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.

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St. Patrick’s Day Congo River Adventure

A small group of American journalists for Stars and Stripes came to tour the Borlaug Institute farm at Camp Base, and we thought it would be a fun experience for them to go on a nice river cruise down the Congo River. Much like the voyage of the S. S. Minnow, our forty minute voyage downriver to Bamboo Palace, a fantastic Belgium restaurant with the best beef in Kisangani and fantastic fried plantains, turned into a test of will.

The dark clouds should have discouraged us. The rumbling thunder coming from behind the house should have made us think twice. Hell, the quick burst of rain should have made us wonder if it would be followed by more.

Casting aside our doubts, the five of us, two reporters for AFRICOM, a Public Affairs Officer, our fixer-slash-translator Didier, and me, boarded the fifty-foot longboat parked out front of the house and set out on our voyage downriver. Dressed in not much more than t-shirts and pants, we brought along some plastic chairs to sit on and our cameras and nothing else.

The boat chugged down the river for a few miles while the warm wind gusted into our faces. As I was warning everyone to avoid taking photos of the main shipping docks (we’d be considered spies if we were caught) it began to rain again. But this time it was different.

The wind was picking up right before the downpour!

The rain poured down on us, and it brought with it the cold air from above. Amanda, one of the reporters behind me, asked if it was hailing; the rain seemed to cut into our skin. Because we were passing the docks we had no choice but to push on into what felt like a wall of razor blades. Didier had turned his seat around to put his back to the rain and we all followed suit. This helped cut down on the pain, but it also meant that there would be not a single inch of dry clothes on our bodies.

The pilot began angling for shore as the rain intensified. We edged around the docks to the dirty land beyond while the temperature

Didier was really looking forward to an adventure!

continued to fall. Most everyone was shivering and we’d only really been on the boat for twenty minutes, but once we reached land we ran up thorough a Congolese shack, two white girls, two white guys, all soaked to our skin bursting through a shack onto the main boulevard where hundreds of locals lined the streets under awnings and stared in awe.

We hurried into a Congolese bar next to the United Nations HQ. As I pushed through the bead curtains I was immediately greeted by two women, one holding an infant child wrapped in colorful cloth, huddled in chairs by the entrance. Beyond them were a few men, two drinking Primus, one drinking Turbo King (a stronger been which seems to carry the stigma of either a strong man or a drunkard), and a giant loudspeaker which was thankfully not blasting music at the time.

 

Amanda from AFRICOM and Me Having a Turbo King Beer

The women started handing us chairs and we all sat around the table with the mother and her child trying to decide what to do next. We ordered some beers, Primus and Turbo Kings, to split up just so that we wouldn’t impose, and attempted to get the reporters’ driver on the phone.

Didier and Jon from AFRICOM in the Bar

Outside, the rain continued. Bursts of cold, wet rain would gust into the bar through the beads, and the heavy downpour on the tin roof above caused my mind to imagine the gunboys firing off their AKs during the war. They’d once come through Kisangani, those child soldiers, high on booze and dope and magic potions to protect them from harm, indiscriminately shooting at any passing target.

The beers helped to warm ourselves even if our clothes did only the opposite. But the driver was nowhere to be found. I had a feeling that even though we’d said we’d be at Bamboo Palace in two hours, he had pressed on to wait there, and I knew it was well out of cell phone range.

After 30 minutes the rains began to subside. A group of three mamas came into the bar, one carrying a sack of beans on her hair, and they took a table in the back. When the woman with the beans sat down, she did so without removing the sack and even bent over to move a chair for her friend, all while effortlessly balancing this burden. With no driver, but with a reinvigorated sense of adventure thanks to the liquid courage – our own magic potion – we decided to press on down the river. The pilot agreed – he wanted his pay – so we thanked our patrons in the bar, Amanda bought the women a round of beers, and we headed down to shore.

No sooner did we board the boat when a man in a suit seemed to materialize out of nowhere with a militia officer at his side. He identified himself as an immigration officer and wanted to know if we all had documentation proving that we were allowed to be here. Of course we didn’t have anything of the sort with us and if we did it would be soaked and unacceptable to them.

Thankfully, Didier flashed his FARDC / Camp Base identification which he was given for just these sorts of problems. Had he not had that, I would have been on the phone and would soon be handing this man a connection with the Colonel in charge of Camp Base. In any case, after a few minutes of tension amongst my shipmates, we were let off without a bribe changing hands.

An hour after we initially set off, we were on our way again. The light was beginning to fade already as the equatorial sun had begun its regular 7:00pm descent below the horizon. Boats were hurriedly ferrying the last people home across the river and fishermen were paddling their dugouts to shore.

