The Sacred Congo, River of Dreams and Nightmares

“Sadness flies on the wings of the morning, and
out of the heart of darkness comes the light.”
“Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad

Courtesy of Samuel Noko:

 

“Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream,
bearing the sword, and often the torch, messengers of the might
within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire.
What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river
into the mystery of an unknown earth!”
“Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad

Courtesy of Fonds Bleu Congo:

 

Joseph Conrad in his story ‘Heart of Darkness’, called the Congo ‘A mighty big river, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, its tail lost in the depths of the land.’ From head to tail the Congo River is 2,900 miles (4,700 km), which makes it the sixth-longest in the world, but in volume, it is second only to the Amazon. It is immense indeed, in every way.

forest trees along river bank

The author Joseph Conrad:

A vintage book cover of Conrad’s novel:

Courtesy of CaspianReport:

 

Courtesy of 60second Recap:

 

BoyomaFalls3

Graham Greene came here during the Belgian period on his way to the leper hospital mentioned in his novel ‘A Burnt-Out Case’. In his notebook, he wrote of ‘the huge Congo flowing with the massive speed of a rush-hour out over the great New York bridges.’ But his experience when he tried to go up one of the Congo tributaries was familiar to many travellers: ‘The boat had a hole in the bottom and was said to be dangerous: Perhaps the boat could go next week – or next month… If they say it is safe it will sail. Otherwise no. I distrust the whole affair.’ He wrote also: ‘One searches the forest for a sign of life, but perhaps it was the emptiness that began to be attractive.’ The younger novelist, John Updike, was more sympathetic to ‘this continent whose most majestic feature is the relative absence of Man.’

KinsukaRapids3

Graham Greene:

John Updike:

In 1482  Diogo Cam, the Portuguese explorer and his caravel were carrying the first white men to discover a bay on the African coast  (the head of the snake). The captain recognised from the colour and sweetness of the water and the islands of weed floating on a current far out to sea that he was in the estuary of a huge river. On the second visit in 1485, they sailed upstream towards the Cristal Mountains until they reached a gorge of boiling water, impassable water – the Cauldron of Hell – into which the river came thundering down, hurled by cataracts from the unknown uplands beyond. It was the end of their voyage but before turning back the captain asked the natives what they called the river, and was given the word that meant simply ‘river’ and sounded to a Portuguese like  ‘Zaire’. This was the name used until the end of the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko which ran 1971 -1997.

The Portuguese navigator and explorer Diogo Cam:

History of the Congo River (courtesy of LiveScience):

 

Below are photos of the Kinsuka Rapid on the Congo River, one of the largest rapids on the planet.

Kayaking on the Congo (courtesy of theviovoice):

 

The river Congo is the second-longest river in Africa, after the Nile, as well as the second-largest in the world by discharge volume after the Amazon. Its sources: Lake Tanganyika, Chambeshi River, East African Rift, Lake Mweru. Mouth: Atlantic Ocean. Countries: Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of the Congo, Angola.

The Congo River is the world’s deepest river, reaching the highest depth ever recorded of 720 ft – 220 metres.

Courtesy of Amaze Lab:

 

As it is close to the Equator and because of that, it is hot and humid. The Congo region is 777,000 square kilometres in size, and each year the population increases by 1.7 million people, creating pressure to provide food, fuel and accommodation at great cost to the forest. Fifty percent of the Congo Basin forest has now been allocated for logging. Shame.

Congo Basin:

The history of the discovery of the Congo River is as fascinating as it is horrifying. Cataracts, thirty-two of them on the river, fall nearly a thousand feet over 150 miles, thereby creating the biggest reserve of water power in the world – topped by further exploration, and for four centuries the heart of Africa, a source of slaves and ivory, was a place of mystery. Guessing in the dark, and sometimes confusing the Congo with the Niger or the Nile, geographers believed that in the middle of the continent lay a vast basin in the equatorial plateau where the waterways were navigable and the riches unimaginable. To the Portuguese, the country up beyond the cataracts was where the rays of the moon could make a man’s head swell to twice its normal size. And to the Africans, the white men were the returning spirits of the dead, who lived at the bottom of the ocean. How else to explain the rumour that when one of the ships approached the land, its masts rose out of the sea before the hull?

