Return to Transcripts main page

Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown

Parts Unknown: The Congo

Aired February 01, 2015 - 19:00   ET


ANTHONY BOURDAIN, HOST: After nine days of threats of imprisonment, confiscation of footage and what was the most chaotic, difficult, yet amazing trip of my life, the last thing that stands between us and our flight home is the reason we came. The Congo River itself.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Erik, this ferry cannot move today because now they're closed and they have to be paid tomorrow.

BOURDAIN: The U.N. truck just said he's been here since this morning.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I've had friend who've been held up for days.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What's up, Freddie?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They're going to start the engine.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They're starting the engine. Awesome. Just broke down again?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We now have one hour of daylight left.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They buried the engines and then they started.


BOURDAIN: Here it comes.


BOURDAIN: You learn quickly. In Congo, things change at a moment's notice.

Welcome to the jungle.


Everyone gets everything he wants. I wanted to see the Congo. And for my sins, they let me. In "Heart of Darkness" Joseph Conrad writes of his alter ego, "When I was a little chap, I had a passion for maps. At that time there were many blank spaces on earth. But there was one yet, the biggest, the most blank, that I had a hankering after."

This then is the Congo. The size of all western Europe combined. It should be Africa's wealthiest nation. The people forget, or never even knew, that the 20th century's first holocaust happened here when Belgium's King Leopold managed to bamboozle the world into giving him personal title to the Congo.

Leopold's agents of whom the mythical Kurtz was one, raided, slaughtered, mutilated and pressed into forced labor much of the population, in a bloodthirsty quest for first ivory and then rubber. When independence finally came, the Belgians trashed what they could and left behind a completely unprepared, tribally divided and largely ungovernable land mass, filled with stuff that everybody in the world wanted. And things pretty much went downhill from there.

But this story begins with the truck stop. In Rwanda.

Stocking up in Rwanda. My expectations for food in the Congo are more measured.

If you're looking to get to the eastern Congo action and many would ask why you'd even want to do that, the best way is to drive across from neighboring Rwanda. This country, of course, not too long ago, suffered its own appalling genocide.

Behind the wheel, Dan. He's been living in the DRC for two years, working on a documentary about some of the several dozen rebel groups in the country. Riding shotgun, Dan's close friend and associate, Horeb, a Congolese. They're taking me across the border. One side, Rwanda, hotels, paved roads, Internet, and paperwork to be filled out.

Just a few feet of barbed wire, machine guns and cement walls away -- this.

Welcome to Goma. A city of one million, the significant number of whom are IDPs, internally displaced people, sitting, rather inconveniently, at the base of Mt. Nyiragongo. A still smoldering volcano. Its current street level is about 12 feet above where it was in January 2002 when it last erupted. Lava everywhere, which explains the less than smooth ride.

One of the first things you notice out the car window, the U.N. About four months ago, the M-23, one of the various rebel groups holed up in the jungle nearby, invaded the city. The NGOs battened down the hatches. The U.N. stood by, hands tied. Everyone else had to fend for themselves until the rebels withdrew.

The Congo was a place I've dreamed of visiting since before I ever thought I'd get the chance to travel the world. Actually being here, I'm not so sure.

Dan, Horeb and I head for a local restaurant. Good food is going to be a challenge soon, so we take the opportunity to fill up on what we can. Grilled chicken, gugali, pirripirri pepper. Pretty nice meal.

DAN MCCABE: Goma in the '50s, tourists used to come as far as Rhodesia up here to vacation.

HOREB BULAMBO: Amazing wildlife. I remember in my childhood seeing lions just along the side the road sometimes. Goma was a touristy place for a long time.

BOURDAIN: They're not coming anymore?


BOURDAIN: No. You're just saying no.

MCCABE: It's a red zone.

BOURDAIN: It's looking like there won't be house-to-house fighting or artillery or mortars dropping into Goma. Was today a good day?

MCCABE: Right now we have a rebel group just 10 kilometers north of us.


MCCABE: And then we have a -- maybe several groups that are all caught in the blender, you know. So --

BULAMBO: Things change quickly in Congo.

BOURDAIN: Confused yet? Virtually all of the eastern part of the country is being contested by rebel groups. Some local and others allegedly acting on behalf of interests based in neighboring countries.

Recently the largely Tutsi Rwandan backed M-23 has been active in the area around Goma, but the mostly Hutu FDLR is also here. The Mai-Mai can refer to either somewhat generic local self-defense groups or specific entities like APCLS or Checka. Some groups like the FRPI are principally defending a stake and a resource like gold, and others like the Raia Mutomboki are mainly interested in fighting with a particular enemy, in their case they have a beef with the FDLR.

