Wagenia Fishermen: The Last Days of their Culture

The Small Fishing Village of Wagenia

This is the scaffolding over the rapids.

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

The Fishermen on the Scaffolding Raising up a Net.

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.

Master Net Weaver Climbing down to the Net

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.


Waiting for the Barbarians

For two weeks now, J.M. Coetzee’sWaiting for the Barbarians” has weighted me down like the mariner’s albatross. Once in a long while I come across a book that seems to perfectly encapsulate the realities, both joyous and painful, of the human condition. The last such book was Denis Johnson‘s Jesus’ Son, and maybe it’s no coincidence the both were short, mostly allegorical novels, which allow the reader to fell more a part of the central character than other novels. The fact that Coetzee has presented a novel which can be read in a single sitting does not pass unnoticed – I’ve always been a believer in Poe’s philosophy that a great novel must be readable in a single sitting in order for a person to fully appreciate the experience.

Waiting for the Barbarians follows an aging magistrate who for the past few decades has been managing one of the furthest outposts of an unnamed Empire during a period of peace. He comes from a prominent family though he doesn’t seem to aspire to any greatness of his own and is content living out his life on the frontier. He is slightly obsessed with history and in his spare time excavates an ancient barbarian village on the shore of a lake. From this hobby, he has obtained one of his prized possessions, a sack stuffed with old wooden tablets covered in barbarian writing he has no ability to decipher. History is possibly the most common theme in the book, and, in particular, the recognition of the existence of history and one’s place in it is a lesson the magistrate must grow to understand himself as well as how it applies to the Empire’s actions towards the barbarians.

The main plot centers on the visit of Colonel Jol, a dedicated servant of the Empire, who will unquestioningly follow orders to root out any perceived threats, and the response of the magistrate to the colonel’s torturous actions perpetrated on the barbarians. After a short reconnaissance of the barbarian lands by the colonel, and the capture of fisher folk, he begins to question the prisoners about barbarian plans for an attack on the Empire. The magistrate knows that he must not interfere with the colonel, but he opens Pandora’s Box by looking in on the victims after a day of the Colonel’s work.

The images of the tortured barbarians haunts him throughout the rest of the novel, and it directly leads to him taking in a blind barbarian girl who has had her ankles broken during the questioning. This central action is truly the crux of the story and Coetzee brilliantly gives the reader three different interpretations to draw from it.

First is the Magistrate who constantly questions himself as to why he’s taking in the girl who is broken and disfigured. He spends his time meticulously washing her feet and then her body, a great metaphor for the cleansing of his own soul he hopes to obtain by helping this girl. Then there is the confusion of the girl, who herself cannot understand the actions of the magistrate, particularly that he doesn’t seek her for sexual pleasure. In no way does his cleaning her and taking care of her make her see him any differently than a Magistrate of the Empire, and in the end she is dumbfounded when he asks her to stay with him rather than go back to her people – she would never have even considered staying. Finally there is Colonel Jol, who, rightly so from his perspective, views the Magistrate’s actions as going native and conspiring against the empire.

There is a line early in the book where the Magistrate thinks to himself, “I believe in peace, perhaps even peace at any price.” Coetzee give us that price, but, unlike the brutality of the Empire which we expect, it is the peace the Magistrate must gain through his downfall, torture, and final poverty which permeate the later pages of the book. In a way, I was reminded of Kafka’s The Trial in how it almost seemed as if I were the one being punished, as if I were the one who, though guilty in the eyes of the Empire, must cleanse myself and prove my innocence the through suffering.

The Magistrate later understands that the truly awful thing the Empire has done to the Barbarians is not to go off and kill them and take their land, but to impose history upon them:

“Empire has created the time of history. Empire has located its existence not in the smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons but in the jagged time of rise and fall, of beginning and end, of catastrophe. Empire dooms itself to live in history and plot against history.”

By forcing the barbarians to recognize and live in a world with history, the Empire has taken from them their normal cycle of existence, taken their culture and way of life. The Empire has given them an unrecognizable future, past, and present. And this crime against the barbarians haunts the Magistrate even more than the tortures of Colonel Jol, more than the broken girl who he gave back to the barbarians, and more than his own torture by the agents of the Empire.

Understanding all of this, the Magistrate can once again take up his leadership position, but only because he steps out of history and simply begins to exist in the now, to live to see what comes in the future. Finally cleansed, the Magistrate can wait for the barbarians to come.

