Fishermen perch precariously on wooden scaffolds stretching over turbulent rapids in northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), hauling up wicker baskets in the hope of catching tilapia or a Nile perch — a time-honored practice now threatened by overfishing.
Basket fishing was once the lifeblood of the Wagenya community, feeding them handsomely on a section of the mighty Congo River close to Kisangani, a city in Tshopo province. But fish numbers have dwindled in recent years, and the fishermen see little help from the government.
Many people, like 16-year-old student Kalimo, get by selling handcrafted dioramas of traditional Wagenya life to the few tourists who visit the impoverished area.
“It helps me to pay for school,” said the teenager, who was selling wooden models of small stick men holding large fish, for $10.
Kalimo, whose father is a fisherman, wants to become an engineer.
On top of the problems with fish, the Wagenya — split between three main clans and five sub-clans — are bickering among themselves.
The position of traditional chief, who serves as an intermediary between the community and the government, is unfilled because of factional infighting.
Augustin Tangausi, who described himself as a “fisherman and servant of God,” said this means problems are piling up. “Everyone does as he likes and we have no one to defend our rights,” Tangausi said.
Tangausi pointed to what he calls the “small fishery” by the rapids, which are known as the Wagenya Falls.
Wooden poles are wedged into holes in the rocks and tied together with lianas to form scaffolds.
“To receive visitors? There are no conditions really. People may want to spend some time at the falls to rest or a holiday but there are no hotels, there are no restaurants, there are not many things,” Tangausi said.
At the beginning of the year, government officials visited the region and promised investments to attract tourists.
The governor of Tshopo province also promised that all the problems would be fixed. It is a project which consists of modernizing the sites of the Wagenya falls. There will be a hotel, which will be built, and we will try to modernize the fishery.”
“But as for basic infrastructure, that will be our battle, so that we have roads that will allow tourists to travel freely”, said Madeleine Nikomba, Governor of Tshopo province.
Much of the DRC, one of the world’s poorest countries, has crumbling or non-existent infrastructure due to mismanagement, successive wars, and chronic corruption.