And lots of other organizations controlling territory who haven't come up with a name or cool acronym yet. This is only a fraction of the rebel groups in a single area of the Congo. And be advised this map was hopelessly outdated before we even got here.

MCCABE: It's all these variables kind of knotted into one big mess. These are the reasons why media has a difficult time, why the Western world doesn't hear much about Congo, because how can you sum it up in a three-minute report?

BOURDAIN: But for us Goma is just a stopover on the way to the Congo River. So we need to keep moving. And roads, forget it. Certainly nothing even remotely safe between Goma and where we are headed.

We're flying so Kisangani, this is the preferred route.

So we've chartered a Bush plane, formerly Queen Elizabeth's flying wardrobe. When the queen traveled, presumably in her younger years, her clothes followed in this beast. Or so we're told.

I have not seen this model of plane before. This is a first for me. Of course you'll learn to take nothing for granted in the Congo. Just

as we're about to take off thunder, lightning.

MCCABE: Weather looks fine to me.

BOURDAIN: Let's get this thing airborne. Wow, nice.

Has to wait this one out a little. Crashes are pretty commonplace. Not so long ago a plane with nearly 100 people on board went down on the same route we're taking today.

MCCABE: Most planes that crash in Congo crash because of the weather, right?

BULAMBO: Yes, most of the time, yes.

BOURDAIN: Not us. Don't worry.


BULAMBO: Impossible.

BOURDAIN: The weather clears up, sort of. So we decide to give it a go.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When the weather is very bad, stay on the ground.

MCCABE: What about rebels? Are they shooting at the planes?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No. Normally, no.


OK. We'll see you after your trip.

MCCABE: Yes, yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: OK. Have a good one.

BOURDAIN: Lifting off from Goma, we head out over the shores of Lake Kivu before circling back north-northeast. Our destination, what Conrad referred to in "Heart of Darkness" as the inner station. Here surrounded by dense jungle lies our rendezvous with the Congo River, a waterway response for both building this country and helping to destroy it.


BOURDAIN: Two hours out of Goma, we land at Kisangani. This was once Stanleyville, and the second largest city in the country before war and neglect cut it off from the rest of the Congo and the world.

Stanleyville, known in "Heart of Darkness" as the inner station.

The Congo River stretches across the country's middle. Conrad describes it as a twisting snake with its head in the Atlantic Ocean and its tail buried deep in Africa's heart. To Europeans, it was a natural route to transport slaves, ivory, rubber, minerals. The commodities upon which modern-day Brussels and Antwerp are built.

For the Congolese, both before and after the Belgians, it provided more basic things. Water to wash, to clean your clothes in, to cook with, to drink. Also fishing. Since long before the expeditions of Dr. Livingston and Henry Morton Stanley, the Wagenia tribe has been fishing the river in unique fashion.

Highly coordinated and acrobatic, the Wagenia dived into the treacherous rapids in what is still referred to as Stanley Falls. Navigate downstream between baskets that need tending. Perched on a precarious network of wooden poles, they hoist together. The catch these days -- not much.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So it is the second biggest falls in the Congo River.



BOURDAIN: Ogee (ph) is Wagenia fisherman and was a guide bringing tourists to his village. Since the last two wars, Kisangani tourism has been pretty much nonexistent.

Chief of the Wagenia, Pierre Musala Abeka (ph). It is said is a direct descendant of King (INAUDIBLE), who greeted Stanley in the 1870s.

Please thank him for the privilege of seeing his community.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a present from the chief. This is a way to welcome the delegation of CNN.

BOURDAIN: The Wagenia tribe made what was in retrospect the mistake of allowing Stanley to pass. The famous explorer, of course, pretty much shot and raided his way along the historic route to the coast before effectively jump-starting the colonial period. Using Stanley as administrator King Leopold of Belgium claimed the Congo as his personal property.

Under Leopold's reign, men women and children were tagged with numbers, separated into groups, given production quotas. If they fell short, they were whipped with a (INAUDIBLE), their hands cut off, hanged. An estimated 10 million Congolese were either starved, worked to death, executed or just killed where they stood, all in just over 20 years. By the end, half the population of the country was gone.

Have you ever thought about all those years ago if your people had just killed Stanley?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Someone else would have come.

BOURDAIN: Somebody else would have come.

Ordinarily a large tiger fish like this one, it's going to the market, considered way too valuable to eat. But today -- guests.

It's a mean-looking fish.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She used to sell fish in the market.