A Portuguese caravel:

The tail of Conrad’s snake was not discovered until the heyday of Victorian adventure, and it was years still before a firm connection with the head was made. Dr Livingstone died in Central Africa in 1873, believing that the great river he had found and explored was part of the upper waters of the Nile. It was left to H.M. Stanley in 1877 to follow it downstream to the mouth, to penetrate the vast basin and prove the truth. He returned to King Leopold of Belgium in 1876. The King claimed ownership of a huge, long, and wide strip of land in the Congo River, 76 times larger than the size of Belgium. It was the beginning of a time of terror for the natives.

History’s deadliest king (courtesy of TED-Ed):

 

CongoRiver6

Henry Morton Stanley, the Anglo-American journalist and explorer:

The Congo River begins between Lakes Tanganyika and Nyasa in the highlands of north-eastern Zambia. It flows peacefully until the river enters a 75-mile long canyon of rapids known as ‘Gates of Hell’. It is called the Lualaba or Upper Congo.  It is the fusion of several rivers that spring from the swamps and savannas of the African watershed.

IngaRapidsCongoRiver They join to form the Lualaba, which heads northwards for almost a thousand miles while it passes among many villages including an old Arab market town Nyangwe where Livingstone, still thinking he was on the Nile, was turned back because nobody would let him have canoes. The river flows through another two hundred miles of forest, crossing the equator twice, and tumbles down sixty miles of rapids, the Stanley Falls, then dropping its name Lualaba and becoming the full-grown Congo as it reaches the town of Kisangani. It is a thousand-mile stretch and is nine-miles wide. After flowing to the South West it falls into Stanley Pool, a lake that spans fifty miles across. The final route of the Congo River to the Atlantic Ocean is around 100 miles long and finally is very navigable.

Below are images of Boyoma Falls, formerly Stanley Falls, in Democratic Republic of Congo;

On his famous journey of discovery, recounted in ‘Through the Dark Continent’, Stanley plunged downriver, not knowing where it would lead him – north to the Sudan or west to the Atlantic. An Arab trader in Nyangwe told him that further downstream, where no white man had ever explored, there was ‘nothing but woods, and woods, and woods, for days and weeks and months.’ It was a country of cannibals, leopards and gorillas that ‘run up to you and seize your hands, and bite the fingers off one by one, and as fast as they bite one off, they spit it out.’

The Congo Rainforest (courtesy of The Way of The Rain):

 

Gorillas in the Congo rainforest:

“Deep in the Congo” by Derek Fiechter (courtesy of Derek Fiechter’s Music):

 

Nothing would stop Stanley and he set off with a small army of people in canoes, including an escort of 400 Arabs. Many things transpired over the next few months, and after many attacks from the natives, and then heavy rains, the Arabs had enough and left, returning to Nyangwe. At that time Stanley was still not sure whether they were on the Congo, the Nile or even the Niger. He wrote: ‘Into whichever sea this great river empties, there shall we follow it… We shall toil on, and on, and on, by this river and no other, to the salt sea.’ It swept his group to the brink of the Stanley Falls, where they had to carry the boats overland, cutting through the jungle and fighting the natives. And all the while, Stanley made notes of local customs, drew his map and took solar observations. At the bottom of the Falls, where Kisangani stands, he achieved his triumph. He boiled a thermometer and found that the altitude was lower than the upper reaches of the Nile. So it must be the Congo. And to convince him, it was already bending westwards in a wide untroubled stream, deep and full of promise, that could flow nowhere but to the Atlantic.

Courtesy of Nowness:

 

60 Seconds of Life on the Congo River (courtesy of National Geographic):

 

The middle stretch of the Congo is a huge arc across Africa. Here Conrad’s ‘mighty big river’ is deep, wide, swift – the great inland waterway of the early explorer’s dream. The old name for Kisangani was Stanleyville, in honour of the man who literally put it on the map, but to modern Africa, the word reeked of colonialism and it was rubbed out. Much of its prosperity went the same way. ‘The place had had its troubles’, the Oscar winner writer V.S. Naipaul observed, for this is his town in ‘A Bend in the River’. ‘What had been the European suburb near the rapids had been burnt down, and bush had grown over the ruins; it was hard to distinguish what had been gardens from what had been streets.’

