MBANDAKA, Democratic Republic of the Congo – Funky music has been playing through the loudspeakers since before dawn, but at 8:00 a.m. someone on a brightly painted boat docked in the Congo River stopped, and a pastor picked up a microphone and began preaching at a volume easily heard on the shore.
“You’ll go to heaven,” he promised his blind eyes, tired of partying all night aboard the Super Malou Express. “And also – you’ll have a car and a house!”
Struggling along the deck of the passenger boat for the week-long voyage to Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he delivered his message in about half an hour. As he spoke, the morning sun shone on the bodies of long, slender swallows – hand-carved canoes – gliding across the glittering river below.
On the shore, Fifi Bale Mombonde lay on her bed, hoping her pastor’s teachings wouldn’t wake her daughter, Annie, 2. Her house is right next to the Super Malou Express pier, so she defaults to being a regular visitor. in the company’s floating services. They take place almost every day in the port of Mbandaka, an equatorial city surrounded by tropical forests.
“Sometimes I get up and listen,” Mombonde said. While she did not know the pastors’ names, she recognized many of their voices and listened to their prayers so many times she knew them by heart. “Sometimes I just hear the word in bed.”
As in the subway in New York, or on buses in Nigeria and Ghana, evangelical pastors in the Democratic Republic of the Congo spilled out of their churches and spread the word to the ever-moving congregations.
Churches have long been a powerful force in the Congo. The largest church, the Roman Catholic Church, wields enormous power during election years, when tens of thousands of their loyal fans crisscross the country to watch polls and report on any electoral fraud.
Millions of Congolese are members of Kimbanguist church, named for its venerable founder, who died in a Belgian colonial prison. And the number of Pentecostal churches in the country has exploded over the past few decades.
In much of the Congo, life is based around the river that bears the country’s name, and so on this river many pastors go fishing for souls. They travel along the river’s wide arc, stretching northeast from the capital Kinshasa and up through dense rainforest before curving south again in the east of the country.
Most of the watercraft pastors in the Congo operated their trade on the many baleinières of the river, which means “whale boats”, although they has nothing to do with whaling and looks nothing like The ship that inspired “Moby Dick”. ”
The spacious diesel ships are where many people travel from Kinshasa to towns and cities upriver, such as Mbandaka and Kisangani, the last maritime port on the Congo River.
José Sumpi, whom many call the Apostle, preached on baleinière is called Ibenge. On a recent day in Mbandaka, he unzipped his tattered, leather-bound Bible and slipped it into his jeans as some members of the fleet repaired, ready for the 140-mile journey back, to the humble fishing town of Makanza.
Off-duty crew members wriggled around in hammocks. Near the engine, a monkey, the ship’s mascot, glided and slid on a diesel-stained board.
Sumpi’s Bible overflowed with photographs documenting his three decades of “serving God,” as he put it – one of him blessing a child, another showing him resting his hands on his body sick. But all the pictures are from his life as a farmer, taken while he was standing on the solid ground of the church, a branch of the Congregation of the Word, a modest Pentecostal church.
Why is there no picture of him on Ibenge? Perhaps because he was too busy giving a lecture while boarding the train, he stopped to pose.
“I preach at night, I preach during the day,” he said, as the wind blew the palm leaves by the riverbank. “I am preaching all the time.”
Ibenge’s repairs were soon done and she was about to make a two-day cruise to Makanza, or three at the most, but “that’s a matter of God,” Sumpi said.
Shortly after Mr. Sumpi and Ibenge set off, an old boat hung with tattered tarps raced past, a woman pouring fuel into a smoking engine. Then another person, this one with two men only appeared on the lower deck, using yellow plastic tubs to discharge the river water.
The women row the heavy Frogs almost into the water with aou leaves, or cassava leaves, to sell in the busy markets where, after miles of rainforest, will appear by the riverside as if unaware from where.
Many of the passengers of the baleinières were also merchants, taking packages up high to sell.
Some pastors said divine messages of prosperity and smooth business dealings, as well as the usual messages of forgiveness of sins and eternal life, permeated the baleinières..
Some pastors are themselves merchants, with the aim of preaching Pentecostal Christianity as they travel, partly to share God’s word, partly to earn a little extra cash.
Because of the journey on the baleinières can last for weeks, pastors have captive audiences and plenty of time. And congregations, even boat believers and not necessarily fervent believers, are expected to contribute when the collectible plate comes out.
The money he was able to earn on the river was partly what motivated Bionique Ebeke, a evangelical pastor who was used to the hardships of life there.
For days on end, passengers slept crammed into the boat’s hardboards, breathing in the thick smoke from the engine, whose roar drowned out any conversation. If it rains, they will get drenched. Limited food.
Mr. Ebeke spends half of his time preaching in a land church in Bomongo, a town north of Mbandaka, but he also makes about 30 journeys a year in a baleinière, providing services every year. morning and evening on a three- or four-day journey. between two points.
Mr. Ebeke, 34, said: “I work everywhere.
Evangelizing somehow feels more urgent on the river, he said, in part because the voyages are so dangerous. Night travel is technically prohibited, but this is rarely enforced. Life jackets are mandatory, but this is also rarely enforced. There are many accidents.
“There are dangers everywhere,” Mr. Ebeke said. “You can lose your life, just like that.”
Because of the risk, visitors tend to be religious, he said, and engage in his prayers. But river worshipers aren’t exactly model parishioners, he added.
“It’s not like a church where people listen to you and call you ‘Spirit Father’,” he said. “People were drinking and disturbing other passengers. And others said: ‘Leave us alone, stop with all your stories, man. We don’t want your God. ‘”
When they did, Mr. Ebeke said, he just looked at them, said, “God is just” in his unquestionable voice and moved down to the deck.
https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/01/world/africa/congo-river-pastors.html In the Congo, Pastors float in mobile swarms along a busy river