BOURDAIN: The Congolese standard, limboke. It can be pretty much anything wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Typical tradition.

BOURDAIN: Excellent meal.

A lot of work. Though it looks like you're not having an entirely miserable time of it. The water looks good. On a good day, how many like these?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: On a good day, 50.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, 50. But in time to ancestors. Ancestors didn't use to catch this. They'd just catch the big fish. One basket like this, they used to catch about 10 big fish. But the situation changes. The tourists used to come and see how the fishermen are catching fish.

BOURDAIN: Right. Hundreds of them used to come, yes? Well, things get a little better here, maybe they come back.


BOURDAIN: I hope so, too.

After Leopold, the Belgian government took over and pretty much continued as before. An apartheid-like system of what's mine is mine and what's yours is mine. By the '50s, there was a beautiful modern infrastructure built. Railroads, hotels, sports clubs, schools. The envy of Africa.

Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn were here while filming "The African Queen." They stayed at the luxury hotel the Pourquoi Pas. This is the Pourquoi Pas now. Like everything else of that time a hollow ruin inhabited by squatters or simply eaten by the jungle.

But none of this was ever for the Congolese. They weren't allowed in many of these buildings, except as help. Not even allowed to walk their own streets after dark. Not a lot of dependable electric power left in the city, but what lights do glow around town, much of it comes from places like this. Small kiosks serving the Congolese version of barbecue and what passes for cold beer.

Christian is one of our fixers, tasked with keeping us on track and out of trouble, which, believe me, is a big job around here.

You know, it's an amazing looking city, if you blur your vision a little bit, you can see it the way it used to be. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Beautiful. I think it could be the best place to

live. Very kind people. People like listening to music, drinking their beers, eating.

BOURDAIN: What's the Congolese word for barbecue?





BOURDAIN: I like any meat on a grill. It's looking good.

Grilled goat, with kabri (ph), a traditional goat stew on the side.

Now we're talking.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They roast it. They put some sauce in there.

BOURDAIN: That's delicious.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: As you can see, people don't eat meat. Meat is quite expensive, almost $2.

BOURDAIN: Which is a lot. That's more than most people make in a day or even two days. What are the first things you buy if you're very, very, very poor?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Very poor, soap.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Because at least you have to look a bit clean.

BOURDAIN: So soap first.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Soap. But in between, as Congolese, you have to think of dressing, looking smart, clothes. All these Congolese you can see here.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If you give them $10, they will think of at least paying soap or food, and keep maybe $1 to buy a shirt.

BOURDAIN: So that's called pride.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. And there's hope.

BOURDAIN: You can plan for tomorrow.



BOURDAIN: In "Heart of Darkness" Conrad writes about the greed of the Belgian colonizers. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale. And after 75 years, the Congolese had had enough.

But independence came quickly. When the new country managed to inaugurate their first democratically elected leader, Patrice Lumumba, the CIA and the British working through the Belgian, had him killed. We helped to install this miserable bastard in his place -- Joseph Mobutu. He stole billions of dollars from his people and pretty much became the template for despotism in Africa.

Needless to say, this situation deteriorated over the 30 odd years. And by the time Mobutu is done the Congo was mired in a series of civil wars, the government was no longer paying its bills, and the trains basically stopped running.

This is Kisangani station. There's one short run left. Service once a week, when operational, which isn't often, I'm guessing. Abandoned by the Belgians, shot up and stripped by rebels in the '90s. The station, the engines, the ancient passenger cars, and the tracks themselves have slowly receded into the jungle.

And yet all these years later, with hardly any resources, Monsieur Alub Emile (ph), the railway administrator and a staff of clerks, conductors, mechanics and engineers, show up at work and do what they can in an attempt to keep things in working order.

How do you do?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He says you're welcome to see this place.

BOURDAIN: How many employees still work here?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When it is running well we are above 500 people. But these days we are about 200.

BOURDAIN: So at one time you could dispatch a freight to South Africa?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, we could leave here and travel to South Africa, with connections, of course.

BOURDAIN: So a hypothetical question. If the government said, OK, we are ready. We have the money, we would like to, as quickly as possible, get operational, does he have the workers ready to go?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, of course. If we are running today it is thanks to the competent workers we have. Almost everything is broken. If we could only receive modern technical support again we could really move forward.

BOURDAIN: And this is one of the few things here that's working today. A feature of great pride to the staff. The railway employees, I'm told, do not get paid, yet they continue to show up and work.

It is said of the building of the country's once vast rail network, one Congolese died for every single tie. Like many Congolese we meet, they are, all these years later and in spite of everything that's happened, ready and waiting for the situation to improve.


