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Imagined Waters

Through the poetry of its mariners – the singers of its rivers and seas – Yvonne A. Owuor explores the geography of the vast ocean of Africa. She finds that the horizons of sky, land and water are blurred and that the shape of the past and the future is a matter of perspective, one that human maps can merely suggest.

“What the map cuts up, the story cuts across.”
– Michel de Certeau.

 

There are no human words that can describe or explain Fleuve Congo. None.

This is power.

This is power.

Silence.

And that overused word, awe.

Silence and superlatives: second to the Amazon in length and drainage basins; the deepest river in the world. The most contradictory river on the planet – a turbulent inland sea; one-fifth of the Amazon’s volume and yet it discharges the second-most significant amount of water, suggesting depths unseen. It is not what is visible and known about this river that fascinates most, it is its intricate layers of unspokenness and its potent presence, not only in Kinshasa, but also for an African continent that seems to have lost the imagination of its presence, and what it actually means for the life of Africa. It is easy to imagine that here, indeed, is the main artery and heart of a grand and immense continent.

Fleuve Congo has multiple sources within Africa, it seems – in the East African Rift Valley, in Zambia and elsewhere. It is accepted that there are several other sources that have not been discerned yet. It is an African river in the way the Nile is not, and can never be. Life-blood of the interior, it has been assumed that most of the River Congo is navigable, except that there is a pantheon of the dead – those who took this as fact. The unfortunately named Livingstone Falls limits access to the sea for all but the legendary boatmen of Matadi, a maritime clan that, it is said, long ago made a pact with deep river spirits who gave them sole rights to sing vessels from the river into the Atlantic unmolested. They are reputed to have the power to soothe even the whirlpools of the Devil’s Cauldron, to urge sandbars to descend and to scold shifting, suicidal river bends into straight lines. “They speak the river’s spirit,” I was told later, when I asked about one of those boatmen.

Kinshasa’s Le Beach Ngobila is the DRC’s key river port, with quays, jetties, boats, barges and ferries. There is the sense that a significant percentage of the goings-on are neither legal nor safe. A “don’t ask, don’t look sideways” policy is in place here. It is a complex ecosystem, and all the world is here in one shape or another. Here I am hearing, for the first time in my life, the rousing rumble of a real river. The tumult subsumes all Kenyan rivers I have previously met – the Nyando, Tana, Nairobi and Athi – because next to the River Congo, those are mere streams. Across the river, Congo Brazzaville. This is the only place in the world where two capital cities face one another across a river. Here too, for me, an odd quest will begin.

A murmured conversation among new Kinshasa friends: they tell me that for a couple of years some European capitalists have been mulling over a means to tap this river’s power to supplement Europe’s energy needs.

“Who is involved in these discussions here?” I ask. “It would be useful to meet them.” I am in Kinshasa to learn its face.

“Some ministers,” I am informed. “We hear only rumours.”

It is always the case on our continent. “Some ministers”, our special faceless ravenous legion, who are the first to auction off bits of the continent’s soul for private, ephemeral gain. “One day you will die,” I want to whisper to each one of them.

In this land of anything-is-possible, anything is possible. The idea of tapping an African river for Europe’s energy is so absurd that it is probably true. It conforms to a hubristic possessive entity that slithers out of far too many human souls when they encounter the immensity of the DRC, and the disdain of its grand river.

Today, here, on the banks of the River Congo, I see as if “through a glass darkly”. Anywhere on these banks is the right venue for an intra-African convergence to mull over African presents and futures. It would perhaps be a conference. Its main purpose would be to observe and listen. The only topic would be “Contradiction”. The participants would gaze upon the river to see with open eyes and listening ears the throbbing, pulsing, living richness of a country and city that in all probability are the wealthiest on earth. They would tilt their heads and witness the exhaustive, tremendous and debilitating life struggles, compromises and body-soul selling of citizens unfolding on the same river’s banks. They would witness refined, gleaming, strong, Latin-speaking (Latin is still in the DRC school curriculum) African men – fathers, brothers, kneeling to receive five dollars a day to carry the camera bags of a scrawny European man with restless, acquisitive, pale eyes, twitchy fingers and a suddenly belligerent voice. He demands to be taken down the river. He has a plan to experience the river “on his skin”.

Later that day I would hear quiet exclamations from gathered river watchers about the occasion of the retirement of “Le Vieux”, a certain Congo River fixture, an elderly boatman who is the last of the kind that sing a boat from Matadi to the Atlantic – one of those men who never knew the word “unnavigable”.

Sing a boat.

There are memories contained in every song.

Every song is a story.

Sing a boat.