I can’t imagine an existence where I wasn’t aware of history, but the idea of existing to exist without our other preoccupations, which invariably lead to more stress than they’re worth, is definitely attractive. But because we live in such a world, history has demonstrated that most people lack the cultural sensitivity to approach a completely different society and not think themselves superior. Over and over we’ve seen that cycle, and now our planet is left with so few uncorrupted cultures that a book like this may never be written again.


The Emperor – Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia


by Percy Bysshe Shelley

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

At this very moment, North Africa is erupting in epidemic protest. I imagine that no leader or government member feels safe in their position at this moment, as at any time the rebellious itch that awakened the people of Tunisia and Egypt could spread to their lands. Even my fiancee’s friend, in reference to myself working in the DRC, said, “Well, at least he’s not in Egypt.” How could we have known six months ago that American’s would be evacuated from the most stable tourist attraction in North Africa?

What a perfect time to read Ryszard Kapuscinski’s unbelievably vivid journalistic work The Emperor, covering the reign and fall of Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia from 1930 until 1974. This small, thin man controlled the country without question for over forty years, and he was often praised by the west for being a great leader, until the revelation of government excess resulting in massive famine brought out the truth of a man who was blind to the needs of the people. But how can any person rule for forty years and be expected to change with the times, be expected to adapt to a world becoming modern with new technology, be expected to take roads which could lead to his own loss of power?

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was so popular in America that he was able to get himself elected four times, but even the American people knew they never wanted that to happen again and amended the constitution to make sure it wouldn’t. It looks like Egypt’s president will step down after thirty years, and likely the same will happen to other long-term leaders. I don’t want to say that the western system of short presidential terms is the best, as there are clearly problems with leaders spending two out of four years campaigning, but at least it allows for different perspectives.

Kapuscinski captures the reign of Haile Selassie through stories recounted to him by minor functionaries who worked in the Imperial Palace. These stories, told to him during secret meetings while rebels swept through the streets searching for anyone who had connections to the old government, bring to life the everyday affairs of His Distinguished Highnesses court from protocols at the various meetings to the simple everyday affairs of a man who placed a pillow under the Emperor’s feet so that they wouldn’t dangle when he sat in the tall throne:

“I was His Most Virtuous Highness’s pillow bearer for twenty-six years. I accompanied His Majesty on travels all around the world, and to tell the truth – I say it with price – His Majesty could not go anywhere without me, since his dignity required that he always take his place on a throne, and he could not sit on a throne without a pillow, and I was the pillow bearer.”

I must say a bit about the language of this book. This is not mere reporting. Karuscinshki has taken the stories and written them in a miraculously beautiful tone. The blurb on the book which compares him to Conrad, Kipling, and Orwell is not simple advertisement, but the reality of what he is able to evoke with the written word. Here, he takes something we take as an everyday commonality and brings it to life in his juxtaposition:

“Do you know what money means in a poor country? Money in a poor country and money in a rich country are two different things. In a rich country, money is a piece of paper with which you buy goods on the market. You are only a customer. Even a millionaire is only a customer . . . And in a poor country? In a poor country, money is a wonderful, thick hedge, dazzling and always blooming, which separates you from everything else. Through that hedge you do not see creeping poverty, you do not smell the stench of misery, and you do not hear the voices of the human dregs. You have money; that means you have wings. You are the bird of paradise that everyone admires.”

So, what of Haile Selassie, as it is a story of his reign?

Well, what is startling, and a particular reason I would recommend this book to be read, is how the stories of his rule evoke images the modern world would better place in the middle ages, or thousands of years ago when Emperors ruled their people and had no care for their wellbeing. This is a time when the only work that mattered was working for the Emperor in a ministry, and the constant struggle for power within those ministries, along with the Emperor himself controlling all appointments and demotions, seems archaic.

Most startling of all is the supreme reverence to which those telling the story hold their Selassie. Often they defend him, talk of how it was not he who failed the people but his ministers, mention the reforms he made, or plead that he was trying to develop the country but no one in the rest of the world understood his intentions.

One ‘reform’ he instituted was outlawing a practice where a person accused of murder must be executed via disembowelment by his closest family member; instead Selassie created the role of state executioner and had people hung or beheaded. As for development, well, he was fine with construction buildings, factories, and other modern things in his capital city, but was against education, particularly reading. In one case, in regards to keeping newspaper circulation low this reason was given:

“… that might create a habit of reading, and from there it is only a single step to the habit of thinking, and it is well known what inconveniences, vexations, troubles, and worries thinking causes.”