BOURDAIN: You lost your way on that river as you would in a desert, until you thought yourself bewitched and cut off forever from everything you had known once. So Conrad described the Congo after piloting steamships in the early days of Belgian colonialism.

I've had something of a multi-decade obsession with the Congo. It's been kind of a personal dream, if you will, to travel the Congo River. And now, for better or worse, I get that chance.

We've rented a trusty vessel, and I shall dub thee "The Captain Willard." All right. Did you maggots load the chickens?

Finding food along the way, it's anticipated, will be a challenge. Refrigeration of any kind is impossible.

OK. Well, I'm psyched. My dream has finally come true. Blocked by officials? This could be months. OK. Let the probing begin.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How do we do this?

BOURDAIN: Let's get under way before they figure a new tax to levy on us.

Our trip downriver will take us some 120 kilometers, even deeper into the jungle, but instead of Kurtz and its ivory hoard, a crumbling Belgian research center with a shadowy past awaits us at our destination.

It's the turn of the century map, so Kisangani was then called Stanleyville. Leopoldville would be here.

MCCABE: Three thousand kilometers or something like that.

BOURDAIN: A long way to go, and we're taking a full ride.

MCCABE: That's what we're doing, right?

BOURDAIN: All the way to the Atlantic?

MCCABE: You didn't tell them yet?

BOURDAIN: I don't think we have enough SPAM, gentlemen.

A half day's journey downriver there's a local dignitary we've promised to visit.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. Yes. The chief who is coming down. BOURDAIN: We arrive, late. But the king is still waiting for us.

Traditional headgear, not so traditional suit. The medals given by the Belgians proving his royal lineage.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This place belongs to the Mombuli ethnic group.

BOURDAIN: And he's the king?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My father ruled from 1928 and I came after him in 1963.

BOURDAIN: It's a lot of history. Incredible.

We gave him a goat as a way of saying I'm sorry for being so late and sorry we can't stay longer. And he gives me a simple, yet hefty- looking bracelet which only later do I come to appreciate for what it is.

Horeb tells me it goes back to Arab Portuguese times. The Arab taught them how to do it. They wear them on their wrists or their ankles. This is older than our story, probably. The chief said his father gave it to him in 1935. So who knows, man? Wow.

So where did you get the bracelet? Oh, an African king gave it to me, the Congo River. Where did you get yours?

We've come a long way downriver. With many kilometers still to go attention has turned toward the evening meal. I figure I'll make coco (INAUDIBLE) which is a pretty simple way of dealing with a bunch of tough, old stringy birds in one pot.

Getting close to killing time. The moment of truth.

It's quickly getting dark. And I'm very aware of a number of things.

How do they usually kill chickens?

MCCABE: Small knife.

BOURDAIN: Small knife, cut the head off?

Our chickens are thin, scraggly, and tough.

MCCABE: He's biting me.

BOURDAIN: In order to make anything, any kind of edible, I'm probably going to have to stew the crap out of them. But first we've got to kill these things and collect their blood which if you know anything about chickens, and most of my crew don't, takes time.

MCCABE: I'll hold the bucket, you kill the chicken.

BOURDAIN: If you want to eat, you've got to kill your own chicken and pluck it, too.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Time to get killing, killing. BOURDAIN: But every man has a breaking point. And in retrospect,

perhaps this was ours.

MCCABE: Harder.

BOURDAIN: Harder, harder. You're almost through it, man.

MCCABE: No, I'm not.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Clean kill. Clean kill.

BOURDAIN: Now you can join our tree house.

By the time our birds are cleaned and plucked, the sun is down and dinner is still a long way off.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Clean out the chickens. It's time to kill chickens.


BOURDAIN: Somewhere down the Congo River, and I'm continuing to deal with a few pressing concerns. The one knife on board is as sharp, really, as a soupspoon. And soon I'm frantically trying to rip out the backbone and guts in on ego with my bear hands because the knife being shit, and it's getting darker and darker, and the damn generator keeps kicking out.

I really need light so I can see what I'm cutting. I can't cut what I can't see.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Two light bulbs out right now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's only 240 watts. There's no way it's the draw.

BOURDAIN: We're not going to eat at all. I'm never going to get through with this.


BOURDAIN: No, maybe we should figure out how to cook dinner unless you don't want to eat because we really won't eat anything because we are really not going to eat anything tonight. OK. I've had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and I would like to eat, especially as we've gotten through all of this misery with these chickens. All right. This machete --

It would be apropos to point out that we do not want to be moving at night. We would not like to run aground in the middle of the freaking Congo.