Through the lenses of the kind of anthropology that has traditionally been reserved for “Africa” and, more significantly, the Congo, the “sing a boat” idea evokes the image of very jolly Africans singing to spirits and making odd gestures to appease their assorted rages. Sing a boat. I had lived in Zanzibar. I had had the fortune of witnessing a dhow-raising ceremony, its rituals and music and gestures. I had also heard previously taciturn nahodha chant before they set off, and once, in the experience of evening doldrums at sea, the vessel captain had looked skyward, and at the horizons and at the water, and incanted the most lyrical of phrases, and half-an-hour later had brought the vessel and us, his passengers, home.

It is easy to view these as quirky African habits that perhaps invite the sacred into the mundane. But listening that day to life and talk on the banks of the River Congo, a question emerged most unexpectedly from out of the river’s spray: what if these “songs” and gestures were more than that? What if, as a friend, Professor Wambui Mwangi, would later term it, these were expressions of poem-maps? Navigational methods? What if these were examples of mapping practice and tools condensed from a long history and memory of journeying rooted in history, politics and daily life? What if these were “expressive objects” of embodied geography and primary sources of navigational knowledge carried in memory? Navigational mnemotechnics? Living sonic, gestural and mnemonic navigational literary artefacts – still used, lived and expressed by a declining class of river, lake and sea vessels? 

What if?

And what other way to get into the heart and soul of an African waterway, than through the mariners who have offered these waters identity, meaning and character in their very particular voices? Here my quest began to “excavate” some micro-narratives of African waters through the lyrics of its citizens, its maritime navigators.

It will take a long time to retrieve what has been lost to contempt and presumption. The paucity of imagination that now condemns able-bodied African men in the prime of their lives to be stooping beggars scrambling for a stranger’s five dollars for the privilege of carrying his oversized rucksack into a motorboat on their own river. I had gone to the losers of that scramble, who stood together, no longer competitors, to ask about their lament about the retirement of an archetypal river man.

I had asked one of them in broken French, “Bonjour. Please, who is this man?”

“The boat man of Matadi? Ah!” the man said. “Ah!”

That is how the story haunting that would also return me to the Western Indian Ocean took life. I set out to find the boatman. My new friends and guides to Kinshasa’s intimate corners decided to help with the search. When we reached the depot where he had been known to stop off, we were told he had gone.

On the day I was sitting inside the plane waiting for takeoff, the phone I was about to switch off rang. It was one of my friends. He had just obtained some directions to the home of the Congo River boatman.

Unfortunately, I did not get off the plane.

I have tried to learn to read the “texts” of the “life stories” (maps) of African waters through the diverse identities and sub-cultures forged through proximity to, and intimate connections with, the waters. The haunting that started at the River Congo translated into a second work of fiction in the offing, and an MPhil at an Australian university, which gave me the space to seek out another elderly water man, the sage, mariner, poet and Indian Ocean interpreter Mzee Haji Gora Haji, one of those in whom a deep and complex archive of the African oceanic imaginary is deposited, not that the “Africans” care to know about it.

Our “Indian” Ocean.

Or the Swahili Seas.

Performance scholar Dr Mshai Mwangola once commented on “the glaring invisibility of Africans to the [Indian Ocean] discourse, except with references to getting ‘out of Africa’ as slaves”. Mwangola observed that in most Indian Ocean discourse, “Africa as a place is far more interesting to scholars than Africans as Indian Ocean [maritime] people”. She was concerned about the “perpetuation of a stereotype of Africans as passive as opposed to active actors in the Indian Ocean. . . [who] seem to have contributed nothing even in terms of discourse about the Indian Ocean, and who were, anyway, irrelevant in shaping it”. The same sentiments can be repeated about most African maritime histories, including the navigational lives of cultures contained in individuals like the steamboat captain from Matadi. The folly of most “postcolonial” African regimes that created policies which turned their backs on their lakes, rivers and seas stands as a legacy to a particular African myopia and failure of the imagination.

I had assumed that I would find great references to cultural mapping practices, certainly with reference to Western Indian Ocean navigation. Beyond attributions to everybody else – Arabs, Indians, Persians and Portuguese – there was very little else that addressed East African maritime agency. In an e-conversation on the topic, sometime geographer Dr Samson Opondo of Vassar College spoke of “that which has been lost in translation or mapped into familiar and generic form such that its complexity and promise is lost”.

Back to Mzee Haji Gora Haji. He was my main interlocutor in the quest to answer the “What if” that emerged out of the river. He is a poet who has lived the sea. His is a face of Africa shaped by a forward gaze, whatever direction it turns towards. Here are eyes that look up and into and in-between time, within and beyond ocean horizons, and also evoke, from within, maps of assorted seas with rare words. He lives in Zanzibar. He comes from Tumbatu Island. He is more than 80 years old. Before the onset of Islam, his forebears were trading with Persia; they hosted Persians seeking political asylum. He told me this. His forebears were global players in that multi-century trading phenomenon called the “Global Monsoon Complex”. It had an East African hub. They called themselves “Shirazi” before the term Africa gained common usage on the continent.

