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Zaire Riverboat a Floating Mirror of a Bizarre, Corrupt Society

June 19, 1988|BLAINE HARDEN | The Washington Post

ON THE ZAIRE RIVER — The captain, dressed in crisply pressed white pajamas, stalked back and forth on the bridge. As his boat growled down river through a green-black rain forest, he shouted and whistled and pointed to the deck below.

There, the beasts that had arrived in the night were being auctioned. Glaring, white morning light poured over heaps of mottled fur and squirming legs. It was hot and some of the carcasses were ripening.

The night's harvest was mostly monkeys--hundreds of them, some smoked, some rotting, some freshly trapped and twitching. They were tied together by their long tails in easy-carrying bundles. There also were antelope, bush buck and a couple of giant forest hogs. A well-muscled sailor with a sharp knife and bloodstained sneakers was methodically cutting throats.

From the bridge, the captain exercised his prerogative as big man on the river. He had first option on the game, and he bought cheap. His crew hauled the meat upstairs to his private freezer. It would be resold at a 300% profit when the boat docked in the capital.

Metaphorical Highway

In "Heart of Darkness," Joseph Conrad used this river, then called the Congo, as a metaphorical highway to the black reaches of the human soul. His story was rooted in a journey he made on the Congo nearly 100 years ago.

"Going up that river," Conrad wrote, "was like traveling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the Earth and the big trees were kings."

The description still holds--"an empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest." And there is still, at least to Western eyes, an unnerving atavism associated with travel on the river. Where else are sailors' sneakers stained with monkey blood?

But a century of commerce on the river has tamed much of its menace and burned off the Conradian gloom. Monkey trappers carry their simian bundles around the riverboat with the grim workaday manner of tax lawyers toting briefcases.

Floating Supermarket

The "abominable, abominable satisfactions" that chilled Conrad have been supplanted by the intrigues of modern Africa. Once a week for decades, the "heart of an immense darkness" has been penetrated by riverboats such as this one.

Part supermarket, part disco, part slaughterhouse, part brothel, the boat is open 24 hours a day for river business: the brisk exchange of smoked eels and frilly panties, crocodiles and condoms, giant forest hogs and Dear Heart Complete Skin Lightening Treatment.

The Major Mudimbi--an ungainly vessel made up of five rusted barges lashed together with cables and pushed downstream by a four-decked, diesel-powered tug boat--is an immense, stinking, noisy, overheated, overcrowded African market.

It is choked with about 3,000 people. There are twice that many animals: a menagerie of farm, forest and river creatures, alive and dead, stuffed under benches, hanging from roofs, tied to guard rails. They all will be sold in the capital--if they don't die, rot or fall overboard.

Key to Economy

Each year, a quarter of a million passengers and a million tons of freight travel on the river. In Zaire, an ill-governed, impoverished country with one of Africa's worst systems of roads, river transport is a key to keeping the anemic economy alive. The future of this mineral-rich nation, nearly the size of the United States east of the Mississippi River, depends on the great river.

But no one, except for a few journalists, masochistic tourists and other refugees from reality, travels on riverboats such as the Major Mudimbi for fun. Its decks are slippery with animal and human waste. Passengers occasionally slip off the boat and drown.

The food is bad and often deadly. In August, according to an on-board security officer, the second- and third-class kitchens served up a bean supper that killed several hundred people. Third-class passengers sleep with their creatures and keep a lookout for slop tossed from an upper deck. Cholera is common.

Besides being unpleasant, it is slow. The 1,000-mile journey downriver from Kisangani to the Zairian capital, Kinshasa, takes eight days if things go well. If things don't go well, it can take two to three weeks.

2 Kinds of Travelers

Zairians who travel on the river fall into two categories:

1. Those who are poor and cannot afford any other means of transport. In an almost-roadless country of 35 million people in which the average income is about $170 a year, this is a very large group. Third-class barges, on which a ticket costs $17, are always sold out.

2. Those who want to buy goods and make money. At the top of this group is the captain, the man with the white pajamas, the private freezer and the power to dictate his own prices. At the bottom are river people who briefly board the Major Mudimbi to trade, hopefully not with the captain. In between are the petty traders who reserve second-class compartments and sell their wares to river people at inflated prices.

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