Why Mobeka?


The meaning of the term

“Mobeka” is the term used in kiLokele, the language of the local fishermen and river traders around Kisangani, to describe the line on the water that indicates the boundary between the deep, navigable part of the river and the dangerous shallows that lure with rocks and sandbanks on the other side. In a way, Mobeka is hence about identifying and being guided by the boundaries of what is possible.


The Mobeka Initiative emerged from the ethnographic research of anthropologist Peter Lambertz on the transportation practices on the inland waterways of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and in particular the “baleinières” riverboats. The baleinières are notorious for their frequent accidents, which result in heavy losses of life and economic resources. Less well known, however, is the enormous role they play in the food security of the country, especially of river-borne cities including the capital Kinshasa. Equally little known is the the Baleinières are a remarkable case of endogenous development: Not only do they rely on and involve a large number of small actors. They also fundamentally reshape the transportation network of water-based mobility across the Congo Basin for millions of local traders and travellers. In his research, Lambertz attempts to trace and decipher the socio-technical, infrastructural and also the governmental intricacies surrounding this Congolese achievement, not without pointing out the security problem. The research indicates that much can be learned from local practices and that, in times of ever greater need due to population growth and galloping urbanization, a well-dosed intervening participation as an actor in the research field can be a compelling research method.


VALORISING LOCAL SOLUTIONS: Ethnographic research on local transport realities in the region around Kisangani / Tshopo province (DR Congo) has led us to understand that transport solutions based on the road-paradigm (few truck owners, overloaded trucks, expensive roads that are difficult to maintain), are no longer sustainable in the Congolese rainforest. The local population has long understood this and come up with alternative solutions that make use of waterways, downscaled mobility (canoes, motorbikes, bicycles, porterage), i.e. of longstanding habits of kinetic solidarity: older local skills and knowledge such as canoeing, fishing, and porterage tie in with more recent micro-mobilities from Asia (bicycles, motorbikes, small-scale Chinese Diesel engines propelling wooden riverboats). Thus an alternative transport system has appeared that is economically more inclusive and affordable, environmentally more sustainable, and hence more efficient in the long run, than solutions based on truckable roads. We believe that studying and understanding these local developments is crucial to make investments and policy succeed.

VALORISING RESEARCH: The rapid and profound transformations many societies in Africa and beyond are undergoing call for an intense critical follow-up by social scientists and their colleagues from the human and applied sciences. In DR Congo, however, local universities often prioritize teaching over research practice. Mobeka strives to valorise the local design, the pragmatic orientation and, crucially, the local funding of local research projects and their output, thus contributing to the decolonisation of inherited epistemic dependencies to the benefit of local solutions.

ACTION RESEARCH is, in our view, a helpful means to achieve these goals, because it compels the researcher to actively enter and participate in the field he/she studies, while in turn generating the funds necessary for the research. With the “MB Mobeka” passenger tug, Mobeka seeks to offer a concrete example of such action research.


in our view, relies on the inclusion of a maximum of local economic participants who generate and reinvest – rather export – value (money flight), knowledge, and skills (brain drain): numerous small-scale transport actors rather than few large and often expat truck or ship owners. But it also includes the durable and felicitous engagement of human with non-human actors such as animals, plants and the wider eco-system: Mobeka aims to develop and put into practice infrastructure and reliable technology as well as policy suggestions that encourage local actors to maximise their own benefits, together with, not against, the environment and its forces.


EXPANDING THE “MB MOBEKA” by combining iron and wood as building materials, making River transport more passenger-friendly, safer, more economic and more ecological. Meanwhile, enhancing public debate and dialogue among key actors (state representatives, boat builders, crew members, boat owners, local merchants, etc.) through workshops, media features, study trips, research work and publications.  

GREEN CROSSING OF THE CONGO RIVER: Inspired by the historic “Rheinfähren” in Basel, small-scale passenger vessels make use of the Congo River’s current to make passengers in Kisangani cross from Makiso (rive droite) to Lubunga (rive gauche) without any fuel expense. This means less dependency of fuel, lower costs to cross the River, safer travel conditions, and it allows for an integration into, and management by the actors of, the current crossing system. The initiative is inspired by ethnographic research into the current solution of bwátu (canoes) with outboard engines, and the benefits and challenges this system currently faces.        

CYCLE PATHS IN THE FOREST: Recent ethnographic research into local real mobility practices invites for the construction of cycle paths in the forest, combining infrastructural innovation with the promotion of small-scale transport operators. This encourages an economically, ecologically,  technologically and also socially sustainable transport system, which ties in with local necessities, resources and concerns.

BUILDING A GREEN “MOBEKA RIVER RESEARCH CENTRE”: Building of a climate-sensitive building with as little cement as possible, making use of the abundance of ecological and cheap building materials, implicitly challenging the cultural and economic dominance of cement shipped to Kisangani from afar.