EYEWITNESS: Myth and reality on the fastest riverboat in Zaire




Mark Huband in N’sele, Zaire

The Guardian, 4 November 1991

Young soldiers, patrolling the Kamanyola riverboat like ants, load pump action shotguns off the deck and into the back of a rusting Mercedes. In the distance, against a grey sky filled with the sound of flapping flags, children swoop yelling down the bright red plastic slide in the playground on President Mobutu Sese Seko’s estate.

Bouzine lowers himself from his black and gold bullet-proof Cherokee jeep and leads the way into the luxurious, refurbished, Belgian colonial riverboat where President Mobutu has made his home.

The table is set for breakfast – eggs and coffee and charcuterie. Daisies in pots are wilting in the air conditioning. Landscape photographs hang on the walls. The cups and saucers and bright, copper-plated teaspoons are stamped with the national emblem – a leopard’s head – and the words “Justice, Peace, Work”. A French cop film is playing loudly on a large television, gunshots echoing through the panelled room.

After breakfast the President will appear. Soldiers, young and armed, with the Hebrew insignia of their instructors stitched to their chests, wander past the portholes.

Bouzine, known as “the Cook”, tired eyes underlined by sagging bags, scuttles along the deck.

“I came here 21 years ago from Europe. It was all by chance really, that I came here. I have hotels, hunting grounds, and investment in tourism. But it was only by chance I found myself doing this.”

He never does up the top button of the blue shirts he always wears. His grey suits are too big. He is five feet tall. From his bullet-proof Jeep he conducts the President’s protocol – the white man who, by chance, took efficient control.

After scrambled eggs, the President appears from his cabin at the end of the deck. He is wearing a shiny green and brown suit of a style that he ordered all government officials to wear when he decided to reinvent the “authentic” Zaire in the early 1970s. Tall and portly, he wears pointed black slip-on shoes. Cane in hand, leopard-skin hat on head, he sits on a rose-coloured sofa in the shape of an oyster shell and prepares to go through the daily routine of defending his place in history.

Like the court of a Dark Ages’ monarch, there is no study, no desk, no piles of reports to be read, no paperwork. There is the rapid clatter of the Kamanyola’s engine as we head out on to the river. There are soldiers, government officials, deck-hands, Bouzine the Cook, the ship’s doctor – a Chinese who swears that he doesn’t speak French – and the President, half-smiling as he looks through the heavy-rimmed spectacles that are part of his myth.

But is there, Mr President, a difference between the myth and reality of Mobutuism? “The world thinks I do things rather bizarrely. But I really can’t answer that.”

Do you think that the era of the big African leaders is coming to an end? “Well that is very difficult to say. I believe that is very difficult to say.”

How many of your famous leopard-skin hats do you have? “Ah, well, I have seven. They were made in Paris.” The Kamanyolas engine rumbles steadily as the President strides out on to the deck and takes his place at the rail.

The riverboat edges its way towards a small village. Fishermen in canoes wave, people on a barge wave and cheer. The President waves in a grand gesture with his cane. It is rumoured that everybody who waves when the President passes is paid a little later from the speedboats which accompany the Kamanyola. We draw closer to the village where everybody cheers, a national flag flies, and four soldiers stand to attention.

“It’s all spontaneous,” says the President’s press officer. The cane arches across the sky, the ship’s horn is sounded. Do you go far on your boat, Mr President? “Why yes, of course. It is the fastest boat on the river. I have the fastest boat on the river. It is three days to Kisangani on the Kamanyola. It takes other people two weeks. But I have the fastest boat on the river,” he says.

“Listen to them. You know what they are saying to me – ‘Yamukolo Oleki Bango’, which means, ‘You are the strongest, you will suppress everybody else.’ I find my legitimacy with the people. Legitimacy is that,” he says, pointing his cane at the waving fisherman and the villagers, “the little people. Kinshasa is not the republic of Zaire.”

But is Zaire like Zambia? The question unnerves him. “Is the result confirmed yet?” Yes, Kaunda has lost. “So, it is confirmed.”

He turns away and bows his head as if at a funeral.

After 30 minutes he bids farewell and disappears, and the Kamanyola returns to its berth near the playground at the presidential estate where scuba divers every day check beneath the landing stage for bombs. The President is said to have slept on board every night since his power started to ebb last year, so now the people of Kinshasa call him “the neighbour” because he no longer shares the mainland with them.


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