Robert Draper spent time traveling the Congo River on barges that function as mobile cities to the hundreds of small remote villages along its shores.
Dawn hasn’t yet broken, but already coal fires are burning and women are frying beignets. Other passengers have risen from their foam mattresses and begun to lay out their wares for sale: soap, batteries, herbal potions, shoes, rancid whiskey. Soon visitors from deep in the bush will paddle up in their pirogues and hoist themselves spiderlike aboard the barges, bearing their own products to barter: bananas, catfish, carp, boas, baboons, ducks, crocodiles. The floating marketplace will proceed throughout the day, with as many as a dozen pirogues lashed to the boat at any given time. It soon becomes clear to us that the regimen is completely symbiotic and anything but frivolous. Absent this commerce, the passengers don’t eat and the villagers don’t have medication for a baby’s fever or a new pot to replace the rusted one.
It’s hard to appreciate how remote (and lawless) huge reaches of the river are. The Congo drains a basin equal in size to the continental United States east of the Mississippi.