Whales in the Congo River? Boats, Names and Bureaucratic Norms on Congo’s Inland Waterways

By Peter Lambertz (IHA-CREPOS, Dakar)

In the DR Congo, most highways are made of water. At least half of Congo’s urban centres depend on the country’s extensive network of inland waterways for transporting crops, goods and people. They are the vital arteries connecting many of the country’s ever growing urban organs. In light of demographic pressure and the country’s insufficient road network, many people in Congo increasingly rely on river transportation today.

There are three kinds of floating technologies on Congo’s inland waterways today: firstly, privately owned, larger Diesel-powered pushboats with convoys of barges made of steel (French: bateau, Lingala: masúwa). These convoys are also well known from Thierry Michel’s movie ‘Congo River’; secondly the seemingly timeless dugout canoes (Fr. pirogue, Li. bwatu), often powered by classic outboard engines; and thirdly, an ever expanding fleet of locally crafted wooden baleinières (Fr./Li: whale boats), which have emerged as a popular response to the collapse of the state’s national transportation agency (Office National des Transports, or ONATRA) in the 1990s. Of ONATRA’s fleet of Integrated Tow Boats (ITB), which constituted the lifeline for riverine people between Kinshasa and Kisangani (1734 km), only one, the ITB Kokolo, has so far been refurbished. In the absence of sufficient alternatives on other lines, and with ITB Kokolo only travelling infrequently, many passengers do not have any other option but to travel aboard a baleinière.

Congo’s baleinières are at the heart of my current research on river transportation, technological creativity and diffusion, infrastructure and mobility cultures on Congo’s inland waterways. I am currently focusing on their origins, transformation, social life and management. As I argue in the following sections, their informal, vernacular origins and usage also transpires from the ambiguous ways in which they are treated by the state.

Whales in the Congo River?

Photo 1: The baleinière H/B La Princesse – Ville de Yalotcha was built in Kisangani in 2017 by Ing. Mafi Mopepe in 2017, who is a son of André Mafisango. It has seven rooms, is 40 meters long and carries an estimated 150 tons of cargo/people. Its owner’s clan has roots in the village of Yalotcha. Photo by the author, CC-BY-SA.

Up to 40 meters in length, often two-storied, and with a capacity of up to 150 tons, their name, baleinière (whaleboat), is confusing at first. Neither have whales been sighted so far in the Congo River, nor do their appearance and design come close the original whaleboats. The name stems from the shape of their first prototypes, which indeed appear to have resembled the boats we know from Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), and which in French were accordingly called baleinières. Preliminary findings all point to the fact that they were first built in the early 1960s by André Mafisango (1925-2015), who was a worker of the Forescom logging company in Nioki on the Fimi River. Mafisango had picked up the skill of boat building from a Belgian carpenter at Forescom, but, after leaving the company, he added a number of techniques to create a product that could be built relying exclusively on local building materials. These include an assemblage of leaves (Li. cassa kwanga), tar, sawdust and aluminium sheets that are recovered from former colonial rooftops, as a means of sealing the boat’s boards. While this recycling technique is still in use today, the initial whaleboat-like baleinière has undergone a wide range of adaptations, mainly by imitating the rectangular, flat-bottomed cargo barges made of steel, which have been in use in the River basin since colonial times. Hence, contemporary baleinières do not have much in common with the initial whaleboat model anymore. Their name, however, has remained.

The bureaucratic baleinière

Photo 2: From the monthly statistics of “baleinière” transportation produced by the Congolese state. Photo by the author, CC-BY-SA.

The design, construction process and trade patterns surrounding Congo’s baleinières have developed without any reference to international standards. Their development has been driven by necessity and pragmatism. In light of these vernacular origins, but also of the fact that people and goods jointly travel on them as cargo, baleinières might be better described as large-scale pirogues. In terms of bureaucratic handling, however, the state endeavours to formalise their existence and integrate them into the national fluvial transportation bureaucracy. This includes paper-based practices that tune in with the international standards of transport-related bureaucracy, such as security inspections and certificates; driving licences for captains/conductors; official declarations of crew members; written authorisations of each journey by the fluvial authorities; payment of taxes; monitoring of all traveling goods and people by Congo’s internal migration agency, etc. (see Photo 2).