Mzee Haji Gora Haji is an archetypal old man of the sea. His skin is a worn map; a cartography of hard-gained knowledge. His silences are as profound as the mysteries of the seas he understands. A man of African interstices – seafarer, navigator, artist, trader, porter, thinker, poet and minstrel, father, grandfather, African, Indian Ocean citizen – he personifies the secret but rich lives of those who hold deep stories of African being, yet are given no space in the current architecture of our perpetual ruminations.

In a preliminary and informal discussion with other seafarers, I had offered the suggestion of “poem-map” (a navigational poem) as a way of informing journeys. These seafarers were as puzzled by the phrase as by the idea behind the question, in the sense that it should have been obvious that to be able to traverse the seas is to know it deeply and contain it in senses, body and memory. I might as well have asked: do you eat through your mouth? To be able to articulate not only the sea, but also its environs, to name the requisite stars and the currents and waves, and to do so in order is a phenomenal human feat. To an outsider, hearing a recitation of how to, say, navigate the seas from Zanzibar to Lamu is like hearing an arcane epic being recited. To the seafarer, it is only an outline. (I dare only to repeat the phrase “poem-map” on this page, but in front of those salt-water men. . .  silence.)

It was wiser to approach the quest without the temptation of predefined ideas. It took three days’ search in Zanzibar to find Haji Gora Haji, poet-seafarer. Zanzibar visual artist Hamza Aussiy impulsively joined this quest once he heard its purpose. We were eventually led to the seaman’s house, where we found him in his little room, bed-bound and alone. He had suffered a road accident five days before and was incapacitated by a badly broken left leg and few means to finance his healing. The driver of the car that had knocked him down had disappeared. I was ready to reschedule the session to give Mzee Gora time to recover. But he was emphatic that I stay and talk to him. Once we had settled on the floor by his bed, Mzee Haji Gora Haji started to speak of the ocean, his life on and with it, and its assorted meanings: hard taskmaster, pathway, would-be murderer, food basket, “another” country, danger and mystery. As he spoke, he summoned the sea, which entered the small room.

Mzee Gora spoke of his life as an apprentice, and both Hamza and I assumed that role as we listened to “our” master mariner, whose moods, emotions, gestures, wounded body and face and hands assumed the shape of the seafarer of yore, the hard fisherman, the seaman threatened by storms, the contemplative awed by the ocean that was also a part of who he was. There were no fluffy rhapsodies, no romance in his presentation of the sea. In fact, his face remained stern, and yet the words he used, though economical, were, to an outsider’s ear, lyrical.

In that dark room, the poet-seafarer’s memories invited in the ocean that we could hear at a distance; we could see, feel, hear, smell, taste and touch this ocean through the words of his encounters. The tone of his voice betrayed a preference for certain aspects of the sea – its colours, its mystery and its bounty. As he spoke he transcended bodily discomfort to reach poetic cadence, which inflected the poems that would emerge from this conversation. Here too was a “biography” of Africa’s oceans, “read” in those spaces where it mingles with the life of a human being.

Evocations. Calling worlds into being. What a vast ocean of Africa Haji Gora Haji brought forth. He drew us, his listeners, to start to “see” that the geography of the oceanic imagination is boundary-less; that lived memories are platforms upon which we can glimpse the shape of past and future destinations; that lines between sky, land and sea blur – it is only a matter of perspective; that human maps are mere suggestions. Actual routes are created out of direct experiences.

“You are looking for a map?” Haji Gora asked. “The sea is the map.” He explained that environments are created out of which a desired destination emerges; and that no culture intending a robust presence in the world has done so without laying claim to its seas or its oceanic imagination.

Before I left Zanzibar, a friend curious about the questions raised by this search mentioned hearing of a Dar es Salaam-based French national who had apparently sought out Western Indian Ocean (Swahili) sea poetry, mostly spelled out in Arabic script (one of the languages used to record Swahili knowledge; the other was Sanskrit), and was keen on the mapping practicalities of this poetry. The friend tried to find him while I was around. After I had landed back in Nairobi, my phone rang. It was the friend calling in excitement to say she had obtained an address for the Swahili sea poetry collector of Dar es Salaam. Unfortunately, I have not yet returned.

 

Broadsheet cover

 

This story features in the new Chronic, an edition in which we ask: what if maps were made by Africans for their own use, to understand and make visible their own realities or imaginaries? How does it shift the perception we have of ourselves and how we make life on this continent?

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