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Lambertz, Peter, Emmanuel Makoka et Victor Yaaya (2024), Les transportants de Kisangani: baleinières, armateurs et développement réel en République démocratique du Congo, (article in French, forthcoming).


Article by Three Members of Mobeka on the life trajectories of Kisangani’s new entrepreneurial group of “armateurs” (ship owners) of baleinières  


Since the 1990s, wooden “baleinières” (balinele) have emerged as an effective alternative to both traditional dugout canoes (bwátu) and river tugs made of steel (masúwa) on the waterways of DR Congo. In order to understand the success and impact of these “whaleboats”, this article looks at both the material trajectories of the baleinières in Tshopo province, and the professional trajectories of their owners. Before becoming shipowners, most of them were former itinerant traders in the local popular economy, who thus acquired experience and practical knowledge in river navigation.

Keywords: Ship owners, Life paths, real development, Congo River, Materials, Mobility

A combination of quantitative and qualitative data reveals that the success of the “transportants” of Kisangani, i.e. the owners and their boats in mutual dependence and conditioning, stems from a complex and interwoven interplay of circulations of materials, techniques, people and know-how. Despite the frequent shipwrecks mainly caused by negligence, the impact of the “transportants” is tangible, concrete and considerable. It occurs without any public development policies, resulting in the “real development” of transport and mobility, which is characterised by its impact rather than any official narrative. This development manifests itself in a growing network of river trade and transport that follows the needs of local people and entails the gradual formation of a new group of entrepreneurs: the baleinière “armateurs” (“shipowners”).

Lambertz, Peter (2024), “Kobeta tôles: Re-Pairing Mobility on Congo’s Inland Waterways”, in: Charline Kopf, Aissatou Mbodj-Pouye, and Wenzel Geissler, Lotte Meinert (eds.), Mending and Repairing across Africa (forthcoming).


On the upper Congo River caulking is done by combining two techniques: cotton soaked in Palm oil from the inside (a technique from the Indian Ocean), and tar covered with kassa quanga leaves and recycled aluminum strips (from West Central Africa).

Keywords: Boat Building, Caulking, Technique, Re-Pairing, Congo River, Knowledge, Materials

Abstract: Congo’s baleinières (“whaleboats”) reaffirm the value of the Congo basin’s waterways as viable alternatives also for medium-range transportation and mobility. In synergy with their Chinese Diesel engines, they have grown out of, and into, the specific infrastructural folds that have emerged out of Congo’s/Zaire’s historical experience. Their adaptability to the shallow waters, their portless riversides, and the socio-technical potential of local mobile worlds has made them serious competitors of larger pushboat-barge convoys.

Made of a combination of Tola wood, known from Central Africa’s dugout canoes, with the harder Wenge and Iroko, the crucial skill that accounts for baleinières’ success is the savvy sealing of their planking with the help of tar-cum-sawdust composite (mastique), kassa quanga leaves, and recycled aluminum roofing (tôles) putatively of colonial times. This article traces the materials and skills baleinières are made of as precarious moments of recovery and promise, of reprocessing and inspiration, allowing to mobilise goods and people, but also temporalities, hopes, and futurities.

Peter Lambertz (2023), “Les baleinières du fleuve Congo: circulations, transport fluvial et infrastructure artisanale”, in: Anthropologie et Développement  54: 165-182 (article in French). 

Abstract : Despite numerous shipwrecks, wooden baleinières (whaleboats) considerably increase the transport capacity of the DR Congo’s inland waterways. Born of the country’s vast popular economy, baleinières are as much an expression of the DR Congo’s historical experience as they are of its heritage of river mobility, with its social and technical know-how. In search of the underlying causes of their unprecedented success, this article presents the origins of this frugal innovation and the geographical context of its riverine habitat, particularly in the Tshopo province, where baleinières bring together multiple forms of circulation at a social, professional, technical, and material level. While the arrival of Chinese diesel engines known as dakadaka or changfa since the 2000s cannot be underestimated, the article argues that the success of baleinières lies above all in the skillful integration of mechanical, natural and muscular forces: three ethnographic moments show how the baleinière and its engines, the river and its current, and human bodies and their techniques enter into a kinetic convergence and become a momentary meshwork of artisanal infrastructure that prove to be more efficient than the “hard” infrastructure inherited from the (post-)colonial era.

Keywords: Baleinères, River transport, Infrastructure, Technology, Democratic Republic of Congo

Abstract: The comparatively cheap and mechanically accessible Chinese dakadaka diesel engines and their shotteur Z-drives have enabled wooden baleinières to significantly impact waterborne mobility, trade and transportation on the Congo River and its tributaries. While baleinières are artisanal watercraft made of local building materials, their engines are globally circulating technologies, which are able to unfold their economic, hydrodynamic and sociotechnical affordances thanks to a number of local technical adaptations. 

On the basis of ethnographic fieldwork in Tshopo province (DR Congo) foregrounding the engines’ use, the article discusses the adaptations the Chinese engines and their propulsion system undergo to enable a felicitous engagement of their intrinsic engineered forces with the muscular, natural, and social forces present in their local riverine habitat. While this entanglement of forces depends on the distributed character of collective onboard engine care, it also encourages the emergence of baleinière owners (armateurs) as a new group of local entrepreneurs. These insights help us understand why, despite frequent breakdowns, the engines and the boats they propel enable and democratize the access to new forms of connectivity and mobility for large parts of Congo’s riverine and travelling urban populations. In a context of enduring economic precarity, the technical intervention of ‘removing (the engine’s) backward gear’ (Li. kolongola marche arrière) is therefore also of metaphoric significance.

Keywords: Technical adaptations, Changfa, Baleinières, River transport, Technology, Mobility.

Peter Lambertz (2021), “’Ville de Yalotcha’. Ship Names, Home Ports, and Bureaucratic Mimicry on Congo’s Inland Waterways. Francia. Forschungen zur Westeuropaischen Geschichte 48: 493 – 504. (article in English)


Yalotcha is a small village on the Congo River about 150 km downstream of Kisangani (Democratic Republic of Congo). The inscription »Ville de Yalotcha« on the bow of one of Congo’s latest wooden baleinières identifies the ship owner’s home village as the vessel’s “home port” by symbolically elevating it to the status of a ville (city). While this mimics an older onomastic pattern of naval identification inherited from the colonial past, it also inscribes the baleinière and its owner into a seemingly more global ecumene of international shipping standards.

Resulting from Zaire’s, and subsequently the DR Congo’s, decades of economic and political crisis, Congo’s wooden baleinières are handcrafted technologies of necessity that have become commonplace and indispensable on Congo’s inland waterways. Today, their activity accounts for the supply of at least half of all foodstuffs consumed in the DR Congo’s riverine cities, including Africa’s second largest city Kinshasa.

Keywords: Bureaucracy, Ship names, Baleinières, Congo River, Creativity, Memory 

As this article shows, baleinières not only navigate on the waterways of the Congo River and its tributaries. They also float on a grid of navigation standards and bureaucratic rules, including those of ship identification, which are inherited from the times of Belgian colonialism, and which have given rise, over time, to local practical norms of naming. On the basis of contemporary naming practices relating to Congo’s wooden baleinières, this article explores how legal standards are continually appropriated in a process of bureaucratic mimicry. This enables the owners and crew members of baleinières to positively engage with the state’s rules and their colonial origins, in creative rather than reluctant ways, so as to safeguard agency and affirm their pride.