The Congo River. Christian Ziegler/National Geographic, via Getty Images
The smoked monkeys brought the point home. During my first day on a boat on the Congo River, I’d embraced the unfamiliar: how to bend under the rail to fill my wash bucket from the river, where to step around the tethered goat in the dark and the best way to prepare a pot of grubs. But when I saw the monkeys impaled on stakes, skulls picked clean of brains and teeth thrusting out, I looked otherness in the face — and saw myself mirrored back.
I was the real exotica: the only tourist to take this boat in nearly a decade, and the only white woman, as far as the crew knew, ever. Expect to be kidnapped, people had warned me. Expect to have everything stolen and expect every arrangement to go awry. Bring your own mosquito net, waterproof everything twice and strap your cash around your ankle.
The Democratic Republic of Congo, I read in my guidebook, was “a huge area of dark corners, both geographically and mentally,” where “man has fought continuously against his own demons and the elements of nature at large.” This, in other words, was the heart of darkness, which was why I had wanted to come.
More than 100 years ago, a Polish sailor named Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski traveled to Congo to take a job as a steamboat captain on the river. The Congo Free State, as it was then called, had been founded in 1885 under the supervision of King Leopold II of Belgium with the self-declared mission of promoting progress and civilization, free trade and the abolition of slavery. Korzeniowski was supposed to stay for three years, but after just one round-trip on the river, from Kinshasa to Kisangani and back, he quit.
Joseph Conrad onboard a ship. Culture Club/Getty Images
Behind all the high-minded ideals, he saw a colonial regime of appalling greed, violence and hypocrisy, and he left in despair. He kept a diary of his journey and almost a decade later, in 1899, when he’d settled in England and Anglicized his pen name to Joseph Conrad, he transformed those notes into a novel called “Heart of Darkness.”
The book describes a voyage up and down a river in Africa by a British sea captain named Charles Marlow, who is commissioned to fetch a renegade ivory collector called Kurtz. Marlow travels up the river enveloped by a sense of increasing mystery and encroaching danger. Kurtz, Marlow discovers, has become a tyrant in the jungle, his idealistic hopes for spreading European civilization in Africa perverted into a brutal injunction: “Exterminate all the brutes!”
A 19th-century depiction of an encampment on the Congo River. Universal History Archive/UIG, via Getty Images
The book has been read as many things, from an exploration of the individual psyche to a prophecy of genocide. Most of all, it’s a meditation on progress. Conrad indicted the European imperialists who plundered Congo in the name of progress even while he portrayed Africa, in terms that seem racist today, as irredeemably backward.
The Democratic Republic of Congo has now been independent for nearly 60 years, almost as long as it was a European colony. Yet it is by any measure one of the world’s most dysfunctional states. Congo’s modern-day Kurtz was the kleptocrat dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, whose ouster in 1997 led to a civil war and some five million deaths. It has one of the lowest per-capita incomes and is ravaged by continuing rebellions in the east, an escalating conflict in the central province of Kasai and a national political crisis: President Joseph Kabila has refused to leave office despite reaching months ago the end of his last term.
So what counts as progress? To try to answer that question, I went to Congo last December, to see the places Conrad had seen and take the measure of what has and hasn’t changed since his time.
Kisangani, the innermost navigable point
Republic of Congo Democratic Republic of Congo
In 1890, Conrad traveled on one of the first steamboats on the Congo River. The Roi des Belges had been constructed in 1887 out of parts imported from Europe, then carried up the rapids on the backs of 1,700 porters and assembled in Kinshasa. Steamships were the engines of European civilization, bearing merchants, missionaries and militias into Africa’s uncolonized interior. Conrad hated them.
More than a century later, with hardly any roads or rails linking most of Congo’s cities and with flights too expensive for nearly all Congolese, boats — belching tugs that push open barges with no facilities — are still the primary way people use to travel between Kinshasa and Kisangani, a commercial hub a thousand miles upstream. If you’re lucky, you can make the upriver journey in four weeks and the downriver journey in two, the same amount of time it took Conrad.
I began my trip in Kisangani, the river’s uppermost navigable point and once a crossroads between eastern and central Africa, for the trade in ivory and slaves. In the city center were faded colonial bungalows and crumbling brick factories, interspersed with advertisements for diamond brokers. Not many boats venture so far these days: Fuel costs too much, and there aren’t enough goods to transport. The handful of vessels that were moored along the waterfront when I arrived weren’t leaving for another two weeks at best.
But upstream stood one vessel in stately isolation, moored in a private stretch of waterfront. It belonged to Bralima, Congo’s biggest brewery, and was emblazoned with “Primus,” the name of the company’s signature beer brand. Four barges were lashed to the boat, stacked with plastic cases piled into 12-foot-high cubes like crenelations on a castle wall. Primus I was going to pick up some rice in Bumba, deposit the beer in Mbandaka and deliver the rice to Kinshasa. Miraculously, it was leaving the next day.
