For a country slightly greater than the combined areas of Spain, France, Germany, Sweden, and Norway, the Democratic Republic of Congo is still underdeveloped in some areas. For instance, there is no road connecting the capital city, Kinshasa to the country’s third largest city, Kisangani.
This means air travel for some, usually those with money, and boat by those who can’t afford airfare.
Those who pick the boat have to undergo one of the most dangerous and longest journeys along the River Congo. One of the boats that carry on the mission of plying the 1750km up and down the Congo is Gbermani, an old ship.
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Barges and whaleboats are connected to the boat, which is fitted with two engines to power the additional load throughout the journey.
The barges and the whaleboats are some of the interesting aspects of the situation. They carry more than 1500 people, all left to their devices. No toilet, no restaurants, no electricity, no hospital. The system works on a first-come-first-served basis.
The first to arrive takes over the middle spaces where it is more tolerable as compared to the edges left to the latecomers. The more the people arrive, the more cramped the space becomes, leaving some people in the most uncomfortable position for the next two to three weeks.
A bird’s view image of the boat and its barges and whaleboats creates a picture of a moving city.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Navigating the barges and the whale boats is a whole other thing. One has to be careful to avoid falling overboard or knocking over people’s properties. To go to the toilet one has to hold onto the rail and do their business right into the river. Such a dangerous process for a slip of the hand and you are sucked into the water or into the propeller that might chop you into pieces.
Further, along the river, the signs and buoys have disappeared, meaning the captain has to depend on instincts and sometimes luck to get to the destination. They will also come across hyacinths and sandbags, from which they have to navigate so they can be safe.
The ship officials have to also ensure that everyone on the boat is legitimate: that they have purchased a ticket for the gruelling journey. Those who haven’t paid are let off via side boats to the towns along the river.
It is not strange for such boats to get involved in accidents. In 2015, at least 100 people died when two boats collided. Accidents would have been frequent but night travel is forbidden.
Other issues include fuel problems; corruption at the ports, where owners and captain need to pay a bribe to get the journey started; nature including storms and so on. People have been born on the boats and others have died or have lost bits of themselves in the process.
This has however not stopped the Congolese (and some foreign tourists) from taking the dangerous journey.