Face-Off on the Congo

Travel Stories: Jeffrey Tayler was cooking lunch along the Congo River when armed men approached, making demands. Enter the Big Man.

06.01.09 | 10:23 AM ET

REUTERS/Finbarr O’Reilly

The ghostly silhouette of a man standing at the bow and wielding an automatic rifle sharpened as the dugout canoe floated out of the drizzly mists, heading for our idyll, a vine-bestrewn cove on the Congo River that was sheltered by gargantuan trees and a high arching bank of reddish earth. Astern we made out an oarsman adeptly maneuvering the craft through muddy crosscurrents. He, too, we soon saw, wore a rifle dangling on a shoulder strap. 

The Congo River, the border between the Congo Republic (where we were) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo across the water, was narrow here, just a few miles north of Malebo Pool. The DRC had basically been a land of anarchy and civil war since rebel forces overthrew the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997. Could our visitors be bandits from the other side?

My Congolese guides Eric and Jean Robin arose with me from our seats by the fire we had kindled to cook our lunch of fish and rice. The dugout drew parallel with us and bumped ashore. The men in it, dressed in ragged khaki shorts and red, sweat-blotched T-shirts printed with the words COMPAGNIE DE CHASSE (Attack Platoon), were apparently militaires of some sort. This was scarce comfort in a part of the world where armies have a history of pillaging the civilians they’re supposed to protect. 

Central Africa had, in fact, known more than a century of bloody exploitation and colonialism starting in the 1870s, with Sir Henry Morton Stanley’s exploratory descent of the Congo River—a murderous rampage, really. Sailing dugout canoes, the pith-helmeted buccaneer and his hundreds-strong, mostly east African crew fought their way downstream to the Atlantic, massacring hundreds of Congolese who chose to resist the incursion of this white alien’s flotilla.

The man at the bow stepped ashore, his bare feet plunging into the muck, and wrestled his rifle behind him. He raised his head defiantly.

“Show me your documents! Now!” he commanded in French. “You heard me! Vite! Vite! (Quickly! Quickly!) Get out those documents!” His gummy yellow eyes were aflame with malice—this was no routine inspection.
But we weren’t inclined to do anything vite, vite. We had gone through too much to get this far. We had just spent a month paddling our own dugout more than 500 miles down the Ubangi and Congo Rivers, starting at the town of Impfondo, crossing the equator north to south, heading for Brazzaville, the Congo’s bullet-scarred capital some 20 miles from our camp on the southern bank of Malebo Pool. We had suffered whirlpools, fiery thunderstorms and wearying sun, swarms of tse tse flies and malarial mosquitoes, threat of attack from thieves and guerrillas (Eric carried a gun, just in case), plus no small measure of plain old hunger and fatigue.

To counter potential threats from bribe-hungry Congolese soldiers, I had equipped myself with letters of authorization from two Congolese ministers and the acting U.S. ambassador in Brazzaville. These letters I had brandished to the authorities whenever we arrived in villages. But the word “authorities” in this part of Africa demands quotation marks. Often barefoot, with cola-nut-stained teeth and a sour whiff of beer or hooch on their breath, frequently incensed that we had not reported immediately to them (we could never be fast enough), these men would approach us shouting angrily and demanding to know what we were doing on their turf—preludes to shakedown attempts. Pulling out my papers and pointing out the ministers’ signatures had always intimidated them; and afterward, I usually offered to treat them to a beer or two. Such a combination of implied threats and alcoholic blandishments worked well enough.

But this time something seemed to be different. When I showed him my letters, pointing out the government stamps and seals, he shoved them back at me. He snatched my passport. “What nationality are you?” he demanded, peering at the blue, eagle-emblazoned booklet.


“A what?” he said. “Prove it!” 

“That’s an American passport. Please read the cover.” He squinted at it. “The eagle, the words ‘United States’ should tell you something.”

“And this writing, this here,” he shouted, pointing at the letters on his T-shirt, “see it? It says Compagnie de Chasse. My job is to hunt down smugglers and criminals from the DRC. For all I know you might be mercenaries.”

“Well, our documents tell you who we are.”

“So why didn’t you stop at the police post upriver in Maluku? Why?”
A dugout bearing what looked to be a family of four cut through the mists and drew up beside him. The father, mother, and teenage son regarded us with a mix of fear and hostility. Even the baby tied to his mother’s back pointed his finger at us and frowned. Who were they?

I answered the officer. “Why should we have reported to the police in Malaku?  We didn’t stop there. We don’t report in villages we just pass by. In any case your president has sanctioned our mission. Look again at our letters.”

Then the father of the family said something to him in Lingala. I guessed he had probably alerted these militaires to our presence. The officer and his mate walked over to our loaded canoe. “So, you were talking on a satellite phone? Where is it! Hand it over!”

“We have no such phone,” I said.

We did, in fact. But a satellite phone, too expensive for locals to afford, could be construed as spy gear, as evidence of nefarious ties to a foreign government. Our phone, however (a loan from a generous American biologist working in Brazzaville) was just a bit bigger than a mobile handset (not the old-fashioned suitcase-size apparatus that he would know), and I reasoned he would not find it by just glancing our things. He didn’t.

