You would think, while I was traveling by boat through the Congolese jungle down the Ubangi River, I would find the African animals and vegetation interesting. They were interesting but, more fascinating on my trip was the Radio Operator’s wife.
Every boat had a captain and most had radio operators. On this boat, the most important person was the Radio Operator’s wife. She conducted business at her store from the deck as we traveled through the equatorial African jungle moving south on the Ubangi towards the Congo from Bangui via Libenge port to Mbandaka.
The Radio Operator’s wife’s store on the deck was often the center of activity. It was more of a trading post because money was not the currency required.
The Radio Operator’s wife was middle aged, perhaps 40 years old, always had a child either clinging to her or perched on her hip. I was never sure if they were her children or grandchildren. At 40 in Central Africa, you could easily be a grandparent.
She was tall and thin and always seemed to be calm and confident and always, always happy. She was well adjusted to her life on the river. She always carried a whisk to shoo away the flies from herself, the kids around her or her goods.
Our boat and the barges it was dragging cruised downriver aided by the flow. As we did, we would encounter countless little villages or even smaller settlements. There was a constant traffic of canoes flitting back and forth around us, even though there may be have been no towns visible on the shore.
It was late June and the river was low, some 30 to 40 feet below its rainy-season flood stage. In the freshet, the lower Ubangi River would rise and flood, spreading out across several hundred square kilometers. The only habitable places are those on higher ground.
We only stopped at a handful of the larger settlements where we had the ability to tie up and land. When we did stop, we could see the villagers peering down at us from above at the top of the riverbank, from the safety of a cliff. The seasonal flooding turns the villages into islands of high ground, safe above the flood.
Our boat was one of their only points of contact with the outside world. Every day on the boat, villagers would see us coming while we were still upstream and quickly paddle out into the river in their dugouts to tie up to our deck as we all swept by.
They would come on board bringing bananas, cassava, sorghum or whatever else they had to trade with the Radio Operator’s wife. The Radio Operator’s wife’s store was their source for sugar, salt or other goods they wanted or needed from the outside world. She was always happy to deal.
She seemed to be busy and smiling all day, greeting visitor after visitor as I wandered about the boat.
After quickly conducting their business, the villagers would then hasten back to their dugouts and paddle feverishly back upriver to their village. In the brief time that they had tied up to our boat and done business with the Radio Operator’s wife, we may have traveled 5 or more kilometers, downriver with the current. They would have to battle that current to reach their homes back upstream with their sugar or salt, leaving behind their cassava or plantains and a happy Radio Operator’s wife, contented and satisfied!
Most of the people along the Ubangi River were happy. They had most of what they needed in life, food, family and a sky full of stars. Who would ask for more?
In this river society, the Radio Operator’s wife was their mother, the spirit of resilience, provider of necessities who came cruising down the river of life.