BOURDAIN: Is he worried about crocs? The current's unpredictable. Visibility, nil. Time to tie up for the

night. Generator issues more or less fixed, but now another just as serious problem presents itself. With the lights burning, it becomes insanely buggy. Crush the wrong one of these moths, while swatting your face and you will blow up like a balloon. Seriously.

OK. Take the other two bottles of wine. You pour all three bottles of wine into the -- into the onions. All right. Let's put the top on, bring it up to a boil.

Three hours later, it looks like the jungle-style stew might actually work out after all.

OK. So who wants to bring this over, carefully, to the table? All right. Let's eat.


BOURDAIN: Bon appetit.

In the end, my coco (INAUDIBLE) was scrappy, but passable.

MCCABE: Tastes like chicken, man.

BOURDAIN: It is written that I should be loyal to the nightmare of my choice. I think I now understand what that means.

Next morning on the river, and of course we're not alone. Fishermen from all the surrounding villages have heard of us, and have, long before we're even awake, come by to check us out.

Can you find a couple of onions for me? Don't go crazy. If we don't have them, we don't have them.

MCCABE: I will not go crazy.

BOURDAIN: All right. I will get on the SPAM and egg patrol. They may have had invented the stealth bomber, maybe this will be our crowning accomplishment as a culture.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Get in there, boys.

BOURDAIN: Once we finally get there, we're supposed to get all the way back.

MCCABE: Coming back was never part of the plan, man. We're not coming back.

BOURDAIN: Yes. They'll find us 10 years later naked in the bush with like a necklace of SPAM cans. That was glorious.

Time to get back out on the river. We have places to go. Two days down the Congo, we're finally nearing our destination.

MCCABE: It's an abandoned Belgian research station. But it's still functioning in some capacity, but the Yangambi itself goes about 30 kilometers in, there's over 250 buildings. They are doing it all here.

BOURDAIN: Much myth and legend surrounds this place.

Oh, there we go.


BOURDAIN: It has been inferred by some that the Belgians conducted uranium enrichment and a host of bizarre experiments here. However, the facts would suggest the scariest thing to ever happen here, some genetically modified banana varietals.

MCCABE: Yes, man. We're in Yangambi.


BOURDAIN: Deep in the jungle and miles from anywhere, this was once the Institute for Agricultural Studies of Congo. Construction began in the 1930s, the complex was once staffed by hundreds of Belgian researchers, doctors and engineers until they left hurriedly in 1960.

With independence began a rapid decline. The eventual cessation of funding. Of the hundreds of structures built here, what used to be housing, laboratories, hospitals and research facilities, the vast complex's library is clearly the most important to those who remain.

Though crumbling like everything else, the grass is cut and grounds maintained. It swept and kept clean, and yet most incredibly this man, Kasongo Bertan (ph), still fights a daily battle to stave off further decay to the thousands of volumes of books and research materials contained on these shelves.

So what happened here? Did the place stay open? Did people continue to do research?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's some new stuff, they don't get anything. But for those who have been there for long, they get an allowance from the government.

BOURDAIN: Independence comes. What happens here?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The whites left and many of them realized they shouldn't come back. As the institute was still operations in Rwanda and Burundi many of them crossed to the other side.

BOURDAIN: So unless I'm mistaken, the gentleman just said that cutting-edge research moved to Burundi and elsewhere. The Congolese who remain, their mission all these years later has been to preserve the patrimony that existed. All this was state of the art back in the '50s when the library was built. But for 20 years there hasn't been electricity to run the dehumidifiers to keep out the damp.

Through so many wars, through all of these difficulties, he has maintained this facility to an extraordinary degree. Why?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They call me the mayor because if I'm not here, nothing works. And I'm the one who knows the truth.

BOURDAIN: Staff still show up to work and organize. Catalog and write requests for funding. Perhaps to Kinshasa or a central office where someone may or may not ever respond.

He was here pre-independence, yes? Does he remember the Belgian rule?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He remember -- remembers the period of colonialism.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And that was the good -- the best time that they were living.

BOURDAIN: What do you say to someone who suggests that Belgian colonialism might have been the good times?

The road home. Such as it is. Rotting bridges, makeshift ferries, it's an adventure. Fortunately ours was a good adventure.

The Congo is a place that's always fascinated me. This is a trip I've been wanting to take since I've been writing stories or making television, but what I found was something unexpected. I met a lot of people who for a long time have been waiting. Hoping for things to get better.

A lot more hope here than there's any right to expect. When all is said and done, I wanted to go to the Congo, and I did.