“You’ve been fleeing the police posts!” then declared the officer, struggling to undue the clasp of my tubular waterproof pack. “You’re on the run!” The teen climbed ashore and, with him, now set about pulling open our bags. The officer’s accusations, erroneous and random, delivered in a menacing tone, were doubtless intended to prompt us to offer a bribe. But no official, let alone a teenage villager, so far had dared touch our things. This could now turn dangerous for us. I had to act.

I thrust out my chest, preparing to play the Big Man, one who must not be crossed—the only persona that could inspire fear in officials here and induce them to back off. (It could also provoke assault.) I yanked my bag out of his grasp and raised my voice.

“You see these letters from the ministers? Do you realize who you’re dealing with? I’ll go straight to the president and report on all of you.” The officer and the teen looked up at me, taken aback. “Your president and two of his ministers have sanctioned our expedition and now you’re holding us up and threatening us! I’ll file a report on you directly to the president. You’ll pay for this!”

The teen retreated. The officer, chastened, stepped back, and walked over to Eric and Jean Robin, who stiffened up. “You two are to blame,” he said in a calmer voice, “that this mondele (white man) didn’t report to the police in Malaku.”

“They’re working for me!” I said, interposing myself to confront the officer chest to chest. “I decide where we stop. You deal with me!”

“Well, I’m just saying, your guides should know better. I see you’re honest. So this is their fault.”

“You deal with me! The president will hear of your mistreating us!”

His eyes widened. “Le Président de la République?” he asked timidly.

“What other president do you have? Yes, the Président de la République.”

The words seemed to cow him. For some reason, without “de la République” added, “president” just didn’t cut it.

Finally, slowly, he turned away from us. “Well, please report to the police at Mantu Yangombe village, just up ahead.”

He and his oarsman climbed back into their canoe, and, with the family in tow, they paddled out and caught the downriver current to head back from whence they had come.

I stood there watching them float off, still worked up, trying to drop the Big Man persona. With my blood pressure raised and my heart pounding, this took a few moments. Now as in 1995, at the time of my first Congo River expedition (recounted in my book Facing the Congo), I could only make my way downstream by adopting what would otherwise be a (ridiculous, to my eyes) bullying posture (backed up by a letter of introduction from Mobutu’s secret services) that I had learned from the colorful but effective Mobutu crony who had so helped me.

I grew up in Washington, D.C., in a country of laws. Trying to intimidate the police there would have been as foolish and futile as it was dangerous. But here (and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa), I often found I needed to bluster and blandish to get past obstructive men of the state. There was at times no other way to get by. In the end I begrudgingly sympathized with these fellows, who were, especially in the Congo, usually ill-paid (or not paid), badly trained and worse equipped, and stationed far from home. Their country’s violent past had shaped them, their poverty disposed them to corruption.

The rarity of foreign tourists made them suspicious of all outsiders, especially mondeles, who had a history of showing up hunting for diamonds or gold, and who thus were presumed to carry booty that might justifiably, in some eyes at least, go to whomever was strong enough to seize it. Anyway, few Congolese could imagine that an American would arrive in their conflict-plagued land wanting only to sail a canoe down a river—even a mighty river like the Congo, whose singular, savage beauty fails to impress those who know it only as a means of scant livelihood (fishing, mostly) or a watery highway for rebel troops. But if I felt foolish acting the part of a swaggering grandee, I consoled myself remembering that I had done nothing wrong and was in fact protecting those (Eric and Jean Robin, in this case) working for me.

We finished our lunch, repacked our canoe, and paddled back out into the currents. We stopped in Mantu Yangombe, an hour’s travel downriver, and reported to the police officer there. (Why tempt fate? I decided.) He took Eric aside and quietly asked for a bribe of 6,000 Congolese francs (about $10), but settled for a beer I bought him from a shoreside vendor.

We pressed on. The sky cleared. Just before the sun’s blood-red death and night’s sudden fall (there is no evening in equatorial climes), where Malebo Pool’s swishing turquoise waters flowed like liquid silk, we pulled up to a sandbar and set up camp, with the 47-story Nabémba tower, Brazzaville’s skyscraper, rising over the palms some miles downstream. The next morning, we decamped and paddled the last stretch of our journey to dock beneath the tower, debarking into a waiting throng of reporters, TV cameramen and embassy officials. All hard feelings were forgotten.

Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor for The Atlantic and the author of six books, including River of No Reprieve: Descending Siberia's Waterway of Exile, Death, and Destiny. His latest is Murderers in Mausoleums. His second book "Facing the Congo" ranked No. 28 on World Hum's Top 30 Travel Books of all time. He was the subject of a World Hum interview.

1 Comment for Face-Off on the Congo

Mark H 07.03.09 | 3:28 AM ET

What a great tragedy that this majestic and naturally stunning country has come to this. I feel priveleged that I had a chance to take the famed river boat up the Congo River in 1991 as that would seem a forlorn hope today. Great story.

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