Officially, Bralima doesn’t allow passengers — a dinged-up metal sign disavows company responsibility for any “unauthorized” travelers — so it took a day of negotiation (and a payment) to persuade the captain to take me and my guides, a white expat and a native Congolese. But the next morning at dawn, I scurried on board with at least 80 other people toting stools, sacks, sleeping mats, tarpaulins, buckets and stoves. The first mate showed me to a cabin on the boat proper, whose two tiny decks housed just five cabins, the engine room and the bridge.
The vessel we began our journey on, Primus I, belonged to Bralima, Congo’s biggest brewery. Maya Jasanoff
As I walked down the barges, maneuvering around bollards, hatch covers, cables and ropes, I felt like I was peering into a series of living rooms. A family gathered around a game of ngola, scooping and dropping seeds in carved hollows on a wooden board. A group of men on low rattan stools were studying the Bible. A young man with a pair of clippers and a bamboo chair unrolled a poster of men’s hairstyles and set to shaving the crew members’ heads. I counted at least two chickens, two ducks and a tufted black mangabey monkey, which scampered around a plastic oil barrel held back by a short strap bound to his left leg with a hair clip; later, I’d discover a live crocodile tied up under the freezer chest.
We were underway for only a couple of hours when the pirogues started to come, poled frantically by people trying to catch our boat. They tied up alongside and clambered aboard with wares to sell: deck furniture woven from cane, heavy wooden mortars for pounding manioc, baskets of charcoal for cooking and ngola boards to pass the time.
In the diary Conrad kept on the river, he never mentioned whether canoes approached the Roi des Belges. In “Heart of Darkness,” the primary interaction Marlow and his crew have with the people on the banks comes when they’re attacked. As I watched the constant traffic between ship and shore, I saw none of the hostility portrayed in the novel, only interdependence. I suddenly remembered a photograph of the Roi des Belges from 1889, the year before Conrad’s trip, with pirogues tied up alongside, exactly the way I saw them outside my cabin.
There’s a famous scene in “Heart of Darkness” where Marlow looks through his binoculars and sees what he thinks are “ornamental knobs” on a palisade around Kurtz’s house. Drawing closer he realizes they are human heads, barbarous trophies of Kurtz’s power. Some historians have suggested that Conrad based this detail on a real-life Belgian colonial official. I think Conrad had closer interactions with the African villages on the river than he ever let on: From what I saw of smoked monkeys, they make a pretty good model.
Bumba, which used to be somewhere
The Congo River is always changing, as sandbanks morph and shift. Conrad kept a detailed journal of the river as he traveled up, noting landmarks and turns and obstructions, sometimes sketching the profile of a stretch of bank to help him remember. But how to sail the Congo River has barely changed since Conrad’s day.
The captain of Primus I showed me his only navigational aid: a crumbling atlas with mimeographed pages containing bird’s-eye sketches of the river, divided into 10-kilometer (about six-mile) legs. In shallow stretches, two men flanked the helm, turning sounding poles in the water to assess the depth, exactly the way they did in Conrad’s time. A third crew member stood on the beer cases on the prow and signaled readings to the captain by punching his fists in the air, like Black Power salutes.
Approaching Bumba. Maya Jasanoff
Thirty-six hours out of Kisangani, Primus I moored at Bumba to stock up on rice. I’d never heard of Bumba before, but in the colonial era, this used to be somewhere: part of a string of stations that drew the country’s economic spine. Upstream I saw rice warehouses, a palm-oil factory and vast sugar works. But the businesses have left, and the factories have shut down. An emblem of what once passed for progress has become a relic.
The first order of business for me there — as for any foreigner in any Congolese city — was clearing my presence with the infamous Direction Générale de Migration, charged with monitoring the internal movement of people and goods. That means showing your papers (passport, visa, yellow-fever certificate), which generally means officials finding problems with them, which means finding a solution, which means giving someone “money for beer,” as the local euphemism goes.
On a makeshift bulletin board on the wall were pasted dozens of passport pictures of foreigners who’d passed through Bumba over the decades. From one quadrant stared a succession of strong-browed European nuns frozen in black and white; from another peered the spit and image of Sigmund Freud and the browned 1970s Polaroid of a tow-haired little boy.
After an hour of hard haggling, my guide bargained the Bumba authorities down from $40 to $20 to let me walk freely through the town. The place felt like the set of a western, the road red dust and every facade like a false front. Small traders set up what passed for shops in the unlit hollows of concrete buildings. There were scarcely any mopeds, let alone cars; just squeaky bicycle taxis with red and yellow crocheted cushions for seats.
The boat, Primus I, transformed into a bustling, haggling market. Maya Jasanoff
One day was enough to get a feel for Bumba, but Primus I stayed for three. All day long men with calves like clubs trotted down planks from bank to barge, balancing one, two, even three 50-kilogram (about 110-pound) sacks of rice across their shoulders and smoking marijuana between runs to dull the pain. When there was a soccer match on, the crew set up a small generator-powered television on the freezer chest. Boys in pirogues sidled up in the dark to watch. Our boat, with its reliable generator, fully functioning motor and more or less reliable schedule, was the most developed thing in sight.
