Up the Congo River on a bargeBy Johnny Haglund, Tuesday October 15, 2013
Every now and then, two or three barges tied together and pushed by a tugboat, start the long and very time consuming trip on the Congo River from Kinshasa to Kisangani in the Democratic Republic of Congo – a trip of more than 1400km. The trip can take as long as six weeks – sometimes longer, depending on how many stops they make.
The barges transport everything from fuel to cars, timber and goods of all kinds. And of course a lot of people use the barges as ferries. Although the barges are not made to accommodate passengers, people build small huts of plastic on board. It’s a cheap way for local people to travel long distances, and most of the passengers bring with them things or food to sell along the way in the small villages they pass. Some of the passengers go both up and down the river with the barge, just to do business along the mighty Congo River. In other words, they will probably spend three months on a barge.
On my current assignment, I have been following a barge, and actually living on it, for about a week. My mission is to photograph the life on board. As a photographer from Europe, I have to admit it was not easy the first few days. The captain, who has been doing this for 22 years, told me this is only the second time he has had a white man aboard. So first the passengers had to get used to me as a person, then they had to get used to me and my camera. But as the days passed by, I started to get to know a lot of the passengers aboard – some 200 of them. Some of them are really wonderful people.
I brought with me photos of my family and images of Norway. This has helped me a lot to get closer to the people I want to photograph. But I have to admit there are still some passengers who don’t accept me. I respect that of course, and I won’t point my camera in their direction.
The barge is doing about 5 km/h, and every night it stops when it gets too dark as it has no lights. Although the captain admits that as soon as they are done with the difficult parts of the river, he might go on through the night if the sky is clear.
I will not be able to experience that, since I only have a few days left before I have to continue on to my next assignment – a portrait of the diamond business in Congo. But although this is a true adventure, I have to admit that with 200 passengers and only two toilets on board, I won’t be too sad when saying goodbye to my new friends on the Congo River…