It’s 1 January 1993 in Zaire. In part one of an epic journey through what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Travel Africa’s Publication Manager Phil Clisby recounts what can only be considered the strangest New Year he’s ever had…
After a particularly heavy day and night celebrating the new year in Lisala’s Temperature 40°C Bar, we retired (reasonably early) to bed – or rather to sleeping bags inside mosquito nets tied to some trees in the grounds of a hotel. We had a very early start in the morning, as we were due to catch a boat down the Zaire River in the direction of Kisangani.
I awoke with a start at about 1am. There was shouting and people running about. Indeed, a right old commotion. Once my brain was awake enough to compute what was going on, I discovered a number of us had had our mozzie nets slashed and some of our belongings were missing. Worst off was ‘Lucky’ Martin – a man of many misfortunes during our travels, hence the nickname – who had had his passport stolen.
In a state of panic, a few of us rushed back to the bar to see if we could spot the culprits. No luck. But we did meet three Lebanese guys – who it would turn out pretty much ran the town – who agreed to meet Martin later that morning to help sort out his predicament.
I offered to stay behind with my luckless compadre, and so, while the rest of our group headed off to catch a boat to Bumba, Martin and I went to meet the Lebanese.
It was hot, damn hot. We had had no sleep. We were suffering from monumental hangovers. We had a missing passport. And we had no idea how we were going to catch up with our friends, nor how we were going to travel across the wilds of Zaire, let alone get Martin across the border and into Uganda.
We met up with our two new friends – Ibrahim and Kifah – who had brought along the Chief Immigration Officer with them. We headed to his office where he penned a letter that, he said, would allow Martin to travel through Zaire and into Uganda. “Pas problème, pas problème,” he assured us. This was a saying that we were to hear time and time again.
It was at this point we realised how much sway our Lebanese helpers held. On handing over the ‘laissez-faire’ document, the immigration man told us that if the passport was ever found he would hand it over to Ibrahim and he would return it to us, “Pas problème”. How would they manage that; surely we’d be long gone? It was probably best not to ask.
By the time the paperwork had been sorted and the letter retyped because they had missed Martin’s name off of it, the boat to Bumba had well and truly sailed.
Ibrahim and Kifah invited us to stay with them until we could catch another boat. On getting on to their truck, Martin – remember his nickname – put his foot through a hole in the floor of the cab. It was just not his day!
Ibrahim, with slicked-back hair and a moustache, was obviously top dog, while his brother, the bearded Kifah, bore an uncanny resemblance to the Yorkshire Ripper. They drove us down to their wood yard (they owned a logging company) where we met the rest of the family. Judah, who we had also met the previous night in the bar, was clearly the subordinate younger brother. Then there was Papa: resplendent in a pink jogging suit, he was the spitting image of Marlon Brando in The Godfather. And, after a few conversations, we started to think we were indeed under the wing of the Lisala mafia.
They told us that the security service officer was their friend, because they paid him to sort things out (for example, they had no visas, which he overlooked). More worrying was the fact that, apparently, if you murdered someone it would only take three days to sort out – “Pas problème”. Not people to get on the wrong side of, I thought.
We were shown to our living quarters – on a huge container ship – and were given keys to the kitchen/dining room where we could sleep. The kitchen boy, called Cuisine (you couldn’t make it up), was at our beck and call.
Feeling slightly jaded, we spent the afternoon relaxing on deck, watching the locals fishing from canoes, while our hosts sent a couple of their men to keep an eye out for a boat arriving. When one was sighted they would get us onto a canoe and paddle us out to catch it – “Pas problème”.
The following day we were idling the hours away on our floating home, sewing up our mosquito nets, when all hell let loose. A boat had been spotted. We frantically packed and ran ashore. They plonked us on a canoe and two local lads paddled us furiously towards the dock. The boat rocked from side to side – a few times I thought we were going to go over, but mercifully we pulled up alongside the barge, still dry. Joy of joys – it was a beer boat. But our relief was short-lived as the captain refused to take any passengers.
As we digested this disappointment an immigration officer arrived on the scene and demanded to see my passport. I handed it over, and he turned and walked off with it. We were now two passports down. Luckily, just at that moment, Ibrahim and Kifah arrived. They stormed into the Immigration Office. A heated exchange followed, and they emerged a few minutes later clutching my passport. “Pas problème,” said Kifah. Never hand over your passport, he advised me. Wise words.
So, the next day, with no boat expected anytime soon, Ibrahim gave us a lift to a bus stop so we could catch a ride to the next major town, Bumba, a distance of around 150km. Here, we would hopefully meet up with the rest of our group and be able to continue our journey by boat.
