River Of Life - Congo Odyssey

The nearly 3,000-mile Congo River is the backbone of one of Africa's poorest and most conflict-ridden countries. It supplies food and livelihood for the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the way of life along the water route in many ways mirrors Congo's checkered fortunes.

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Interactive: Congo River.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We have one more stop to go in this week's journey down the Congo River. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is giving us a glimpse of part of Central Africa in the 21st century. The river is still the main means of transportation, and now Ofeibea is nearing the final destination for this journey with fellow passengers desperate to reach land after weeks on the river.

(Soundbite of water)

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: I've come onto the deck. It's just gone 2:00 a.m. and the sky is full of stars. There's a little breeze and compared with all the hustle and bustle and all the human activity and the goats and the chickens and the monkeys and the trading that goes on and the shouting, it's so peaceful and quiet out here. And for about the first time, I'm actually hearing the sound of the Congo River, plus of course the snoring going on behind me on the deck. Have a listen.

(Soundbite of snoring)

(Soundbite of whistling)

QUIST-ARCTON: And with a serenade of cicadas whispering in the darkness, a villager floating his dugout canoe alongside the barge whistles softly.

But all too soon it's light again and it's back to busy life on the barge -time for breakfast and talk of soon reaching the capital, Kinshasa.

(Foreign language spoken) Good morning, now I'm with the donut seller.

Ms. BEBE MUZIA(ph) (Donut Seller): (Through translator) My name is Bebe Munzia and I'm on my way to Kinshasa. You know, everywhere in the boat you'll find in each corner somebody is doing donuts. I use vanilla sugar, so it makes my donuts very special.

QUIST-ARCTON: So can I taste, please? Up to my mouth?

Ms. MUZIA: (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: Mmmm, breakfast donut. Uh-huh.

Breakfast over, there's a lot of frustration on the barge. Many passengers have travelled more than a thousand miles downriver on a month-long trip that should have taken less than half that time. Tempers are now on a short fuse.

(Soundbite of shouting)

QUIST-ARCTON: There's a heated exchange on the bridge between the captain, Savane Mboso-Naka, and Coco Assani, an antiques dealer on his way to Kinshasa. Assani apparently criticized the captain for not getting us to Congo's capital sooner. Mboso-Naka in turn accused the passenger of spreading rumors that he, the captain, was incompetent.

(Soundbite of shouting and banging) QUIST-ARCTON: We hear what sounds like slaps.

There were more fights on the barge the closer we got to Kinshasa, an indication of the growing irritation on board as we approached our final destination. And then the mood relaxed a little when the Congolese sense of humor came to the rescue.

(Soundbite of chanting)

QUIST-ARCTON: When the chanting began, we thought the women on board were singing with joy at having spotted the lights of the city. But we soon learned that they were recounting the tradition of the crew taking up temporary residence with barge-wives, who cook for and look after them on board.

(Soundbite of singing)

QUIST-ARCTON: These women are singing kabola kabola - which means divvy up.

As our voyage nears its end, they say it's time to share what remains of the crew's possessions and purchases. Even the mistresses - who are busy sprucing themselves up with makeup and new hairstyles sing along.

Ms. MAGUY MFULU: (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: Equal shares, equal shares, smiles Maguy Mfulu, the self-appointed spokeswoman of the choir. Two goats for your wife and family waiting for you at home in Kinshasa and two for your barge-wife, who looked after you on the river, she tells us.

Ms. MFULU: (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: Land has been sighted - Maluku - and everybody is cheering, cheering really loudly.

(Soundbite of cheering)

QUIST-ARCTON: Maluku Port is the gateway to Kinshasa and the first stop for the boats and barges arriving downriver about 50 miles outside the capital.

(Soundbite of car horn)

QUIST-ARCTON: High-rise, rundown Kinshasa - Kin-la-Belle, as it's called -couldn't be more different from the miles upon miles of low-rise towns and riverbank villages we passed on the barge during our seven days on the Congo River. The nation's bustling metropolis is fast, flashy and noisy, but down-at-heel after decades of neglect. Celebrating Congo's 50th independence anniversary this year, Kinshasa has had a much-needed makeover, with buildings hastily painted. Here in the city the dark brown river glistens in the distance.

(Soundbite of singing)

QUIST-ARCTON: The Congo River is as vital to the capital as it is to the rest of the country. It's from Kinshasa that goods are shipped upriver to the sprawling interior. Fish and fresh food stocks make their way downstream. Here at the port, market women are selling seafood and staple foods.

(Soundbite of singing)

QUIST-ARCTON: The sound of singing wafts over, as market women mourn the loss of a friend and collect contributions for her funeral.

(Soundbite of singing)

(Soundbite of military exercises)

QUIST-ARCTON: Kinshasa is now at peace - and these Ghanaian United Nations soldiers are doing military exercises in their base. But four years ago, ahead of crucial postwar elections in Congo, white armored U.N. vehicles and peacekeepers patrolled the city. Since the bloody street battles back in 2006, between rival armed militia groups, most U.N. soldiers have fanned out from Kinshasa to Congo's conflict zones and potential trouble spots. Some peacekeepers are strategically deployed to towns and cities along the river, which has witnessed some unrest.

Mr. ALFRED LIYOLO LIMBE MPUANGA (Sculptor): (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: Congo River is at the heart of everything that goes on in this country, says master sculptor Alfred Liyolo Limbe Mpuanga. He is passionate about what he calls an extraordinary river.

Mr. MPUANGA: (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: Maitre Liyolo comes from Bolobo, 200 miles upstream from Kinshasa, where we spent one night on the barge and where many passengers jumped into the river to bathe in the morning. Liyolo says it's so important for Congolese to appreciate and respect their river, because it's both mother and father to the nation - giving Congo life, food and tranquility, as well as history, music and inspiration.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News. (Foreign language spoken)

INSKEEP: Ofeibea's whole Congo journey with producer Jonathan Blakely is at npr.org. This journey is prompting comments online like the listener who calls Ofeibea a compassionate journalist who tells us about places that are not well known and also has an amazing way of signing off from her home base in Senegal: Dakar. On my Facebook page one listener writes: I always say it along with her. Another says: I repeat it after her so as not to cover her up. You can follow this program on Facebook and also on Twitter @MorningEdition and @NPRInskeep. This is NPR News.

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