River life, a way to get by
As we left Bumba, I sat on my stool on the prow, drinking instant coffee mixed into ginger broth, and watched the forest rise again around us. Since Kisangani, the riverbank had been a ceaseless curtain of green, tall and taller, with canopies so majestic they seemed like forests in themselves.
Here and there a small village appeared in a clearing, a few thatched huts on stilts — to the eye, no different from the ones I’d seen in 19th-century photos. However basic they looked, though, they were on the vanguard: the one part of the forest linked to the mechanized, urban world, thanks to boats like ours. In front of the Primus sign, Jeanne, the strong-looking woman who served me my tea, had set up a stall of shiny packets of biscuits, AA batteries and small bags of salt — urban luxuries unavailable in the forest — which she sold, at a premium, to the river dwellers in pirogues.
A checkerboard on sacks of charcoal onboard Primus I. Maya Jasanoff
What seemed like a way to get from here to there was also, I was coming to realize, a way to get by. Most of the people I spoke to had been educated to do one thing, but in an economy without viable wages and jobs, ended up doing whatever else they could find.
Jeanne used to study law; now she did washing and cooking on the boat, tended her onboard shop and bought sacks of rice en route to sell in Kinshasa. Nadine, a generous woman with gold-edged teeth, used to work for the central bank but couldn’t live on the pay. On the boat she got up before dawn every day to mix a batter for beignets, which she fried up and sold for breakfast at five cents each.
In the midafternoon heat, as I lay on my bunk rereading “Heart of Darkness,” batting away tsetse flies, I had an uneasy sensation that for all that I’d come to Congo to follow Conrad, he’d never felt farther away. “Everything is hateful to me,” he once told a confidante. “Men and things, but especially men.” Yet I was having precisely the opposite experience: On board Primus I, I was becoming part of a dynamic floating village, where things had become familiar and people were becoming friends.
Such a rich country, such poor people: That was the universal refrain. One evening I watched the sunset on the prow with members of the crew. The fundamental problem in the country was bad governance, they all agreed. But how to fix it? Some championed radical protests to unseat Mr. Kabila. One person said the problem was lack of infrastructure; another said that even if you built hospitals and roads, nobody had money for a doctor or a car. One said he wanted the Belgians to come back because they actually invested in the country. Another reminded him that the Belgians pillaged, too.
From Mbandaka to Kinshasa, the last leg
On the 10th day we reached Mbandaka, the biggest town between Kisangani and Kinshasa. It would take at least a day and a half to unload the beer, so I checked into a hotel for a night, hoping for a brief reunion with tap water. The Nina River Hotel, Mbandaka’s best, was well situated on the river bank and had a swimming pool and a dining room with red upholstered chairs and chandeliers. Posted rate: $350 a night. But there was no water in the hotel, and electricity only between 6 p.m. and midnight.
The Congo River. Alex Majoli/Magnum Photos
I took a walk down the riverfront road, past a market of thatched stalls tumbling down the muddy slope and street vendors in the shadow of colonial bungalows, when I spotted something startling. Behind a whitewashed wall stretched a shipyard for Onatra, the national transport agency, and on the grassy bank sat the rusted-out hulls of four or five old steamers. I approached a group of men sitting in the shade outside the office and asked to have a closer look.
One of them led me to the craft that had caught my eye. The Yanonge, he explained, was a wood-fired, stern-wheel paddle steamer built in 1928 from pieces cast in Hoboken, Belgium, and assembled in Kinshasa. It had a 250-horsepower engine and traveled at nine kilometers (about six miles) per hour, the same speed as the faster boats now. It had electricity, showers, a kitchen and refrigeration.
I’d never imagined I would see something so similar to Conrad’s Roi des Belges, and the feeling of proximity to the past was electrifying. And then, just beyond the hull of the Yanonge, I saw the passenger boats of today, so overcrowded and so squalid they look like refugee camps.
Conrad was rightly skeptical about imperial promises of progress. I left the shipyard sickened by a hideous realization: Measured in relative terms, most people in Congo were probably better off 100 years ago.
We left Mbandaka the next day for the last leg of the journey. I sat outside Nadine’s place while she cooked dinner and talked to her mother, a jowly lady who never smiled. Nadine’s mother had been traveling up and down the river since she was 18.
What are the biggest differences between boats then and boats now? I asked. “These aren’t boats,” she said. “Then, there were boats, with cabins, restaurants. This” — she paused — “this isn’t a boat, where everyone sleeps under the stars.”
I asked her if the river had changed. “The river hasn’t changed.” I asked her if the forest had changed. “The forest hasn’t changed.” But, I hazarded, it was a lot taller closer to Kisangani than it is here. Has it always been like that? “The forest hasn’t changed.”
Early the following morning we entered the deep, narrow stretch of the river that runs straight down to Kinshasa. There were no more pirogues; villages now had huts with walls and solid roofs. The forest had thinned out, and I could see how, if you traveled upriver, as Conrad had, you might imagine it closing in around you.
Yet the river itself would widen, I now knew, and the more time you spent on it, the more you might feel the deepening warmth of familiarity, and human contact, in place of Conrad’s alienation. That, to me, was progress.