Downtown Kisangani:

“Congo Avenir” performed by Tabu Ley Rochereau (courtesy of Syllart Records):

 

Vintage postcards showing scenes of Stanleyville:

One of the tribes that troubled Stanley as he descended the Falls was the Wagenya, but he was a forgiving man and after escaping from their butchery he wrote of his admiration for their fishermen. His account of their fish traps in the lowest cataracts, and the engraving in his book, would do well to illustrate them today. Huge tree trunks are jammed into the rocks, anchored with liana ropes cut in the forest and twisted to great tension against the rapids. Tied to the trunks is a scaffolding of poles from which big baskets are hung, to catch the fish coming down in the roaring force of water. Wagenya men work like acrobats along the poles, balancing and tying and adjusting, while below them in the water canoes slip and sidle through the current, the paddles dipping in the foam. Sometimes there is a shout and a man holds up a big fish. The most delicious fish is called Capitaine, served in the best hotels.

Wagenya fishermen at work:

Capitaine (Nile perch) fish:

Courtesy of BBC News:

 

Courtesy of River Monsters:

 

On each side of the river, smooth and grey as steel under the pale sky, lay an infinite band of green. ‘Going up that river,’ Conrad wrote in ‘Heart of Darkness’, ‘was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, thick, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of the sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances.’ Now, every few miles there are villages, thatched, clustered, trapped between the forest and the river. And of course, the Congo River is very popular with mosquitos. The motto of the local tribe is: the mosquito has no pity for a thin man.

It took Stanley nearly five months to bring his bedraggled party down, with the loss of many men and canoes. ‘We have a horror of the river now’, he wrote, when another of his companions drowned. His men were riddled with dysentery, ulcers, and fever, and some of them believed there was no end to the river, but he got them to the estuary at last: ‘Ah! the hateful, murderous river, now so broad and proud and majestically calm, as though it had not bereft me of a friend, and of many faithful souls, and as though we had never heard it rage and whiten with fury, and mock the thunder. What a hypocritical river!’

Two days later he took his incredulous men aboard a ‘big iron canoe driven by fire’ and sailed out into the salt sea where, four hundred years earlier, the captain of a Portuguese caravel had found evidence of a river mouth. Forgetting that the Nile is longer than the Congo, but perhaps remembering that he had lost at least forty people on the river, Stanley allowed himself a last emotion: ‘I felt my heart suffused with purest gratitude to Him whose hand had protected us, and who had enabled us to pierce the Dark Continent from east to west, and to trace its mightiest River to its Ocean borne.’

African forest elephants in the Congo (Photo by Caroline Granycome)

Courtesy of WWF International:

 

Today the Congo River is the largest source of hydroelectric power in Africa. Despite this, the uncontrolled fishing and hunting, illegal logging and poaching of large creatures (elephants in particular), deforestation and unplanned building, extraction of minerals and oils, these are the major problems that the Congo River is facing in the twenty-first century.

Inga Dam on the Congo River

A new course for the Congo (courtesy of Center for International Forestry Research):

 

“Dance For The Congo” performed by Daphne, Fally Ipupa and Fabregas (courtesy of Greenpeace Africa):

 

 

 

 

 

76 thoughts on “The Sacred Congo, River of Dreams and Nightmares

  1. Wonderful and informative post, Joanna. The beautiful displays of videos, music, and photographs, are just delightful. Those fish traps are amazing. Thank you so much for sharing. 💕

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thank you, Grace, for your generous comments! Anything about nature is interesting but Congo is dangerous so don’t have it on your list of places to visit any time soon!

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you again, Grace. Greatly appreciated.

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks so much, Joanna.💕🙏💕

    Like

  5. Another 10 Joanna! Such a plethora of history shared. Great pictures and videos and love the pictures. I just love the gorillas! 💖🙏 thanks for sharing!🙏

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you, Cindy, for your wonderful comments! I love the gorillas too!

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you again, Cindy. Greatly appreciated.

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  8. So much history, adventure, and exploration in this post. The Wagenya fishermen are amazingly acrobatic. Joanna, you do a wonderful job of researching and gathering information. Every thing you write is a great learning experience.

    Like

  9. Thank you, Rose, for your wonderful comments! Let me tell you again, Rose, that what you write is an emotional experience for me, and I love it!

    Joanna

    Like

  10. Thank you. Greatly appreciated.

    Joanna

    Like

  11. it’s a pleasure! 💖

    Like

  12. You’re so welcome Joanna! I wish we could bring one home. 💖

    Like

  13. It would not be a good idea because they like to live in groups. And your cat would object!

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  14. oh darn.. i know.. 🤣🤗 but we can dream of one big happy family!💖

    Like

  15. Fascinating. Our planet is full of wonders, and the Congo River is one of them. As usual, though, humankind is spoiling the river and its surroundings.

