How much for humanity on the Congo ferry?



ferry16 Congo

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I have written elsewhere that the Team Leader’s long ago trip on the Congo Ferry is a source of great envy to me. I’ve said, too, that the Congo River is Central Africa’s super-highway. In a land with few roads and vast forests, the river is not only an essential means of transport, but a place to do business for communities along the river. This ferry plies some thousand miles of treacherous waterway between Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Kisangani in the east. The ferry takes not only passengers, but also has several great barges hitched alongside, and to them are tied fleets of traders’ pirogues. Since progress can be slow with days of delay – running aground on one of the shifting sandbars being a common hazard – the ferry becomes a floating shanty town – all of life and death takes place here.

Henry Morton Stanley was probably the first European to explore the river’s length. It was down to his urging of the riches to be had there that King Leopold II of Belgium established one of the cruellest, most murderous regimes ever perpetrated on hapless humanity. Under the guise of humanitarian aid, Leopold secured this vast Central African territory as his personal fiefdom and named it Congo Free State. From 1885-1908 (until the Belgian Government forced him to relinquish control) Leopold was thought to be responsible for up to 10 million deaths*of African villagers who were terrorized, raped, mutilated and killed in order to provide their quotas of wild rubber and ivory to European Station managers. And believe me, you see only the merest glimpse of these European officers’ activities in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, a tale that was rooted in his own brief experience as a steamboat captain on the Congo. Campaigners who helped to expose Leopold’s activities include British journalist E. D. Morel, Irish-born British diplomat, Roger Casement in the Casement Report, and Sherlock Holmes creator, Arthur Conan Doyle.

Nor has the resource grabbing by foreign powers ever stopped. One way and another, the world’s greatest nations have long defended their vast interests in the Congo.  Western multi-nationals control millions of dollars of mining concessions. This was the reason why America installed, kept in power and armed the plundering Mobutu regime for 30 years. In 1998, after the repercussions of the Rwandan Genocide escalated into a civil war across the Congo,  the US armed 3 of the African nations (Chad, Namibia and Zimbabwe) involved in supporting Laurent Kabila’s bid to take control**. In 2012 The Guardian newspaper reported that British MPs were investigating the ‘opaque dealings’ of London-listed mining companies in DRC***:


“News of the potential inquiry, which could involve top FTSE 100 mining executives being called to give evidence, comes as campaigners argue that natural resources deals are benefiting multinationals rather than the DRC’s population. Commodity trader Glencore will also face calls to explain its involvement in the resource-rich central African country.”

And so the question that nags is when, in the name of humanity, is the plunder and rapine ever to stop? Do not be fobbed off with the notion that the bloody conflicts that have been raging along DRC’s eastern border with Rwanda for over a decade are ONLY to do with local warlords, or Rwanda’s predation. They are to do with coltan that is an essential resource for making cell phones. They are to do with diamonds that adorn the elite and pampered, and are essential to industrial processes and make foreign dealers very rich. They are to do with gold, and copper, and cobalt, and hardwoods, and oil prospecting. They are to do with super-power arms dealing. For this piece of Africa is the most resource-rich territory on the planet, far beyond H M Stanley’s wildest dreams, or even Leopold’s rapacious imaginings. 

Yet its people remain the poorest on earth.  Corporate wealth based on unfair trading  comes at human cost, and that cost is the same kind of barbarity that Leopold’s men doled out. As the angry Karim in Monica Ali’s novel Brick Lane is wont to say, the question to ask is: “Who benefits?” In these conflict-ridden days, it is a question always worth asking. Sometimes it offers a glimpse of clarity between all the establishment smoke and mirrors.


copyright 2014 Tish Farrell


* Andrew Osborn Belgium Confronts its Colonial Demons


**World Policy Institute report: US Arms to Africa and the Congo War


*** Mining firms face scrutiny over Congo deals

Corporate Watch Death on the lake: British oil company’s role in Congo killings exposed


Related: Up the Congo for more of the history

DP photo challenge: humanity

18 thoughts on “How much for humanity on the Congo ferry?

  1. The question you pose, “who benefits” is indeed an important question to ask and answer. Most conflicts in poor regions, in and outside Africa, are really fueled by those (often outside) forces that benefit, rather than the local people. It’s sad. I like the lively picture you paint of the life on the Congo Ferry.

    1. Thank you, Tiny. And yes, the ferry. I mean that’s the amazing thing isn’t it, how African peoples keep going and creating and being joyous whenever they can, despite all the mayhem that’s chucked at them by outside forces. Four hundred years of exploitation in the region, including centuries of slaving. How wouldn’t we be stark staring mad if the same thing had happened to us?

  2. Tish, I like this.
    The Congo is so rich in natural resources her people will continue to die until humanity becomes reasonable or the resources are depleted and not a day earlier

    1. Yes, I hate to admit it, but you’re probably right, Noel. The depletion looks closer than the advent of humanity at this moment in time, at least as far as the exploiting nations are concerned.

      1. It is the same sad story in the oil fields of Nigeria, Niger and elsewhere in the continent. Maybe they will only know peace if these natural resources are depleted

  3. I love your photos, Tish. It reminds me the day when I was in Kinshasa. Sometimes on the weekend, I was walking along the river and got use to with this scennary. What a sad. Rich country but with many poor people inside. It doesn’t mention never ending conflicts happened in the country. from the west to the east. I really wish someday, Congo will be ended with peace and have the real humanity..

  4. Wonderful post Tish – we so often pass off the chaos far from our shores as just another warlord fighting for his piece of turf. And of course that helps, but you’re right, it’s the foreign powers who foster continuance of the tragedy to suit their own aims. The world becomes a bit more crazy with each passing day. As an aside, love the photo of the kids!

    1. Thank you, Bihua. I’m always hopeful that African people’s resourcefulness will eventually redress the balance. Some day soon the rest of the world might rumble the colonialism-in-disguise, and say it just isn’t good enough. The top executives of these corporations are paid obscene amounts of money.

  5. That ferry looks like a floating community – would be interesting to write/read a modern-day story about it. Now that you mention it, I’ll have to return to The Heart of Darkness and read it. I’ve read excerpts in the past and put it down, shaken…
    I am glad you are writing about the true, underlying causes of continuing inhumanity in this region. It’s always about the money, isn’t it? There are so many fires burning in the world today, it’s hard to know where to point the fire extinguishers – not that they are doing much good because the fires are so strong and insidious fueled by greed for riches and lust for power, the twins of ultimate evil.
    I, too, love the picture of the 3 children – still so open and curious.

    1. Hm. It is all v. dispiriting. The ones who do the most grabbing are the ones with the most lobbying power with their governments. The same grabbers usually also avoid paying any taxes in the countries where they are extracting resources. Zambia has really suffered on this account, now that copper prices have improved.

  6. Excellent article.
    I have had trouble navigating your site, so thank you for bearing with me as I have finally corrected that. My apologies for missed posts, I hope to catch-up.

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