How the Congo River Works

By: Contributors
A Congolese man and his son sail in a pirogue along the Congo River, just outside the town of Lisala. He lives in a small village and sells bananas and vegetables to other sailors on the river. Check out safari pictures for more African scenery.
Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images

Joseph Conrad's 1902 novella "Heart of Darkness" created a pretty disturbing impression of Africa's Congo. "Congo" refers to many aspects of that densely forested, alluring land. The name signifies the nation, the jungle and the river. Since the Congo's first European explorers -- the Portuguese, led by Diogo Cão -- the river has beckoned to imaginations and mercenary spirits around the world. And now, the river, forsaken by colonialism and shouldering rusty, Industrial Age steamers on its banks, is a sought-after resource in the face of environmental adversity. It wields more hydroelectric power potential than almost any other river in the world.

This time, the possibility of tapping into the Congo River's hydroelectric potential is to pull the Congolese out of darkness -- literally. Some advocate groups substantiate that this goal is just as mercenary as the conquests of past centuries. When the river was newly discovered, vast resources like rubber, gold and ivory appealed to greedy Europeans who wanted to build up their own treasuries. And much of these resources, discounted as inconsequential by the indigenous people, were extracted from the nation with no recompense for its inhabitants. What's more, the people were enslaved to produce wealth for foreign nations.


People say that the river is murky brown, but for centuries now, historians have written about the Congo's bloody waters. From cannibalism to colonialism, and from modern political strife to the fearsome creatures that await their prey along the river, fantastic tales of death and near misses have corroborated the Congo's reputation as the heart of darkness.

Settle into your pirogue, and we'll journey up the river and through the annals of Congolese history. But what exactly is a pirogue? And where does our adventure begin? With the watery terrain of the river itself, naturally. Read about the geography of the Congo River on the next page.


The Congo River's Path

The sprawling Congo is the fifth-longest river in the world and the second-longest river in Africa (after the hippopotamus and crocodile. And it's the financial artery that makes trade possible; there's no way into the heart of the Congo except by the river. Much of the Congo is impassible except by pirogues -- dugout canoes. And only the truly adventurous ever traverse these parts of the river. Large trading vessels, such as steamboats, can travel about 9,000 miles (14,500 km) of the river en route to their ports from Kinshasa, Congo's capital, to the Atlantic Ocean.

The Congo River runs north and west, ending at the Atlantic. Its course flows north to Stanley (or Boyoma) Falls, a massive waterfall named after explorer Henry Stanley, and then veers west and then south, where it empties into the ocean. This massive river encompasses 10,000 streams and covers 2,900 miles (4,667 km). It takes six months for water to cycle from the river's source to its e


Life Along the Congo River

Hippopotami in the Congo are becoming increasingly threatened by poachers. These two don't look too concerned as they wade in the water.
John Moore/Getty Images

The Congo River is a lively -- and menacing -- menagerie. The river and rainforest are home to nearly 400 mammal species, 1,000 types of birds and more than 10,000 varieties of flora [source: lizards and snakes. Crocodiles, birds and hippopotami prefer the Congo's many lakes, and along the riverbanks, you'll find cats like leopards and lions, as well as hyenas, and rhinoceroses. Dolphins and whales are sometimes seen at the river basin. For prime animal sightseeing, steer your pirogue into a bais, or a sun-dappled clearing in the densely forested land that borders the river. A bais is an oasis of light into which even elusive wild animals (like the western lowland gorilla) are drawn.

Animal sounds may provide a pleasant soundtrack as you cruise down the Congo, but you'll need to be abreast of their whereabouts when the sun sets -- typically around 6 p.m. In the dark, a hefty hippo can threaten your watercraft as much as a jagged river rock. Another nearly invisible animal joins the chorus after Nature calls lights-out: the mosquito. All of these animals are proprietary and guard the river. Some eyeball trespassers for a tasty morsel, but none patrol the Congo as carefully as the native Congolese who live along the riverbanks.