The case exemplifies the historical and transnational dynamics of the (de-/ and re-) bureaucratization of African societies, which constitutes the main thematic focus of our Dakar-based research team The Bureaucratization of African Societies. We are not just interested in bureaucratic phenomena that are transnationally rooted or inspired, as it is the case for many bureaucracy-related issues, but also in questioning and rethinking our own spatial, methodological and conceptual tools and conventions through a truly transregional lens. The presence of ten doctoral and postdoctoral students with diverse geographic and disciplinary backgrounds persistently prompts us to attempt making historical sources and ethnographic accounts speak back to our analytical aloofness in challenging and productive ways.


Boats and the Politics of Naming and Renaming

A number of norms inherited from the colonial transport administration continue to nourish a popular bureaucratic imagination. Consider, for instance, the names of some randomly chosen baleinières that currently frequent the port of Kisangani, about 1730 km upstream of Kinshasa:

Name of baleinière Translation/explanation
H/B Grace à Dieu II Fr. Grace to God II
H/B Grace à Dieu III Fr. Grace to God III
H/B Don de Dieu Fr. Gift of God
H/B Lakalaana Swahili: Let’s eat with the children
H/B Dieu-Merci Fr. Thank God
H/B Bord Yetu Sw. Our own thing
H/B La Princesse Fr. The Princess (after the name of the owner’s daughter)
H/B Saint Augustin after the owner’s catholic parish
H/B Dieu D’Abord Fr. God first
H/B Boboto I Li. Peace I
H/B Boboto II Li. Peace II
H/B Navire de Tarsis Fr. The Barge of Tarsis (from the Old Testament, e.g. Isaiah 2, 16).
H/B La Main de l’Eternel Fr. The Hand of the Eternal
H/B Arche de Salomon Fr. The Ark of Solomon
H/B Sacré-Coeur after the owner’s catholic parish
H/B Puissance de Dieu Fr. The Power of God
[…] […]

When Congo was a Belgian colony, each vessel travelling on its waterways that was not a pirogue had to be registered according to its size and propulsion system. Until today, smaller boats have the prefix H/B (Hors-Bord) to indicate that they have an outboard engine. Since their first launch, baleinières have indeed relied on outboard engines, fuelled by highly explosive gasoline. Their propulsion is assured nowadays by water-cooled, two-stroke Diesel engines from China. Although these very noisy engines are actually installed aboard the hull, the prefix H/B has remained.

Imported from China and called by their brand names Chang Fa or Chang Gong, these engines come with a Z-drive transmission system, also of Chinese make, but locally referred to as shotèle or shotteur. What is unknown to its users, who are trained according to the local apprenticeship system, is that this term stems from the German producer of marine propulsion systems Schottel, which provided rotatable Z-drives for a number of ferry boats that the German Federal Republic had supplied to the Republic of Zaire in the 1970s and 1980s.

Whereas building materials, bureaucratic norms, and technical terms from the past are visibly recycled, the very names of the baleinières point to yet another tendency. In a forthcoming article (which this preliminary discussion is based upon), I discuss the political use of ship names in colonial and postcolonial times. Just like cities, skyscrapers and bridges, from the very outset of Belgian colonisation, steamers, and later pushboats, were seen as the icons of progress and technological superiority of the colonial metropole. The national transportation fleet would either receive the name of a Belgian city, or, as was the case for city-names such as Léopoldville, Stanleyville, Coquilhatville, etc., of an illustrious public figure linked to the oeuvre of colonisation. The initial letter – for instance the letter ‘G’ in the case of the ‘Gouverneur Costermans’ and the ‘Gouverneur Moulaert’ – indicated the ship’s working category within the national fleet (Lederer 1973: 120). In the early 1970s, as part of the Africanising Zairianisation programme, Zaire’s President Mobutu Sese Seko de-colonised these names, but kept to the letter-based rule of categorization. Thus, the ITBs ‘Gouverneur Costermans’ and the ‘Gouverneur Moulaert’, became ‘Colonel Kokolo’ and ‘Colonel Tshatshi’. These latter day names were euergetic laudations of Mobutu’s favourite army chiefs. Smaller boats, such as the shallow-water tugs ‘Eupen’ and ‘Elsenborn’ (of the E-series), for instance, became ‘Ezeze’ and ‘Euli’. Thus, just like iconic representative buildings, street names and names of places, ships have also been the site of politics of colonisation and decolonization through naming and renaming.

