River Giant of Central Africa
By “Awake!” correspondent in the Republic of Zaïre
ALMOST silently it moves, snaking between lush, tropical growth. Its brown, undulating surface reflects the rays of the glaring African sun. No jungle serpent this—but the second-longest river on the African continent and the sixth-longest in the world.
This is the mighty stream known to many as the Congo River. The river was renamed the Zaïre (pronounced zah·EER) by the Republic of Zaïre last year. Far from being a babbling brook, this river giant disgorges from its four-mile-wide mouth over 10,000,000 gallons of water every second. In terms of water volume, it is exceeded only by the Amazon of Brazil.
Taking a Trip Upstream
To get acquainted with this natural wonder, come with me on a trip up the river. It will take us nearly 3,000 miles, and you will see the sights that fascinated Dr. Livingstone and Mr. Stanley, noted explorers of the nineteenth century. It is truly an explorer’s paradise.
Before we start our journey, notice how strong the river’s current is at its mouth. Pushing its way relentlessly out into the blue Atlantic, it has left very little delta but has gouged out a canyon some 4,000 feet in the continental shelf, and its brown waters are discernible one hundred miles offshore.
The first leg of our trip takes us from the mouth of the river some eighty miles inland to the port city of Matadi. At this point we must disembark, for the Crystal mountains cause a natural barrier to the river’s course. The churning waters cascade down a series of thirty or more cataracts known collectively as Livingstone Falls. In just over two hundred miles from the capital city of Kinshasa to Matadi the river is lowered over eight hundred feet. Part of this natural energy is now captured by turbines of a hydroelectric system, but these cataracts are also the reason why little was known about the headwaters of the river until about a hundred years ago. Today a rail link is used to transship passengers and goods between these two points.
Just above the first of the rapids we come to the government center of Kinshasa, a quite modern city sprawled on a low sandy bluff. Across this wide stretch in the river is the bustling city of Brazzaville, capital of the Republic of the Congo, which country borders the river for several hundred miles.
Traveling by Riverboat
For the second leg of our journey, we will want to get down to the boat landings early to catch one of the shallow-draft riverboats. Everything is being loaded on, for these boats carry not only people (first to third class) but also goods and vehicles of every description. Barges are also strapped to the sides, or on the front and rear, to be pushed or pulled to faraway destinations. Many imported goods such as fuel oils and manufactured items make their long journey up the river, while boats bring back the riches of the basin in the form of rubber, wood, coffee, palm nuts and agricultural products.
Casting off, we begin to move steadily against the now slow-moving current, weaving among the thousands of jungle-covered islands in the stream. These and the tricky river currents tax the navigation skills of the most experienced captain and crew. It is estimated that, while the river itself can accommodate cargo boats on approximately 1,700 miles of its length, the navigable waters are increased to over 8,000 miles when combined with that on its tributaries. At times the river widens to ten to fifteen miles.
The Land Unspoiled
What sights we see along the way! Progressively we sense that we are leaving behind most of what we call civilization. Only the river cities of Mbandaka and Kisangani, and a few other growing towns cut out of the jungle, remind us of the country’s steps into the twentieth century. Much of the scenery has stayed unspoiled with the passing of time.
“Mbote!” “Jambo!” These are the customary native greetings as we reach ports of call on the way. With each passing village, groups of naked children rush to the riverside, flashing dazzling-white teeth as they smile and shout excitedly. In the background we see several mud or palm-thatched houses, each with its neatly arranged garden of maize, manioc, pineapple and banana.
Over there, do you see the old man standing in his tiny canoe? Perhaps he is contemplating where he might best catch tonight’s supper. And overhead, a pair of gray parrots with brilliant-red tail feathers swoop low, calling raucously to each other. As we round the bend a crocodile slides noiselessly from the bank in search of a meal.
Today we are fortunate to see a group of hippopotamuses wallowing happily in the muddy waters. And there in the distance, one is swimming with just his eyes and ears periscoping above the surface. As he swims along unconcerned, one is reminded of Jehovah’s description of the hippopotamus to Job: “If the river acts violently, it does not run in panic.”—Job 40:23.
Animals and birds of great variety inhabit this great river basin of the equator. And as we keep traveling upstream the trees and undergrowth are so prolific that the bright sunlight of midday takes on darkened hues when we gaze into the shadows of the densely wooded banks.
But what is that ahead? It looks like a convoy of pirogues or canoes belonging to the Lokeles, one of the more than two hundred tribes living in Zaïre. These people have lived for centuries either in their canoes or in huts along the river. They are traders and ply the river selling food and goods of many descriptions to the river travelers.
To make trading easier, some manage to lash their small boats to the side of the faster-moving riverboat. Take a look at that pirogue alongside. You can see that the pirogue itself is actually a dugout, a long straight log hollowed out by hours of hewing. Most are maneuvered by a paddle, but some of the larger ones today have outboard motors and slice through the brown waters like a torpedo, carrying sometimes as many as forty or fifty persons. They are veritable ‘riverbuses.’ In a land where large bridges are few, travel by canoe is a daily fact of life for many people.
Roaring Stanley Falls
Reaching Kisangani, just below Stanley Falls, we have traveled over a thousand miles by riverboat and yet the halfway point in the river is still ahead. Our boat will turn back here after reloading, as further progress upstream is blocked by the seven cataracts that make up Stanley Falls. Even at this point, far upstream, about 4,500,000 gallons of water per second roars and thunders over the rocky faults in the earth, several times as much as the flow of Niagara Falls in North America.
But come, I will show you a sight that you will not want to miss. Along the falls live the Wagenias, who trap fish in an unusual way. Braving the swift currents, they fix a network of poles in the crevices of the rocks to which they attach cone-shaped baskets made of wood and lianas, measuring perhaps six feet in diameter at the open end. Twice a day, the Wagenias inspect their traps to collect the fish that lodge in the baskets and are held fast by the fast-moving stream. Displaying no fear, they paddle their canoes into the swirling currents and dive right into the boiling waters, their ebony-like muscles rippling as they gather their catch.
On to the Headwaters
Leaving Stanley Falls behind, we push on upriver, but now we are traveling almost due south. Curving like a giant scimitar, the river’s course goes first northeast, later turns eastward on crossing the equator and then curves south.
Since the river basin receives seasonal rainfall on both sides of the equator at different times, the extremes of high and low flows experienced by many other large rivers are prevented. Its ratio of low to high flow is 1 to 3 (which means little seasonal fluctuation in water level and flow), as compared with 1 to 20 for the Mississippi in the United States and 1 to 48 for the Nile.
Beyond Stanley Falls the river has been known locally as the Lualaba. Stretching into the interior of Zaïre, it reaches to the vicinity of Lubumbashi (formerly Elizabethville). However, the more distant headwaters begin in northeast Zambia.
River giant of Central Africa! This is the mighty Congo, now known as the Zaïre River, named after a country that depends heavily upon it for its daily needs. Truly, a never-ending wonder it is and one more testimony to the wisdom and dynamic power of an intelligent Creator.