In Congo, floating pastoralists follow mobile herds along a busy river

MBANDAKA, Democratic Republic of Congo – Exuberant soukous music had been blaring from the loudspeakers since before dawn, but at 8 a.m....


MBANDAKA, Democratic Republic of Congo – Exuberant soukous music had been blaring from the loudspeakers since before dawn, but at 8 a.m. someone on board the brightly colored boat moored along the Congo River took a break, and a pastor picked up a microphone and began preaching at an easily audible volume on the ground.

“You’ll go to heaven,” he promised his troubled-eyed herd, tired from partying all night aboard the boat, the Super Malou Express. “And also – you will get cars and houses!”

Stepping over the deck of the boat, which slowly embarked passengers for the week-long journey to Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, he delivered his message for about half an hour. As he spoke, the morning sun shone on the hulls of the long, slender dugouts – hand-carved canoes – as they glided down the glistening river below.

Ashore, Fifi Bale Mombonde lay in bed, hoping the pastor’s proselytizing wouldn’t wake up her 2-year-old daughter, Annie. Her house was right next to the Super Malou Express wharf, so she was by default a regular on his floating services. They took place almost every day the boat was in port in Mbandaka, an equatorial city surrounded by tropical forests.

“Sometimes I get up and listen,” Ms Mombonde said. Although she didn’t know the names of the pastors, she had come to recognize many of their voices and had listened to their prayers so many times that she knew the words by heart. “Sometimes I just listen from the bed.”

Like on the subway in New York, or on the buses in Nigeria and Ghana, evangelical pastors in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have come out of their churches and are spreading the word to ever-moving congregations.

Churches have long been a powerful force in Congo. The largest, the Roman Catholic Church, wields enormous power during election years, when tens of thousands of its followers fan out across the country to observe the polls and report any vote rigging.

Millions of Congolese are members of the Kimbanguist church, named after its revered founder who died in a Belgian colonial prison. And the number of Pentecostal churches in the country has exploded in recent decades.

In much of the Congo, life is based around the river that gives the country its name, and it is therefore on the river that many pastors go fishing for souls. They travel along the wide arc of the river, which stretches northeast from Kinshasa, the capital, and rises through dense rainforest before bending south again in the east of the country.

Most of the Congo’s river herders ply their trade aboard the river’s many whaleboats, meaning “whaleboats”, although they nothing to do with whaling and looks like nothing the ship that inspired “Moby Dick.”

The large and diesel whaleboats are the number of people traveling from Kinshasa to towns and villages upstream, such as Mbandaka and Kisangani, the last navigable port on the Congo River.

José Sumpi, whom many call Apostle, preaches aboard the whaler called Ibenge. On a recent day in Mbandaka, he opened his battered, leather-bound Bible and laid it over his jeans as some of the boat’s crew carried out repairs, preparing for the 140-mile journey upriver. at the fishing village of Makanza.

Off-duty crew members swayed in hammocks. Near the engine, a monkey, the ship’s mascot, trotted and slid on slippery planks of diesel.

From Mr. Sumpi’s Bible emerged photographs documenting his three decades of “serving the Lord”, as he put it – one snapshot of him blessing a child, another showing him laying his hands on the sick. But all of the photos were from his earthly life, taken as he stood on the solid ground of his church, a branch of the Ministry of the Word, a modest Pentecostal church.

Why were there no pictures of him on the Ibenge? Maybe because he’s just too busy preaching on board to stop to pose.

“I preach at night, I preach by day,” he said, as the wind ruffled the leaves of the palm trees lining the banks of the river. “All the time, I preach.”

The Ibenge’s repairs were soon completed and he was about to embark on his two-day trip to Makanza, or three days at the most, but “that’s God’s problem”, Mr Sumpi said.

Shortly after Mr. Sumpi and the Ibenge left, an old overhead craft with tattered tarpaulins passed, a woman pouring fuel into an engine belching smoke. Then another, this one with two barely visible men on the lower deck, bailing out water from the river with yellow plastic tubs.

Women paddled dugout canoes almost to the waterline of pondu, or cassava leaves, to sell in bustling markets that, after miles and miles of rainforest, appeared from the river’s edge as if out of nowhere. .

Many whaleboat passengers are also traders, carrying bales of goods upstream to sell.

Several pastors said that the divine messages of prosperity and smooth business transactions, as well as the usual messages of forgiveness of sins and eternal life, came across well on the whaleboats..

Some of the pastors are business people themselves, with a sideline in preaching Pentecostal Christianity when they travel, partly to share the word of God, partly to earn a little extra money.

Because trips on whaleboats can last for weeks, pastors have captive audiences and lots of time. And congregations, even those bound by boat and not necessarily ardent believers, are expected to contribute when the collection plate arrives.

The money he can make on the river is part of what motivates Bionique Ebeke, an evangelical pastor who has become accustomed to the hardships of life there.

For days on end, the passengers sleep huddled together on the hard planks of the boats, breathing in the thick smoke from the engine, the roar of which stifles all conversation. If it rains, they are soaked. Food is limited.

Mr. Ebeke spends half his time preaching in a land-based church in Bomongo, a town north of Mbandaka, but he also makes around 30 trips a year aboard a whaleboat, offering services every morning and evening on the trip of three or four days. between the two spots.

“I work everywhere,” said Mr. Ebeke, 34. “There are souls lost on the whaleboats who have not even heard the word of God.”

Evangelism somehow seems more urgent on the river, he said, in part because the journeys are so dangerous. Traveling at night is technically prohibited, but this is rarely enforced. Life jackets are mandatory, but this is rarely enforced either. There are many accidents.

Last January, at least nine people died when an overloaded ship capsized. In February, at least 16 dead when another vessel capsized 60 miles from Kinshasa.

“There are many dangers everywhere,” Mr. Ebeke said. “You can lose your life, just like that.”

Because of the risks, travelers tend to be religious, he said, and join in his prayers. But the faithful of the river are not exactly model parishioners, he added.

“It’s not like a church where people listen to you and call you ‘Spiritual Father,'” he said. “People are drinking and disturbing other passengers. And other people say, ‘Leave us alone, stop with all your stories, man. We don’t want your God.’”

When they do, says Mr. Ebeke, he simply looks at them, says, “God is just” in his unruffled voice, and moves across the deck.

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Newsrust - US Top News: In Congo, floating pastoralists follow mobile herds along a busy river
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