The Mighty Congo!

The motor chugged us on down into the darkness as the lights of the city become one small light off in the distance behind our backs. Every now and then a strike of lightening in the distance would illuminate the vast expanse of this magnificent river, sometimes drawing the dark silhouettes of a dugout and its crew out late for a nighttime catch.

Kisangani is where the river bends and we were changing direction from west to north. Had the sun still been up, we would have seen it set across the river. Had the sky not been overcast, we would have seen the heavens moving in a thin band from east to west above our heads. Instead, we only saw the dark outline of the shore, and occasional lights off in the distance slowly, after long periods of growth, being revealed.

The lights became a house where a woman was outside rehanging the clothes to dry. The lights became the riverside market where vendors were huddled around one remaining stall smoking cigarettes and gambling work. The lights became a river barge docked to the shore while its crew played loud music and welcomed the night with palm wine.

And finally, one light that came after the house and the market and the barge became our destination. Two and a half hours into a forty minute cruise down the river we arrived at the Bamboo Palace, still enervated from the wet and cold but also giddy with adventure and success.

In the dark we managed to navigated the landing, unable to see the stairs up the hill at first, causing a few false attempts. We thanked the pilot for his hard work and paid him handsomely for the effort.

Here's my Dinner: Beef Shish Kabab, Fried Plantains, and a Cabbage Salad. Delicious!

Dinner was fantastic, everyone enjoying the fried plantains and their choice of entrée. Hot tea and cold beers helps to warm cast off the cloak of rain each of us wore, and, as seems to be the focus when reporters are around, talk turned towards Didier’s experiences in Congo and his knowledge about the war.

After the drive home, and some short goodbyes and best wishes, I was not surprised how quickly sleep came to me. Weather is a tough obstacle to overcome. I’d like to say I dreamed a child’s dream of pirates on the high seas or of an adventure down a crocodile infested river, but I simply was too tired to remember.

First Days in the DRC

These are some examples of my living situation here in Kisangani and not particularly related to the project itself. Tomorrow I’ll finally get over to the base to work on the project.

This is a poor country. Kisangani is one of the largest cities in the country yet it’s devoid of new construction. The buildings are relics from colonial times, many of them crumbling and abandoned to squatters. I live next door to Mobutu’s magnificent river palace; though magnificent can only be applied if you see a photograph from the past. Now, out my bedroom window, I see an ant farm of squatters ever in motion, and hear the sounds of their radios, at all hours.

As is a necessity for all foreigners here, we live in a compound cut off from the world by high walls with barbed wire and rotating guards manning the gates. Inside those walls we have a large house shared by three of us. It’s a nice place, though not without its 3rd-world problems. The power has been problematic, the internet is almost unusable most of the day as it’s incredibly slow, and there are some problems with the plumbing – at least we have water for our cold showers.

We also have some gardens, including a spice and squash garden which was planted last month but already the basil is usable. There are two parrots living in the yard, though they aren’t very friendly, a pig in the back who was supposed to be roasted but the gang got too attached, so now he’s named Sausage and gets to feast on cassava. There are also a few cats, but they’re on the way out. Beau, our project manager, just finished building his Tiki bar outside of my room, where we’re able to play darts late into the night.

When we travel around town we go everywhere in our black SUV, amazingly dodging the masses of motorcycles and bikes that are weaving through the city. Sometimes we come so close to bikes that they end up diving into bushes to get out of the way, though often the bikers are pushing the limits of the road themselves – usually they don’t know the rules of the road as they’ve simply purchased their license.

My boss also has a boat and likes to spend the evenings fishing — trying to catch the monster fish of the Congo. But weekends are filled with exploring the river, doing some tubing, or heading to beaches. On the river you can see all of the fishermen in their dugout canoes, somehow navigating the strong currents while standing upright in their tiny boats. I swear, if Africans could monetize the skills of standing in a dugout and carrying things on their heads they would be set.

The photos are of my house, including one of our guards and our gardener.

Congo River Trip on NPR

NPR’s Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has a series of stories about her 500 mile journey down the Congo River in the DRC on a river barge. The overall journey starts in Kisangani and heads to Kinshasa.

The story was broadcast in five short (7min) installments on Morning Edition. Here is a link to the article about the series.

This reminds me of this section from “A Bend in the River”:

But at night, if you were on the river, it was another thing. You felt the land taking you back to something that was familiar, something you had known at some time but had forgotten or ignored, but which was always there. You felt the land taking you back to what was there a hundred years ago, to what had been there always.