the way.

 

Text and photos by Kris Pannecoucke