Since the 1990s, with the downfall of Zaire and the multiplication of baleinières, a seeming de-bureaucratisation of ship names has occurred. There is no longer a categorising letter-code system, nor do the names of baleinières relate to national military commanders or Congolese towns. Guiding norms, however, continue to exist. They either relate to the owner, or, as is the case for the vast majority of baleinières, ship names are inspired by the overarching popular religious imagination. Bereft of their iconic connotation of progress and technological development, their integrative potential for national identification nowadays seems to be placed in the ‘Hand of the Eternal’, as one of the boats is tellingly called. In the face of frequent accidents, these religious overtones also suggest the quest for divine agency and protection, as it has also been shown for cars, trucks and buses in African cities and beyond (e.g. Klaeger 2009).


Ville Habitable

However, owners often add mentions such as Ville de Yalotcha, or Ville de Yaboni, to the front bow of their baleinière, with Yalotcha and Yaboni being home villages to their clan. Congo’s boatmen thus mimic the colonial naming pattern by symbolically upscaling their home village to the level of a city. The name of the H/B Ville Habitable takes the city-boat connection even further, somewhat mockingly pointing to the fact that baleinières also serve as habitats for a crew persistently on-the-move, living on them as if in a floating city. This particular form of work-related cohabitation produces particular forms of sociality, intimacy, and patterns of authority, which at times, are indeed reminiscent of the precarious yet hyper-creative and youth-driven setting of the Congolese urban neighbourhood (De Boeck 2004).

Photo 3: The H/B Ville Habitable was built in Bumba by Ing. Projet Mwamini in 2014. Based on the “bottes” (Fr.: boats) of the Kivu Lake, where Mwamini grew up on Idjwi island, its architecture differs from the Nioki-style baleinières, because the boats of the Kivu and Tanganyika lakes resonate with the tradition of the Indian ocean’s dhows. Photo by the author, CC-BY-SA.

In various colonial and post-colonial settings, streets, cities, buildings and people have been named and re-named in an effort to politically re-appropriate the colonial past and strengthen the feeling of historical agency (e.g. Likaka 2009). Ships, as icons of technological modernity that, in distinction to trains, often carry an individual, anthropomorphic name, have so far been ignored in this regard. Today’s baleinières’ names are spaces for popular creativity and expression. They point to the fact that Congo’s vital transportation sector is now the people’s ‘own thing’, as the name of the H/B Bord Yetu indicates. The former bureaucratic standardisation of ship names according to a letter code hidden in a ship’s name has succumbed to the popular imaginary of the Congolese. It is no longer the logic of colonial grandeur, national representation and techno-bureaucratic modernity, but the religious imaginary of millennial, messianic Christianity that nowadays governs the naming of baleinières.



De Boeck, Filip (2004), Kinshasa: Tales of the Invisible City. Ghent and Amsterdam: Ludion (with photographer Marie-Françoise Plissart).

Klaeger, Gabriel (2009), “Religion on the Road: The spiritual experience of road travel in Ghana”, in: Jan-Bart Gewald, Sabine Luning and Klaas van Walraven (eds.), The Speed of Change. Motor Vehicles and People in Africa, 1890-2000, Leiden (Afrika Studiecentrum Series, 13), p. 212-232.

Lederer, André (1973), L’exploitation des affluents du Zaire et des ports de l’intérieur, 1960-1971, Bruxelles: Académie Royale des Sciences d’Outre-Mer (Classe des Sciences Techniques, XVII-6).

Likaka, Osumaka (2009), Naming Colonialism : History and Collective Memory in the Congo, 1870-1960, Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.


Peter Lambertz holds a joint PhD degree from the universities of Utrecht and Leipzig (Religious Studies/African Studies). He has been teaching at the Philosohat Edith Stein in Kisangani (DRC), and, since 2017, he is a post-doc fellow of the transregional research group “The Bureaucratisation of African Societies” run jointly by the German Historical Institute in Paris and the Centre de recherche sur les politiques sociales (CREPOS) in Dakar, Senegal. His recent monograph is entitled Seekers and Things. Spiritual Movements and Aesthetic Difference in Kinshasa (Berghahn 2018).

Citation: Peter Lambertz, Whales in the Congo River? Boats, Names and Bureaucratic Norms on Congo’s Inland Waterways, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 02.03.2018, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/9146.

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Eine Antwort

  1. A j burns sagt:

    Do you have any more data of the Congo whaleboats ..being a naval architect and boat designer am very interested. Am looking for more info on dimensions length,breadth ,depth and draft …also what sort of cargo do they carry along with how many passengers. I assume that there are no drawings or plans to examine…..also assume that no hydrostatic or stability data available to look at. Understand that recently yet another boat capsized apparently with 700 people on board..that a about 50 tonne

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