    Like

  16. Thank you Joanna for a great post. Such an informative post filled with history. Sadly it is also highlights the plight of Congolese people.

    Like

  17. Thank you, Henrietta, for your kind comment. Unfortunately, we humans, never appreciate what we have on our planet.

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Thank you again, Henrietta. Greatly appreciated.

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Thank you again. Greatly appreciate.

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Thank you for your kind comment. I still hope for a better future.

    Joanna

    Like

  21. Thank you again. Greatly appreciated.

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  22. What an interesting and informative post right from ingenious fish traps to horrible gorillas! Description of Congo river, the deepest river in the world, by Joseph Conrad is superb. The discovery and composition of only major river that crosses the equator twice, are amazing. Kudos to Stanley!

    It’s really astonishing and interesting to know how diverse is this world in so many aspects, both pleasant and unpleasant. Human corruption is one of them. “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad is now on my bucket list. This book seems to be an eye-opener.

    Thank you, Joanna for bringing out one more gem with beautiful videos and pics. Fond’s Bleu Congo is a bit longer, but quite fascinating one. Your efforts are deeply appreciated!

    Like

  23. Thank you, Kaushal, for your wonderful comments! As always, I crave to read your assessment of my post before I can relax!
    Joseph Conad is excellent and my inspiration for mastering English.

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  24. Thank you again, Kaushal. Greatly appreciated.

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  25. I am going through the post. Amazing!
    Let me get the charm.
    Excellent photos and videos 😊🙏

    Like

  26. Caspian report says everything in nutshell. Very nice compilation.👍😊

    Like

  27. Vastness of Congo has been depicted very well.
    Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful presentation ☺️

    Liked by 1 person

  28. Thank you, Arun, for your very kind comments.

    Joanna

    Like

  29. Thank you again, Arun. Greatly appreciated.

    Joanna

    Like

  30. Thank you, Arun, for your kind comment!

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  31. You are always welcome 😊🙏

    Like

  32. Thank you Joanna.
    Stay blessed always 😊🙏

    Like

  33. Thank you, Arun, for taking the time to read properly my post!

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  34. It’s my pleasure, Joanna. I loved Joseph Conrad’s reference.

    Like

  35. You’re always welcome, Joanna?

    Like

  36. As always very informative! Great sharing Joanna!

    Liked by 1 person

  37. Thank you very much for your kind comments!

    Joanna

    Like

  38. Your posts, Jo, make one think, reflect, pause 😊 You can see a lot of work going into the post. The photos wonderfully show the strength power of the river. The fishermen’s traps make quite an impression. The photos of gorillas are amazing. Thanks for the next trip 🙏❤️ 🍀🌻🦋 Jo

    Liked by 1 person

  39. Thank you, Jo, for your wonderful comments! It is such a pleasure to have an appraisal like yours.

    Joanna

    Like

  40. Thank you again, Jo. Greatly appreciated.

    Joanna

    Like

  41. The pleasure is mine ❤️ 🍀🌻 I’m glad and thank you very much 🙏❤️ 🍀

    Like

  42. 🙏❤️ 🍀🌻😊

    Like

  43. Your post about the Congo is fascinating! I loved seeing the gorgeous waterfalls, elephants, and gorillas. The history is interesting but appalling! Such cruelty as that of King Leopold is unfathomable. The story could have been so different if Europeans had not been so greedy and had fostered development and progress instead of exploiting the land and the people!

    It is also sad that the forests are being cleared and settled, and that many live in poverty by slash and burn agriculture that depletes the land. Thank you, Joanna, for presenting both the negatives and the positives of this interesting region. ❤

    I will look for the movie, "Heart of Darkness," which I missed when it came out. I did watch "The Devil's Violinist" which you had mentioned, and I liked it very much.

    Liked by 1 person

  44. Thank you, Cheryl, for your wonderful comments! If you can, read Conrad’s book as his mastery of

    the English language was an inspiration for me. Thank you for reading Paganini’s story!

    Please, let me know if you have received this reply to your comments, because WordPress changed their format again for no good reason, and I am struggling.

    Joanna

    Liked by 1 person

  45. The pictures and your accounts of this mighty region /river is fascinating! 🙂

    Like

  46. I had read this novel. It’s really an interesting and reveal the true reality of Congo

    Liked by 1 person

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