A pirogue—and chickens—sighted along the Congo River. Image by Jon Sawyer. Democratic Republic of Congo, 2013.
We are traveling by pirogue, from Mbandaka, the capital of Equateur, 75 km upstream to the village of Lolanga. The long and narrow boat is made from the hollowed-out trunk of a Tola tree that is strong and safe. Image by Jon Sawyer. Democratic Republic of Congo, 2013.
Boys swimming off pirogues along the Mbandaka waterfront. This is a city of around 800,000 people, a major regional capital, but there are few cars, no central electricity, and little running water. At night the streets are nearly pitch black, the only light the faint glow of charcoal fires. Image by Jon Sawyer. Democratic Republic of Congo, 2013.
Forest green as far as the eye can see. Rich and lush and dense. Vines hanging from the trees, looping roots—thick, and gnarled and twisted. Red-winged birds with black tails. Jewel-colored ducks. Lemon yellow butterflies. Crickets buzz and birds chirp. The water ripples, melodic, rhythmic. The motor purrs and churns. Image by Kem Knapp Sawyer. Democratic Republic of Congo, 2013.
It is a cinematic journey. We pass men and women bathing, fishing, washing clothes. All along the riverbank, wherever there are villages, children are playing in the water. They yell “mundélé” (Lingala for white person) and they wave. Fishermen pull in their nets. A mother paddles her children home from school. Thatched-roof huts, some on stilts, are a stone’s throw away. A row of palm trees appears, its branches riddled with bird nests, thirty, maybe forty. Image by Jon Sawyer. Democratic Republic of Congo, 2013.
Boatmen transport large quantities of produce and other goods on rafts made by tying together several pirogues. Dieudonné, our guide, once worked as a fisherman. He tells us big boats used to frequent the river “a l’époque” (or back in the day)—during the colonial period and later when Joseph Mobutu ruled the country. Mobutu's three-decade reign was characterized by corruption and economic decline; it was followed by a brutal war that eventually encompassed ten African countries. Commercial traffic along the Congo virtually disappeared. Trade by pirogue, dating back centuries, is once again the norm. Image by Jon Sawyer. Democratic Republic of Congo, 2013.
We visit a small village called Bokolomwaki. The people have no electricity or power, aside from what can be generated from a handful of solar panels. Here there are 2,000 villagers, most of them producing sugarcane. Some 300 children attend the primary school and another 120 or so the secondary school. Many others do not go to school because their families can't afford the fees. Image by Jon Sawyer. Democratic Republic of Congo, 2013.
We're told many children travel to school by pirogue—sometimes at great risk. During the rainy season between October and December flooding may occur and some children are forced to stay home. Image by Kem Knapp Sawyer. Democratic Republic of Congo, 2013.
Mumzenga Soko Lam, a teacher, shows us two school buildings, one for primary and the other secondary, both open air with thatched roofs, and both in disrepair, benches broken. Here the sun shines through the holes in the roof of the secondary school. A rooster pecks at the dirt floor. There is no money to pay for improvements—or supplies. Image by Kem Knapp Sawyer. Democratic Republic of Congo, 2013.
Thirteen-year old Matena is studying biology, psychology, French, math, and computer (computer theory, that is, because here there are no computers). His favorite subject is French and he enjoys playing soccer. His parents are farmers who moved from Mbandaka two years ago. Matena would rather be back in Mbandaka—he misses the market there. Image by Kem Knapp Sawyer. Democratic Republic of Congo, 2013.
The church is in better shape than the school. Red, blue and yellow plastic streamers hang from the roof—this one without holes. Pastor Corbelle Manzula is a leader of his community. Image by Kem Knapp Sawyer. Democratic Republic of Congo, 2013.
Storm clouds on the Congo, a reminder that this is one of the world's mightiest, and most beautiful, rivers. We reach Lolanga in the dark after the storm passes. The village chief greets us and asks us to visit in the morning. We spend the night in the pharmacy with “Boutique,” the cat who stands guard over the medicines, scaring away insects and small creatures. Image by Jon Sawyer. Democratic Republic of Congo, 2013.
In the early morning we find palm nuts, a staple crop in Lolanga, ready for sale. Image by Jon Sawyer. Democratic Republic of Congo, 2013.
Jean Fabien Loola Adapongo, the village chief with the official title of deputy territory administrator, tells us there are 41,447 persons in Lolanga, mostly farmers and fishers, but he cannot say how many children attend school. Image by Kem Knapp Sawyer. Democratic Republic of Congo, 2013.
We are told the village has many health concerns—malaria, cataracts, yellow fever, hernias . . . “lots of sickness.” However, a vaccination campaign is under way. In a makeshift clinic a nurse gives vaccines for polio, measles, and yellow fever. Image by Jon Sawyer. Democratic Republic of Congo, 2013.
As we prepare to leave Lolanga a man in a bright red shirt, pants and cap runs up to us. He announces that he is Mboyo Ehomba Omo, the préfet (or headmaster) from the school at Bokolomwaki, the down-river town we visited the day before. He’s sorry to have missed us then. When he heard that we had inquired about the schools he decided to follow us. After paddling throughout the night in a pirogue he has come to tell us how much his students suffer. They have no books, no supplies. The buildings are in bad condition. He has been a teacher for 30 years and préfet for 12—education is his life’s work, he says—and he wants to help. But he has no means. “Is there anything you can do?” he asks. Image by Jon Sawyer. Democratic Republic of Congo, 2013.
We leave Lolanga behind and head downstream towards Mbandaka, stopping first at the market town of Bobanga. Fish are laid out on a tarp, greens and red beans and stalks of sugarcane, manioc and bananas, clothes of all kinds and sizes, soaps and pharmaceuticals, bright shiny pens and small plastic bags filled with a dark brown liquid that is palm oil. (And people everywhere.) Image by Kem Knapp Sawyer. Democratic Republic of Congo, 2013.
Back on the river we pass a family leaving the market at Bobanga. Image by Jon Sawyer. Democratic Republic of Congo, 2013.
As we return to Mbandaka we think of the préfet from Bokolomwaki who paddled all night to find us in Lolanga and also of our guide Dieudonné, father to six boys and four girls, ages 4 to 32. His three oldest children are now at the university in Kinshasa where one is studying biology and the others information technology. Dieudonné tells us it is his responsibility to educate all ten of his children. Parents always want the next generation to do better than their own, he says. “Mine did not have the means to help me. But I can help my children. And that is as it should be.” Image by Jon Sawyer. Democratic Republic of Congo, 2013.
Mbandaka at sunset. Image by Kem Knapp Sawyer. Democratic Republic of Congo, 2013.

We are traveling by pirogue, from Mbandaka, the capital of Equateur, 75 km up the Congo River to the village of Lolanga. The long and narrow boat is safe and sturdy, made out of the trunk of a Tola tree. The journey takes us past a dense forest and palm trees, thatched roof houses on stilts and children playing. In recent years the economy has suffered—commercial boats no longer ply the waters. But we are not alone on the water—men and women carry produce on rafts made from pirogues they have bound together, parents paddle their children home from school, and fishermen pull in their nets. We stop in villages to find a bustling market, a makeshift health clinic, an open-air church and a school with few if any resources.

For a narrative version of this slideshow, http://lab.pulitzercenter.org/on-the-congo/

Project

Children in the DRC who have lost families, homes and schools prove to be resilient as well as vulnerable. Arts, sports and vocational training help them to re-connect and start life anew.

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