One of the more unique cultural standouts in the Congo is the strange methods employed by the Wagenia Fishermen to catch their fish. These fishermen, located in a small village at the edge of Kisangani by the first (or last depending on which way you’re going) of the rapids that collectively make up Stanley Falls. For over two hundred years, these fishermen have been fishing the rapids by building scaffolding over the rapids out of bamboo and using that scaffolding to lower wooden nets into the water along the rapids. The nets have a wide mouth and then taper down to a very long, thin neck. The fish swim down the rapids and end up going into the nets and getting trapped in the neck, unable to turn around and escape. Once a day, the men climb up on the scaffolding and use vines to hoist these nets up and then climb down to check for their catch.
The Wagenia village still operates on a tribal system virtually disconnected from the city it closely neighbors. They have a village Chief who manages the ownership of each of the nets. The
way it works is that each family in the village has their own net, and, at the end of the day, that family will get to keep the fish that end up in the net. There are more lucrative positions on the rapids, so village politics and shifting positions of power determines a family’s location in the system.
If you visit the town of Wagenia, you must pay for the opportunity to see and photograph the nets and the fishermen. Part of the reason for this is because of the fishermen’s cultural disdain for photography (we were yelled at when we pointed our cameras towards some children), and the other part is simply because they aren’t catching much fish anymore and need to support themselves. For an additional fee, they’ll take you out to the island where the Chief lives on a dugout canoe, and the Chief will greet you and give you his blessing.
As I mentioned, there are fewer and fewer fish being caught in the nets. The Congo River, as a whole, has been massively overfished, and each year fewer and fewer fish are caught. The fishermen told us that the nets are now failing to feed the families they are supposed to support, let alone provide them with an income. This is one of the reasons they’ve turned to tourism as a means of support.
And their approach to tourism is rather well thought out. They offer decent services: A guide who speaks French only of course, the boat trip to meet the Chief, and for the extra cost of a few beers the fishermen will demonstrate hoisting one of the nets out of the water. The basic cost is $20 per person plus an additional $10 to go see the Chief. This is rather high, but since Kisangani doesn’t exactly have a high tourist population they have to exploit those they do get. They also sell incredibly original souvenirs crafted out of simple rocks, wood, twine, bamboo, and even black plastic bags to make the figures, they create miniatures of the scaffolding and nets or fishermen on their boats. I get the feeling that some NGO worked with them to create these because they seem a bit more complex than any of the other trinkets in town. They’re very reasonably priced as well. My boat cost me just $5 and the other one my friend got cost $20. Both of them were initially priced at about double that but we talked them down.
Overall, going to see these fishermen is like looking into the past. There aren’t many places along the Congo River where you can still find people unchanged by the Belgiums or the wars, but in Wagenia you’re given a rare treat of looking at a tribe which was fishing the same way long before Henry Morton Stanley ‘discovered’ them, and hopefully they’ll be able to continue into the future.