On Tell Me More Thursday, I joined NPR Correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton for a conversation about our Congo River series which aired this week on Morning Edition.
During the conversation with Tony Cox, it dawned on me that Ofeibea and I haven’t sat down and really talked together about our experience since our seven day odyssey down the Congo River. We were too busy arranging, organizing and interviewing, then I caught malaria, after which went our separate ways and all the talk since has been about putting this series together.
In fact, I’m still processing all that I saw, heard, learned, smelled and tasted during our visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo – my first.
The response to the series has been more than we could have ever imagined.
Even with Ofeibea’s nuanced and extraordinary reporting and a herculean job by our multimedia team, I can’t get over the amount of material that’s been left on the proverbial cutting room floor.
Some of the characters we’d both like to mention, and thank, that we met on the barge or along the way:
Maman Gisele Nzili and her daughter Medan Balembisa. They were our next-door “neighbors” on the barge, only separated by five impressively named goats and one lamb, including Jean-Philibert and Mambweni.
Maman Gisele adopted us and became our impromptu cordon-bleu on board chef! We’d buy the fresh Congo River fish and she effortlessly gutted, cleaned and cooked – grilled, fried and in delectable stews. It was by chance that we wound up on the boat next to each other, but it seems we both made each other’s journey a bit easier.
Merci infiniment, Maman Gisele!
Cadet Ngimbi – the boat owner. What a cool guy! He wore and juggled many hats on board: armateur (the proprietor or owner) who had to sort out fuel and technical problems; agony aunty and peace broker — patiently resolving domestic quarrels, financial issues between passengers and those who lined up every day to tell him “I don’t have any food left.” Yes, go figure!
And Cadet kindly agreed to share his small cabin with us, so that we could keep our equipment dry — well that’s until the rain came into the cabin at 2am! But that’s another Congo River story.
Miffy the eagle: This bird probably had the roughest journey of anyone. As part of a wedding gift for Cadet (the boat owner’s) soon-to-be-in-laws, Miffy was forced to use her sharp talons to avoid falling in between the goats and lamb for the entire trip. The eagle — who was fed morsels of fresh fish and much more but seemed to lose her appetite — looked exhausted by the end of the trip.
She tried (in vain) to peck herself free from the rope that held her captive during the journey, perched on a tarp above the menagerie on the deck.
- Superstitions on the barge: One widespread belief was that if any of the passengers had sex, the animals on board would die. With the barge being so open with virtually no privacy, it’s hard to imagine that anyone might feel amorously-inclined, much less find the opportunity turn our barge into a Love Boat.
- The Blind Man of Bolobo: Walking through the riverside town, after a security and immigration stop on the barge, we were chatting with townspeople and met a charming gentleman who welcomed us into his clean-swept yard. He told us that he had been a master carver – of ivory and equatorial hardwoods. His work had taken him all over Africa and beyond, where he carved sculptures and other treasures until he retired and lost his sight.
- The military boarding the boat: A day before our arrival, about six Congolese soldiers sped up to our barge in a speed boat, made us stop, and boarded. It seems they were just trying to hitch a ride down to the capital, Kinshasa (for free). But stopping the boat infuriated some passengers who had clearly had enough of the odyssey and just wanted to reach dry land.
- The Whistler: What would possess a man to take a dugout canoe, and in the still of the night — in complete darkness — paddle slowly up and down the length of the barge, softly whistling and singing to the sleeping passengers? It was a performance that most people slept through. Had we not been up before dawn, and were I not sleeping outside on the deck that night (under a mosquito net), we — and you — might have missed the show.
- The Palm Oil Incident: Our now infamous head-butting goat-friends, Jean-Philibert and Mambweni, and their horns pierced a hole in one of the giant bags of palm oil, part of the cargo on board. An entire section of the barge would have been left slippery by the gushing, cloying, red palm oil.
Luckily, one passenger was passing by at a fortuitous moment and literally stuck his finger in the dyke. He stood in the blazing hot sun for nearly an hour in an attempt to keep the oil from running all over the barge while the bags were replaced and switched. What a performance! It wound up a slippery, sweaty and chaotic scene.
- The Chair Incident: Before our mysterious whistler friend arrived, a passenger… clearly groggy from his slumber, got up to relieve himself in the middle of the night and accidentally knocked a woman’s plastic chair into the river, while walking along the side of the vessel. The splash woke up an entire section of the barge, and we all initially thought someone had fallen into the river.
More folks were awakened when the woman, who owned the chair, realized what had happened and went ballistic. She woke up the entire barge, shouting that her seat was floating upstream, and the barge downstream, and she wanted full compensation for the chair.
- Mobutu’s Mansions: As we floated down the river, other passengers would point out places or buildings of interest. One of them was apparently an abandoned residence of former President Mobutu Sese Seko. The man who ruled Congo, which he renamed Zaire, for more than thirty years, had river-view villas built for him dotted all over the country and, being a riverman himself, was often to be found on the water on his ferryboat, the Kamanyola.
- The Trial: Stumbling upon a military tribunal in Mbandaka of dozens of people accused of an attack on the town on Easter Day. About a dozen were sentenced to death. This was an outdoor trial, headed by a military magistrate. While we were recording and taking pictures, Capt Gaby Lokombi, the magistrate, actually stopped the trial and brought Ofeibea before everyone to explain who we were and what we were doing. She did so, in French, apologizing charmingly and brilliantly as only Ofeibea could. We were allowed to stay.
- Vintage Maps: Our senior foreign editor, Loren Jenkins, asked us to find maps. And maps we found. In Mbandaka we were taken to an old research library at the Aequatoria Institute where we were shown stacks of dusty maps dating back to the early 1900s. Stunning, accurate and fascinating manuals of how to navigate the Congo River, among others.
- Papa Tresor Nsombola-Bolele, Protocole Kembo Imbamba and Bienvenu Yay in Mbandaka who transported us around the bicycle-dominated town, introducing us to everyone, showing us where to eat and where to shop, and making sure we made it onto the barge only when it was, finally, ready to head downstream.
- The amazing braided and string-twisted hair styles of the women on board the barge and all over Congo and how many women passengers had their hair re-styled just in time for the arrival at Maluku Port, the gateway to Kinshasa — home at last!
- Armando Galaraga: On June 2nd Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galaraga had his perfect game stolen from him — thanks to an umpire’s bad call. As a die-hard Tigers fan, I took pleasure in explaining (or attempting to explain) what a tragic, yet historic moment had occurred in Detroit Tigers’ history to Ofeibea, people on the street in Kinshasa… anyone who would listen. I may have managed to convert a few people into Tigers fans, but for the most part, no one knew (or cared) what I was talking about.
After a week on le Fleuve Congo and three years working, on and off, near Nahar Digla (the Tigris) in Iraq, the world has become much smaller.
As an American, I’ve come to realize that however bad I may think my problems are, there are folks in other, poorest, conflict-ridden most war-torn parts of the world, who would LOVE to trade places with me.
I envy them their openness, kindness and hospitality.
An enlightening and tiring experience, our adventure down the Congo River, and one I feel all the richer for.