Halle Selassie’s international downfall began when the British reporter, Jonathan Dimbleby discovered the starving people in northern Ethiopia and created a documentary called “Ethiopia: The Unknown Famine.” Ironically, most of the interviewees trace the downfall to a group of Peace Corps volunteers who came in during the famine and held a fashion show at the University. Normally gatherings were forbidden, but since it was Americans it was allowed, which led large number of students to get together and then they marched on the Palace. After that, the students never backed down again.

Of course, Selassie was deposed in a military coup, but it was the educated youths who made up the ranks of the military. Even in the end though, Selassie was still revered and not executed like so many of his ministers. He even supported the military rebellion as it was happening – maybe he was senile, but most deny that – and would say, even while imprisoned in his palace, “If the revolution is good for the people, then I am for the revolution.”

Maybe he knew that his time was up and wanted to step out of the way of actual progress.

It was also discovered that he had hit money throughout the palace and held Swiss bank accounts in excess for $100 million.

So, as President Hosni Mubarak watches the protests in Egypt, and can read the international news basically telling him the end is near, what sort of thing is going through his mind? And can he help to create a smooth transition rather than what Ethiopia was left with? There have been enough bloody wars and revolutions in Africa in the past century. Let’s hope this doesn’t become another one.

Like Shelley’s Ozymandius, any man only concerned with himself and his own accomplishments, will end up being washed away by the sands of history.

Colonialism and Liberation

The second half of John Ilffe’s “Africans: The History of a Continent” is mostly dominated by colonialism, which can pretty much be summed up by the quote:

“Most Africans went into colonialism holding a hoe, and came out of colonialism holding a hoe, albeit a more advanced hoe.”

This one point pretty much summarized what colonialism brought to Africa. There were technological advances, first with the construction of railways and later with the mass introduction of the automobile, in particular the minibus, but as a whole Africa lost a further 50-70 years of development to its colonial overlords. Even worse, many systems were put in place which had repercussions still evident today.

In keeping with his overall theme – the struggle with population – Ilffe once again presents an interesting problem I never would have considered: Colonialism led to further labor shortages. I, and possibly most people, had always imagined a colonial world where the Europeans keep the Africans working in order to extract as much wealth from the continent as possible. Since Africa was already under-populated thanks to disease and slavery, the continent as a whole was already short on labor. When the European nations set up full-scale colonies they began to require many Africans to work in support positions, i.e. porters, household staff, etc.

Take, for example, my current living situation: Here we have three white people living in a house and our support staff consists of a maid, a handyman, a gardener, a fixer, a driver, and 4 guards. That’s 3 people supporting each white person, but that’s in a contemporary Africa where population is not as scarce, but if you take that system and put it in 1920’s Africa which is tremendously short on labor, and I’m sure the ratio of supporting Africans was higher than three to one, then you’re left with empty fields and starving people.

Ironically, the British recognized this problem only to have their solution backfire. This quote from Britain’s Colonial Secretary in 1948 pretty much sums it up:

We apply better health arrangements only to be faced with a population problem of appalling dimensions. We have to feed that increased population while they employ agricultural methods and ways of living hopelessly inadequate for such numbers . . . We must expect a troublesome period ahead. We cannot pursue development schemes fast enough to absorb all of the rising generation in useful wage-employment. We cannot get for all of then a place on the land and many of them would not wish it. They cannot on their present economies enjoy all the services which they begin to demand. They clamor for the benefits of civilization without the economic basis to sustain them . . . We cannot for a long time hope to satisfy all the new appetites of the colonial peoples and consequently there must be discomfort and agitation.

Once again, population plays the key to Africa, but for once it’s population explosion rather than decrease which is changed the direction of the continent.

Then we’re left with the liberation of Africa. In so many articles I’ve read lines about how optimistic the world was about Africa as it gained independence. Economic takeoff seemed inevitable. Nigeria experienced amazing growth in all sectors throughout the 1960’s and was a poster child for Africa. All over Africa countries were on an economic and population boom. What happened? Oil prices shot up in the 1970’s and in one way or another destroyed all the progress.