The ‘bus’ arrived at 6.15am. Well, by bus I mean a cab with an open back, with planks of wood littered with holes for a floor. The safest way to travel seemed to be to stand up, hanging onto the metal rails for dear life, as the truck careered around town for the next hour or so, the ‘conductor’ shouting “Lisala-Bumba, roll-up, roll-up” or words to that effect. A few people piled on. Eventually we pulled into what looked like the main terminus, where we all had to disembark. It was payment time. But most of the passengers seemed reluctant to hand over any cash.
After about an hour we got back on, none the wiser as to what was going on, and we drove back to the bus stop we’d first been picked up from. A few more got on. It was beginning to get quite packed. A few hundred yards up the road, we stopped. The driver jumped into the back and started collecting money again; 45 minutes later we were finally on our way.
Despite the slow start we were now making good time, or so we thought. We stopped at a village, where they loaded four sacks of grain onto the truck. A bit inconvenient, but not too bad, I thought. Except that, for the next two hours, we stopped at every village we went through, sometimes twice in the same village, taking on more and more cargo. Eventually we had about three-dozen full sacks, piles of plantains, some dried (and very smelly) fish, an assortment of baskets, the odd baby and around 30 people jammed onto this truck. Martin and I were now perched on top of a four-sack-high stack of grain – which, let me tell you, is extremely uncomfortable, especially on Zaire’s dirt roads.
Some eight hours after we first set off, we arrived in Bumba, expecting our mates to be long gone. As we wearily trudged from the bus station into town we bumped into a couple of travellers, who told us our friends were still here. Better still, there was a boat leaving for Kisangani the next morning.
We arrived at the dock promptly at 9am. Ten hours later we were still sitting on the quayside, watching the boat being loaded. As the vessel took on more and more cargo, the space for passengers was diminishing rapidly.
Eventually, after a bit of discussion with the captain, some rearranging took place and we were allowed to board. Crammed into our allotted space, squashed between some local families and all their worldly goods, we each managed to acquire enough floor space to lie down. From above it must have looked like a complex jigsaw puzzle or human mosaic. Two hours passed before the crew cast off and we headed into open water.
After a surprisingly good night’s sleep – despite an interruption in the middle of the night when the boat got stuck on a sandbank – I awoke to witness a stunning sunrise over the river, with several pirogues silhouetted against the horizon.
The boat consisted of three big barges strapped together, and was about 60m long. It was jam-packed with cargo and people. The women seemed to spend all day cooking, the men hanging around drinking, smoking and chatting. The mama of the family next to us was either pounding yams and plantains with a mortar and pestle the size of her or bent over her little coal burner cooking them – keeping us (and, it seemed, the rest of the boat) fed with fried doughballs.
The river is huge, miles wide in places, with islands dotted about. It was so peaceful, sailing smoothly along – a pleasant change from the constant bumping of road travel. The scenery was unsurpassable, the sun blazing. A cliché, maybe, but the water looked like glass. I marvelled at the perfect reflection it showed me.
As the boat chugged down the river, past villages, locals frantically paddled out in their pirogues, grabbed the side of the boat and tied on. They were bringing goods to sell – bananas, goats, pigs, monkeys, even live crocodiles (small ones, fortunately; their mouths strapped shut). Others were buying goods from those on the boat – a proper floating market. The most popular pirogues were those bringing the palm wine.
I went for a wander around the boat, which fortuitously coincided with the arrival of some palm wine. The traders carried the potent brew in a jerry can and sold it by the mugfull. It cost about 6p a mug. Spend 12p and that was you done for the afternoon. The quality of it varied greatly, though. The first batch I tried was rough and full of wasp floaters. But the second mug hit the spot.
We got talking to some locals – easier said then done with the language barrier – but talking football and repeating the names Gary Lineker and Roger Milla helped things along. When the palm wine ran dry we refilled our mugs from their secret stash. One guy, Victor, had a Primus-branded hat on like me, and we swapped them in a friendly gesture – as if we had just finished a hard-fought game of football and were exchanging shirts – before taking another slug of vin de palm.
That night a storm broke and it absolutely lashed down, rain dripping through the holes in our tarpaulin shelter. The lightening flashing over the water was spectacular. But, peculiarly, there was not one thunderclap to be heard.
The next day was just as peaceful, interrupted only by the occasional squeal of a pig or goat. After a doughball breakfast, I went up to sunbathe on top of the toilet roof, as you do, and watched the world go by. The only blot on the landscape was the harrowing sight of two monkeys hanging by their necks on a line at the back of the boat, drying in the sun.
To be continued…