50 Very Long Miles
21 June 2013: Nkala village, ca. 15 km east of Tshumbiri. Just a quick note to let everyone know that I had hoped to post two stories today, including one about bonobos, but no luck finding the great apes yet. My computer is almost out of power, so it might be a while before I can post again. If one of the places we stay has a generator, I will try to give you an update soon. Otherwise, look for more posts once I reach Mbandaka in a couple of weeks. Below is the post I wrote last week-enjoy.
15 June 2013, Kwamouth, DR Congo:
To find the small town of Kwamouth on a map, one needs to look about 50 miles north of Kinshasa to the intersection of the Congo and Kwa rivers. Kwamouth (pronounced Kwa–moo–too locally) is an odd name for a Congolese town, and I suspect it might have been coined by the explorer Henry Morton Stanley, a Welsh man who often claimed American ancestry as a way of covering up his embarrassing illegitimate background. Stanley was the first outsider, and perhaps the first man ever, to lead an expedition that traversed the Congo River in the 19th century. This incredible feat took 999 days, resulted in the death of every other white man on the expedition, and was the cause of countless Congolese deaths—when local tribes were not forthcoming with food or assistance to the expedition, Stanley tended to be heavy handed with his Maxim machine gun.
We came here as a stepping stone on our way to Lake Mai-Ndombe, and our plan is to find a boat that can take us east along the Kwa (i.e.,Kasai) River until it branches north to the lake. Because of its location at the intersection of two major rivers, Kwamouth is a relatively large town with a small market, a hotel (the St. Marc, where we’re staying) and a permanent community of fishermen. We’re still in the non-forested area of DR Congo, which is now a mosaic of rolling hills of savannah, a little gallery forest here and there, and countless miles of marshy reeds along the shore of the lake. Today we found some lizard species that seem to be the same as the ones we found at Mbombo-Lumene, and we will probably hang out until Monday when we hope to move on to an area with forest.
But today’s post isn’t about Kwamouth per se, but rather the difficult journey that the team suffered to get here. The story, unfortunately, is typical of the difficulties involved with doing anything in DR Congo. Nothing works the way one expects it to in the US, everything takes three or four times as long to accomplish, and red tape sprinkled with a dash of corruption is the perfect recipe for frustration.
It all began bright and early on Thursday morning (June 13th) at a hotel in Maluku, a port just north of the capital city of Kinshasa. We had spent the night in a hotel there, and the crew of a small boat arrived in a dilapidated minivan to pick us up. The passenger side door was permanently broken, so I entered the vehicle in the “Dukes of Hazard” style. When we arrived at the port, I saw about two dozen wooden boats of various sizes, a large market, and vendors hawking everything from refrigerated plastic bags of water to sweatpants. After chatting with an immigration officer who insisted on looking at my passport, we witnessed a woman being dragged away in tears by the police. They had to beat back some people who tried to assault her as she was moved through the crowd, and Chifundera said that the people were accusing of her of killing her baby. It was an unsettling sight, and a bad omen for the forthcoming trip.
During the chaos of organizing the baggage to load onto the boat, our teenage cook decided to quit. Elvis (yes that’s his real name) had done a good job at Mbombo-Lumene, and it was very frustrating that he chose that moment to leave us, but the prospect of a long river journey may have frightened him. Everything seemed to be going fine by the time our luggage was carefully loaded on board the 30-foot wooden boat at about 9:30, and the crew presented a plastic lawn chair to me, Aristote and Wandege. A few more passengers and cargo were loaded on board as two hours passed by with no apparent progress towards our departure. Various people shouted at the crew in attempts to get money for this or that tax, fee or document. I was beginning to get concerned that our late departure would mean a late arrival at Kwamouth after dark, a prospect I wanted to avoid because I was sure the mosquitoes would be horrendous in the marshy environment of the Congo River after dark. As we waited in vain for the arguments to resolve, I tried to clarify with Chif how long the journey would take. “One day and a half,” he said. “WHAT?” I was shocked. A journey that I thought would take all day would actually be a miserable full day and a half, including a night on the river. I was completely unprepared for that prospect, but we had already paid our fare, and trying to find another way upriver might take days. I resigned myself to a very long and uncomfortable journey.
At 12:30, we pushed back into the Congo, did two slow 360° turns, and after more emphatic shouting from the shore, we immediately returned to the port. More arguments, more shouting. Then more passengers and cargo until there was very little room, even with some people hanging out on the roof of the canopy. Another hour slipped by, and then we departed again. We had traveled maybe 2 minutes before a speedboat with the bold blue flag of Congo pulled up to the side, and a soldier with an AK-47 rifle hopped on board. He shouted something at the crew, took one of our jerry cans full of fuel, and sped off to the shore. Obviously somebody hadn’t been paid, and they were taking the fuel to prevent us from leaving. We pulled back to the shore a short distance away from the port, and Chifundera and the captain disappeared hopped off the boat to sort things out. About 20 minutes later, I finally had enough, and hopped off the boat to look for Chif and tell him we should try to find alternative plans. I found him engaged in a three-way argument with the captain, an official behind a desk in an office, and a small group of soldiers. When I told him I wanted to change our plans, he emphatically showed me five different documents that had to be stamped, signed and paid for by the captain in order for us to leave. They were arguing about a sixth one. “If we leave, it will be the same thing tomorrow, but you will have to start from the beginning!” he told me. As I looked at the pile of paperwork in his hand, I had to concede he was right, and forced myself to climb back into the boat. It was after 3 when we left Maluku for the last time.