I quickly noticed that there is little to no railroad transportation in the parts of Africa I’ve seen. In the rest of the world, there you can’t go to a city without seeing a train track somewhere, but Africa relies on trucks and cars. I can imagine what a 5-fold increase in the price of gasoline would do to this place. For most countries it stopped all growth in its tracks and sent countries into decline. For oil producers, such as Nigeria, it brought wealth but the increased currency strength destroyed agriculture and manufacturing because they couldn’t be competitive. During the 1980s, when oil prices tanked, countries like Nigeria were left broke and without any other source of revenue.

John Ilffe’s book really doesn’t go into the brutality of the civil wars that took place over the past few decades, other than to mention that some of them occurred. Rwanda received three sentences. But the focus of his history is on the theme of population growth as the main issue in Africa, and war and conflict were more on the periphery. I’ll touch on these issues more as I dive into a number of book I’ll be reading while here in the DRC, including Bryan Mealer’s “All Things Must Fight to Live: Stories of Ware and Deliverance in the Congo” which covers the incredibly bloody war here, and “The Trouble with the Congo: Local Violence and the Failure of International Peacekeeping” which dives more into the UN’s involvement in the DRC.

Response to “Africans: The History of a Continent”

Over the next few months while I’m in DRC, I’ll be reading a series of books covering the themes of African History, The Congo Region, Development work in Africa, and Post-Conflict Development. In this first response I’m commenting on the first half of John Iliffe’s “Africans: The History of a Continent”, basically leading up 1870 when Europeans began to colonize en masse.

I’ve chosen to read John Iliffe’s “Africans: The History of a Continent” as a primer to my studies of conflict and development in Africa. While Africa obviously has the longest span of human history, it’s shocking to learn of little is known about what took place inland from the oceans and navigable rivers. This is still great opportunity for archeological work, but the harsh conditions and numerous conflicts of the past century has limited the scale to which it has been undertaken.  Iliffe does provide a decent introduction to the great North African civilizations such as Egypt, along with how Christianity and later Islam spread through the regions, I found the key moment of change to be the arrival of The Black Death in the fourteenth century.

It’s rather common for people to now think of Africa of a continent that, like much of Asia, struggles with overpopulation. But this is a recent phenomenon. In fact, when the Black Death reached Northern Africa in the 1300’s spread quickly and killed off over a third of the population. Unlike in Europe, though, it did not vanish, and outbreak after outbreak continued to kill hundreds of thousands of Africans over the next four centuries. So, while Europe and Asia were increasing in population, Africa remained stagnant. Tack on slavery, which I’ll touch on next, and it goes a long way to understanding how the entire continent of Africa lagged behind the rest of the world.

The Black Death caused massive labor shortages in Africa, but unlike in Europe where the first labor revolutions occurred giving more power to the peasantry, the shortages in Africa re-established the practice of slavery. The idea that this was simply a western practice seems to be a common simplification of a complex economic situation. Many tribes began raids on weaker neighbors in order to pillage and enslave workers for their own fields. This practice was particularly strong in the West-African Savannah, where Mamluk warriors, skilled horsemen, could sweep in quickly without notice.

Understanding how this population shortage helped to cement the practice of slavery within Africa itself helps to explain how the practice spread to Europeans who were beginning to trade with West-African cities. When the Portuguese began looking for slaves, there was already a sort of infrastructure in place to service them. It’s rather cruel to look at Slavery through a purely socio-economic lens, but when you consider the need for labor, both in Africa and in the New World, and those willing to supply that labor through slaves in exchange for European goods, it provides a better explanation than the simply viewing slavery as something the Europeans inflicted upon the African continent.

Something that I thought of while reading through this portion of Africa’s history was how using Slaves as a primary commodity compares to the currently problems in Africa today. Right now, much of Africa supplies only primary commodities such as agricultural goods, oil, or minerals. There are few manufacturing or service-based industries here. Throughout the period of the slave trade, Africa traded for all of its manufactured goods using slaves, gold, rubber and later diamonds, ivory, and oil. While Europe was improving its manufacturing capabilities, African nations remained stagnant relying on outside trade for all modern goods (many of which were already outdated versions of newer technology, particularly when it came to weaponry).

In Economic terms, European nations were going through a period of major capital improvement, building a foundation which would lead to the industrial revolution, while African nations were only using their natural resources to trade for what was desired rather than innovate and improve their own capabilities. As the age of slavery drew to a close, this put Africa in prime position for European takeover through colonization.