Well, that was interesting.
Bandundu is a town of a couple of hundred thousand people about 400 km north and east of Kinshasa. By road, this takes about seven hours. Which is, by African standards, not bad! The first couple of hundred km is paved, even. (Recent development, last couple of years. It hadn't been paved for long time before that.)
Bandundu sits where two large rivers come together, just a few kilometers before flowing into an even bigger river (the Kasai), which in turn flows into the truly immense Congo River.
Let me digress a moment and note that the Congo River is really frickin' huge. Put it next to the Mississippi/Missouri: the Congo's capture area is comfortably larger, and its discharge volume is more than double. On my last visit, I noted that nature had played a cruel joke on Congo by putting some of the world's largest, nastiest rapids near the mouth of the river, rendering it non-navigable from the sea. It turns out that situation's even worse than I realized; not only are there rapids, but the mouth of the river is choked by sand bars. But inland from Kinshasa, it's navigable for hundreds of miles inland, with tributaries going off in all directions.
So Bandundu -- sitting by the intersection of a bunch of large rivers, a few hundred km upstream from the capital -- hould be a pretty major river port. Right?
Ah hah hah oh dear. No.
The drive to Bandundu takes you across a couple of hundred kilometers of bush -- what the South Africans call MMBA, Miles and Miles of Bloody Africa. That's harsh, but fair -- most of the drive you're just looking at rather scrubby grasslands, tropical prairie. No large animals; this used to be prime elephant habitat, but they were wiped out almost a century ago. Occasionally a dusty village of mud-brick houses, where you have to slow down to avoid hitting goats or chickens who've wandered into the road. Off in the distance you sometimes see the towers of the Inga-Shaba line, the immense electrical transmission line that Mobutu built back in the 1980s; part of it is still working, and it still brings electricity to Bandundu.
Four hours of this, and then you come to the river. Applause! Bandundu at last! You drive along the river for a few kilometers and then come to a dusty landing -- people waiting, a few stalls selling food, more goats and chickens. A few hundred meters across the river is the town.
And there you wait.
Two hours and a bit. You see, there's electricity in Bandundu, but none on the other side. And there was a big soccer game on TV -- Kinshasa versus Lubumbashi, always exciting. (At one point someone scored a goal. Half a mile away across the river, we could hear the explosion of cheering.) So we had to wait until the game was over before the ferry crew would load up the ferry and come fetch us.
Well... that gave us lots of time to watch the river. And in two hours, we didn't see a single boat larger than a pirogue.
There were a lot of pirogues, mind. Dugout canoes, typically paddled by two men. They could take a dozen or more passengers, or a couple of tons of cargo. Fast, flexible. But still: nothing but pirogues?
-- No, actually that's not true. We saw several large boats, of at least a few hundred tons each. It's just that they were all wrecks: five or six of them, beached on the opposite shore, slowly disintegrating into rust. Later we'd be told that they were casualties of the Second Congo War. The fighting never got near Bandundu, but it did wipe out all access to spare parts for a few years. As the river boats broke down, they were beached at Bandundu to wait for repairs. Because of the war, the repairs never came, and so they never left.
We got that from a chat with the local director of ONATRA, the Congolese state-owned river transport company. He wasn't a busy man. Twenty years ago, there had been five or six boats a day stopping at Bandundu, both private vessels and ONATRA transport boats. Today? Two per week, private only. He only bothered coming into the office because ONATRA still owned the docks and the single functioning crane, and there was a little bit of work collecting docking fees and -- very occasionally -- renting out the crane, mostly to Chinese moving tropical hardwoods down the river. (He kept meticulous records, mind. Wrote them out longhand, because the office typewriter had long since broken down.)
The near-complete collapse of motorized river transport had been accompanied by an explosion of the dugout pirogues. You could get from Bandundu to Kinshasa in a pirogue. People did it, all the time. Load up a few sacks of cassava or corn and head for the capital to sell it. If you had an outboard motor, two days. If not, five days. To get back you waited for a boat going upstream, and paid them to hitch your pirogue on the back.
So motorized transport on the Congo river system got smashed flat by the wars. Several years later, it's recovered to maybe 10% of its prewar level. There's just not a lot of capital, either government or private, for investing in river shipping. (Also, even if the capital were available -- which it really isn't -- there are a number of other barriers to investment in Congo. Starting with the fact that the government is spectacularly corrupt, from top to bottom, so that you'd have to pay rather a lot of money in bribes before you could even think about running a boat, and even more to keep running it.) And while good and reliable shipping would stimulate all kinds of economic activity along the river, the converse is also true: a lot of economic activity just won't happen until there is good and reliable shipping.
(There's a lot more to write about Bandundu, but let's save it for the next post.)