The barge is, by design, four rectangular platforms bound in rows of two with steel cables.
At the rear is the boat that pushes the barge.
In my specific case the boats name is, m/b Singa Mwanbe.
The top level of the Singa Mwanbe is where the captain and select members of his family and close friends live.
The captain is responsible for navigation while maintaining a relatively recognizable timetable.
In my case “relatively recognizable” means, Mutated with Down syndrome, just came out of the transportation hub from the classic 1980’s movie “The Fly” recognizable.
Which is to say, not at all.
The second level of the boat is the security officers quarters.
His responsibilities are far more varied than the captains.
He deals with disputes, both crew related and civilian. He’s responsible for all cargo on board and passengers.
He has the authority to remove you from the boat if he chooses.
He’s the friend you want.
And after several days of listening to him explain 35 year old maps of Congo river tributaries, aquifers and mineral depressions -in French, he’s a friend I have.
The bottom level of the boat is where various maintenance people and high ranking staff live.
It’s also where the hole you shit in is.
And where people dry fish.
Then there’s the barge.
Originally, the barge was made up of cars parked tightly together and various cubes of cargo wrapped in tarps.
I would estimate that 90% of the real estate on these four barges is occupied with inanimate cargo. That is by design, unmovable.
When I purchased my ticket on Monday August 5th. I was told the boat was departing Kisangani the following day.
Because there were no cabins available on board, I was offered a car instead.
Besides a lack of privacy and anonymity for both myself and my belongings, it’s a fucking car.
Not the romantic dwelling I was hoping for
I’m ashamed to say, I was reluctant to accepted the car because it challenged my expectation.
Remember that alien looking mutated, Down syndrome representation of a time table the captain enforces – well mine was me leaving 5 days late.
After 3 days of sleeping in a car on a boat going nowhere I contemplated asking for my money back.
I imagine, however, it would be easier to convince a feminist that Burkas are stylish, then a Congolese boat captain to give me back my money.
I was also naively unaware that right before the boat was to depart Kisangani hundreds of passengers would swarm the boat and make homes in 10% of the available space.
Be it between cars, under cars, on top of cargo.
literally every place you can and can’t imagine.
When the boat was fully loaded, it was unrecognizable.
There’s no space.
People are sleeping under my car, under the car parked two feet from mine and in the space between them, under a very old blue tarp, in fact.
The Barge feels like a city or music festival to me.
It’s People cooking giant white caterpillars and catfish …with bush charcoal, drying corn kernels on whatever flat surface is available to eventually make maize.
It’s, Bonjours, Ça va’s and Molomaos (lingala for good).
It’s also, Muzungu, kiss me.
Touch me Muzungu.
Muzungu, feed me.
It’s naked children sleeping on steel, women breast feeding, make shift markets selling garlic, insulin, Chinese batteries and toothbrushes. it’s real chaos.
Beautiful, beautiful chaos.
Every morning I brush my teeth put together a day bag and wander through the barge city, following a very specific route to get to the boat.
To level 2.
Where I sit in a circular chair made of dried sticks.
It’s the ideal place for me to watch the day unfold in unpredictable fashion.
At night, around 8, I pack my bag and traverse back through the maze.
I get lost everyday.
Even though people use their phones to light my path, all I can see is the glow of charcoal while feeling heat from camouflaged pots.
There’s always always, warm dirty dark water on my bare feet and between toes.
Living on the barge is like living on the top floor of an apartment building.
Except imagine that In order for you to get to your apartment you must walk through every single apartment between yours and the the front door.
Oh you’re having dinner? Move.
Oh, you’re naked? Move.
Fighting with your husband? Can I please get by you?
The maze changes slightly everyday.
And I, the only Muzungu, get lost.
Which is why I had to make a map.
Imagine me stumbling on sleeping children, while trying to read a map with a nearly dead keychain light.
I look like such a fucking white person, its devastating.
Which is why on two occasions, when its especially late (like it was 3 days ago) I payed 300 francs for a canoe to ferry me from the boat to my rectangle, where my car is.
By doing so I Successfully bypassed the most difficult impositions
The apartment analogy équivalant of a window washing trolley taking me directly to my apartment from the outside, so to speak.
Seeing what people, children specifically are enduring here makes me feel like a spoiled elitist asshole for not thinking the car was good enough.
It fills me with guilt for having space for 4 more people and not inviting anyone in, especially during frequent late night thunder storms.
Knowing there’s a 7 year old girl under my car freezing and wet while I’m inside, is a problem for me.
Never again will I scoff at sleeping anywhere warm, dry and sheltered.