The Congolese have grown wary of outsiders -- they have plenty of reasons to distrust Western intruders, or the mondelé. At least one region along the Congo River -- Ile Sumba -- has been dubbed the abattoir, or slaughterhouse. Cannibals from the Engombe tribe live nearby and have been known to abduct and kill explorers.

The nation's population is about 65 million [source: World Almanac]. This includes more than 200 ethnic groups, the largest of which is Bantu. While no one's exactly sure how these people came to live in the Congo, anthropologists think the current population descends from pygmies, who were later joined by the Bantu (who migrated from the east) and the Nilotic (from the north). Only 32 percent of the population is concentrated in urban areas, and the majority live in rural areas. Few Congolese live in the most interior forests.

Passengers travel in uncomfortable conditions on the Congo River in 2006. Under Gen. Mobutu, state-owned ships carried passengers in more sanitary, organized trips. Now, private barges transport traders.
Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images

In the Congo, the river isn't just a geographical monument that people visit during summer break or attempt to navigate in a feat of superhuman strength. It's a necessary, everyday part of life for trade and travel. The Congo is like the Route 66 of Africa, a way to get from point A to point B. And unlike nations that struggle over rights to water sources, the Congolese use the Congo River cooperatively, just as city dwellers share highways.

The issue that plagues the Congolese is development. As colonial explorers observed centuries ago, the natives weren't interested in building cities and making use of all their resources -- they didn't even know how valuable things like ivory and rubber were to the Western world. Ultimately, this set them up for exploitation on a massive scale. Learn about the Congo's struggle with colonialism on the next page.



Historical Exploration of the Congo River

Henry Stanley, the determined explorer who sailed the full length of the Congo River
Walery/Spencer Arnold/Getty Images

In May 1482, Diogo Cão sailed from Lisbon, Portugal, to the African coast. His crew was in desperate need of drinking water when Cão noticed muddy brown water rushing into a bay. He followed the source of the water and inadvertently discovered the Congo River.

Cão's crew was fascinated by the exotic animals along the Congo. They settled into a cove and stayed there for a month. The Portuguese struck up a friendship with the native Bakongo tribe. Cão sent some of his men upstream to find the Bakongo king, Manikongo. Cão didn't wait for them to return, though it's not clear why. He sailed home and took a few Bakongo to introduce to his ruler, King João. They were regarded as visiting dignitaries, and Cão brought them back to the Congo when he made another voyage (his last) in 1484. He never found his men or Manikongo, and he mysteriously disappeared when a giant waterfall impeded his ship's course along the river.


For many years, the Congo was a repository for failed explorations. People sought their riches in the heart of Africa, and they died trying. There were wild rapids, ferocious animals, unpredictable weather, wary natives and mysterious diseases. Many expeditions failed because people simply couldn't penetrate the Congo. Without native river guides, it was impossible to travel the river -- its sandbars were constantly shifting and changing the river's course. Watercraft could be destroyed on impact if they hit a sandbar -- or snagged on a crocodile's jaw.

An 1875 depiction of British colonialists battling the native Congolese on the river
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The ever-changing Congo couldn't be charted, but it did become more manageable. Determined nations dispatched more explorers and set up permanent stations along the riverbanks. These included Portuguese sailors like Francisco José de Lacerda and Arab traders, who became invested in slave and ivory trades. Christian missionaries traveled to the Congo in hopes of converting the Congolese, who worshipped inkissi (fetishes) [source: US Navy].

Belgium's King Leopold II was determined to claim the coveted Congo -- he'd missed out on the land scramble in the East Indies and North Africa [source: Henry Stanley, a journalist for the New York Herald. Stanley was famous for finding the stranded Scottish missionary David Livingstone at the shores of Lake Tanganyika, and he was notorious for defecting from the Union Navy during the Civil War. Stanley was an experienced candidate. From November 1874 to August 1877, he'd trekked across 6,500 miles (10,460 km) of the Congo. (Even today, he's the only known Westerner to have travelled to the entire length of the Congo River.) Hundreds of Africans on the trek and Stanley's three British companions died along the way.