Wandege, Aristote and I sat on lawn chairs towards the stern of the boat, where we were able to climb over a minimum of people to answer nature’s call off the back of the boat during the journey. I sat across from a woman in her mid-20’s with two young boys, one about 3 and the other an infant. Every hour or so, one of the barefoot crew would bail out the water that accumulated in a large depression right next to my chair, occasionally splashing me as the bucket tipped overboard. I watched the scenery of the grassy hills and abundant bird life until it grew dark, and then I doused myself with mosquito repellant, put on a head net that amused several of my fellow passengers, and tried to find a comfortable position to doze. The crew stopped the boat at a small village at 10, and I soon realized the Congo can get quite cold at night. After a fitful night trying to stay warm, screaming babies and hourly splashing from expunging the unwanted water, we fired up the engine at 5 and continued upriver. Below is a photo Wandege took from our position inside the boat looking toward the bow.
I dozed off after sunrise for an hour or so, and woke to a smiling 3-year old urinating into the flooded water near my boots. After a breakfast of a little bread and a protein bar, I got bored and took out my GPS unit. I soon realized that our speed was incredibly slow, only about 3 miles per hour, and of course we stopped at every single little village to exchange a passenger, have a bathroom break, buy food, or just get in another argument for 45 minutes at a time. A long 12 hours later, we were only six miles away from our goal at Kwamouth when the engine began to sputter. One of the teenaged crew had forgotten to buy more fuel at the last village, and we were now almost out. Someone called him a chimpanzee at the top of their lungs, but another one of them had squirreled away a whisky bottle with a little extra fuel. Everybody on the boat held their breath as we looked ahead for the next village as the boat’s motor stalled again and again. Not only did it look like we would be spending another miserable night on the Congo, but we were probably going to be stranded for several hours after dawn. To say I was demoralized was an understatement. The crew led the boat into a narrow channel that was surrounded on both sides by a wall of reeds, and as we passed the small dugout canoe of a man and his son tending a net just next to us, someone yelled the magic word—nyoka!
It was a snake, and it had drowned in the man’s net. Forgetting all my troubles for a moment, we stopped the boat long enough to buy the animal for 2,000 Congolese francs, a little over $2. My dejected spirit rose, because the snake was a species I had wanted to see for years, but had failed to find before. Chifundera took some photos of it on our luggage, and I am submitting it to my students to identify as part of the next cybertaxonomy project for the blog. I wanted to preserve the decaying animal quickly when we reached Kwamouth later that night, so I didn’t take the usual measurement or scale count data this time, but I think the students can figure this one out with the color pattern, size (about 0.5 meters total length), and scale pattern on the head, which is evident in the photo. Sorry it isn’t a high res photo, but Chif’s camera was not set correctly. A quick note about these—because the satellite modem has a limited amount of megabytes, I will provide answers and responses to the student’s guesses for these at some time in the future when I can get to an internet café.
Just as darkness fell, the sputtering engine delivered us to a small village hidden away among the maze of reeds. Relieved that we would at least have dry land to spend the night, I waited for the staccato conversation in Lingala between everyone on the boat and the shore to subside. An hour later, the crew decided we needed to change boats before continuing on to Kwamouth immediately! It took about 30 minutes to transfer all the remaining passengers and cargo to a much smaller dugout canoe, and as we waited to leave, the boat listed from side to side. Chifundera took out the life vests we hadn’t bothered to unpack before, and they had the pleasant benefit of keeping us warm as the temperature dipped. An hour and a half later, the captain returned to the boat with enough fuel to move on, and we retraced our path through the maze of reeds back to the Congo. I could see the lights of a small town called Ngabe on the west side of the river in Congo Brazzaville, and as we drew closer to our destination, ghostly figures of fishermen standing on tiny dugout canoes blinked in and out of sight as they adjusted their flashlights. Our speed was a bit faster in the smaller boat, and we were deposited onto the beach at Kwamouth just after 10:30 the night after we had left Kinshasa. It had taken us roughly 31 hours to travel about 50 miles.
Needless to say, when we continue beyond Kwamouth to the next leg of our journey to Lake Mai-Ndombe, I’m going to have my own personal dugout canoe that will be mine to command as I wish! The surprising thing to me was that I didn’t lose my cool during this experience, and I suppose the previous six expeditions to DR Congo have taught me patience and fortitude to deal with misadventures like this. As I contemplated that in my comfortable sleeping bag at the hotel, I realized Congo had probably changed me for the better.