In August 1879, Leopold commissioned Stanley's next expedition. Stanley remained in the Congo until 1884, setting up 22 small towns along the river and guiding the effort to establish four steamers on the Congo [source: MSN Encarta]. He also helped build a road along the lower Congo. In 1885, Belgium officially gained control of the land -- the Congo Free State became the Belgian Congo. It remained in Belgium's hands until the mid-20th century.

How did colonialism lead to such bloody battles and an industrial wasteland? In the next section, we'll see why today's Congolese people are wondering just where they fit into the global economy.­


Modern Congo

In February 2005, Congolese Green Beret soldiers patrol the Congo River in Kinshasa.
Mark Renders/Getty Images

By 1960, the enslaved Congo nation declared independence from Belgium, but its hard-won freedom was bittersweet. A string of Congolese rulers levied new policies on the nation. Gen. Joseph Mobutu was by far the most controversial: After establishing himself as president of the Congo in 1965, he became a dictator in 1966 and renamed the nation the Democratic Republic of the Congo. By 1971, it was restructured again as the Republic of Zaire.

Political corruption plagued the nation, and by 1997, the rebel insurgent Gen. Laurent Kabila overthrew Mobutu and re-established the country as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Kabila isolated the Congo from the rest of the world, refusing communications with the United Nations (UN) and denying much-needed aid. The Congo erupted into civil war, and surrounding nations became involved in the battles. In 2001, Kabila was assassinated -- his son Joseph assumed power. While violence rages on in the nation, the younger Kabila did reopen communications with the UN and the country began holding democratic elections.


Throughout the turmoil, the flow of the mighty Congo River has remained steady. This constant offers one solution to a major issue. In the Congo, only 6 percent of the population has electricity [source: hydroelectric power potential. It's estimated that 13 percent of the world's hydroelectric power is contained in the Congo's sprawling waters, which flow at 400,000 cubic meters per second. In 1972 and '82, two dams, Inga I and Inga II, were constructed to harvest the river's power. They're located near the capital -- Kinshasa -- by the lower Congo.

But they weren't maintained. Turbine repairs were considered in the 1990s, but a $15 million price tag was too much for a war-torn country to bear. Now, there are plans for renovations and an even larger dam: the Grand Inga. The Grand Inga will be able to provide electricity to the entire African continent. The addition of an inter-connector under the Mediterranean Sea will also supply southern Europe with power [source: United Nations].

One of the Inga dams, languishing in a state of disrepair.

So what's the delay? The nation is at an impasse. Some Congolese want to restore peace to their forest villages. Others want to move forward and out of rural settlements; they want a better infrastructure, economy and educational system. Part of the population is uncertain -- and some have never ventured into the interior to realize how much damage has been done to their indigenous countrymen. From 1996 to 2003, six armies came tearing through the forests and cities, resulting in nearly 4 million deaths [source: Mealer].

Still others aren't convinced by the Congolese government's promise of putting the Grand Inga's hydroelectric potential to good use. Outside of Kinshasa, there's not enough infrastructure to really power the continent and provide the Congolese people with electricity. What's more, the government has yet to make amends for the disruption it caused building the original Inga dams -- be it financial compensation for funds funneled into the civil wars or land redistribution for those uprooted by dam construction.

During their eight decades under Belgian colonial rule, the Congolese were made slaves of their own land. Ivory and rubber exports made Belgium incredibly wealthy and a major player in the Industrial Revolution. But some historians -- and Congolese -- say that the Congo benefitted, too. Europeans ruled with an iron fist, but they also brought progress. They built roads, cities and steamers. And the river was never safer: Europeans installed signs along the Congo, signaling direction, depth and warnings about sandbars.

As a young democracy now, the nation continues to struggle. Congolese still starve and die from sickness and warfare. And no one's exactly sure what a democratic government will accomplish. As the nation and its people continue to grow, adapt and restore peace, the Congo River will continue to be an important part of their lives.

For more information on the Congo River and related topics, float on to the next page.



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